Why 'control' isn't always a bad thing (but can be)

May 13, 2015

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Relationships are, to a greater or lesser extent, about control. Behaviour control, when we encourage each other to act. Or fate control, when we act on their behalf. This can be positive when that control is mutual, and oriented toward mutual goals. Less so otherwise.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


A relationship involves two very different people bringing two sets of values, cultures and environmental influences together. They also have two sets of goals and desires. These things may overlap to a greater or lesser extent, and this can be a benefit or a drawback. Interdependence theory, which describes how well 'meshed' two people are in this regard, tells us that meshing not only affects the strength of a relationship, but it also affects relationship satisfaction.

What it says about relationship breakdown

Hal Kelley and John Thibaut noticed that that when partners acted more often in cooperation with the other partner's goals and less in line with their own selfish goals, both people were more happy. Not a ground-breaking finding for us today, but the devil is in the detail they say.

They proposed that partners have two major forms of control over their partners. They called these 'fate control' and 'behaviour control'.

Behaviour control is fairly straight forward. We can easily influence each other's behaviour by letting our partners (or mates, for that matter) whether we approve or not.

Fate control is when one partner does something that affects the other partner and they have no say. It can be positive, like a surprise party or taking the trash out on their behalf. But when fate control is pervasive in a relationship it causes problems. If it happens too often, the other person starts to feel out of control and will usually become very dissatisfied.

Which type of control is better?

So what's the alternative? Mutual behaviour control is where both partners have a say in who does what. Instead of a surprise party, they're both in on it and allocate each other roles. This way, both people are involved and it usually ends up being equal. Kelley and Thibaut's research tells us that leads to much happier relationships.

Of course relationships are a blend of fate and behaviour control, but it's very important to make sure we're concentrating on the important one.

So how do we use this?

  • Make sure we include our partners in the decisions we make especially if they'll be affected. Sometimes it's ok to make a decision for them, but do it too often and they may start to question whether the relationship is good for them.
  • 'Control' isn't always a bad thing in a relationship. In fact it's necessary. We always have a level of control over our partners, we just need to make sure we're using it with their approval and to help them achieve their goals as well as ours.

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