Vying for Control
About the Guest
At home, who gets their way most of the time? Is it you? Author Karen Ehman, a self-professed controller, talks about her courtship with "Foxy Todd" and the inevitable nuptials that followed. Things went well, she says, as long as they did things her way, but she realized it wasn't a true partnership. Nicole Unice also chimes in on the issue, sharing how tempting it is to tell her husband how to drive or where to park, but has learned to defer to her husband's wisdom and respect him as the man he is.
Proverbs 31 Ministries speaker and New York Times Best-selling author. Described as profoundly practical, engagingly funny and downright real, her passion is to help women to live their priorities and love their lives as they serve God and others. Karen writes for Encouragement for Today online devotions that bring God's peace, perspective,...moremore
At home, who gets their way most of the time? Is it you or your spouse? Author Karen Ehman and Nicole Unice share from their life experiences of letting go of control.
Vying for Control
Bob: Do you think it’s possible you might have some control issues in your life? Nicole Unice says, “If you’ve ever been a passenger in a car and felt this way, then, maybe, you do.”
Nicole: “Are you serious right now? Are you really going 44? Like you could, at least, go 52 on this road, if the speed limit is 45, and we’re going to be late!”
You know, it’s fueling that feeling rising up in you: “Okay, you’re not driving fast enough. Why can’t you drive a little faster? I’m about to press your leg down onto the gas pedal because you clearly could go faster than this. You’re not going fast—so, we’re not going to be on time. When we’re not on time, I don’t like that because I like to keep it together. I like to keep it together because I like people to like me.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 14th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. So, where is the line between pursuing excellence, wanting to be conscientious, and starting to become a little controlling? We’re going to look at that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. As I’ve talked to men over the years, I have pointed out that, for most men, it seems like there are three issues that tend to be issues over which we stumble. Sex is one of them. Power is one of them, and money is one of them; okay? When I’ve talked to women, over the years—after I have prayed a lot—I’ve suggested that there might be three issues that women regularly stumble over.
Dennis: Do you want me to come up with my own list?
Bob: Yes, do you have your own list for the three?
Nicole: I want my own list too! [Laughter]
Bob: Well, of course, you do [Laughter] because you’re a control freak!
Nicole: That’s exactly right! And I’m sure mine will be right.
Bob: Let’s see—
Karen: No, mine will be right! [Laughter]
Bob: Stop it!
Nicole: Ours will be right!
Karen: Ours will be right!
Bob: Let’s see if you agree with the three that I come up with. Do you have your three?
Dennis: I’ve got two of the three.
Bob: Do you have your three?
Dennis: I’ll have the other shortly.
Bob: Do you, ladies, have your three?
My three are these: food, beauty, and control. Those are my three. Were those—
Dennis: Nice. I’m not going with mine yet. [Laughter] I want to introduce our guests so there’s a name attached to the opinion here. Nicole Unice and Karen Ehman join us on FamilyLife Today. Karen, Nicole, welcome back.
Nicole: Thank you. We’re glad to be here.
Dennis: Karen is a writer who lives in Central Michigan with her husband and her family. Nicole lives in Richmond, Virginia, and has three children. Both have written books. Nicole has written a book called She’s Got Issues, which is about the subject of control.
Bob: Yes, the subtitle here is Seriously Good News for Stressed-out, Secretly Scared Control Freaks like Us.
Dennis: Karen has written a book called Let. It. Go.; subtitled: How to Stop Running the Show and Start Walking in Faith. I really like that—that’s clever / that’s good. So, Karen—what’s your list?
Karen: I would say appearance—
Bob: That’s the beauty part I was saying.
Dennis: Yes, that’s it.
Karen: Yes; and it is food and beauty together—
Bob: Okay; that’s a good point.
Karen: —because the food comes out in your appearance—if you eat too much of it. So, I would say appearance, and I would say relationships and control.
Bob: Okay. What do you think, Nicole? Was she right?
Nicole: Yes, I am little more in line with Karen. I would say, at the heart of it, I think that women want to be adored or sort of worshiped. So, that is—usually, in our culture, that is beauty and appearance; control, which is kind of fear and pride; and relationships.
Karen: Ours was right!
Nicole: I know! We were right. So, you need to change your mind. Both of you guys—change your mind right now! [Laughter]
Bob: We haven’t heard Dennis’s yet, so—
Dennis: Well, mine was kind of a spoof, I have to confess. [Laughter]
Bob: What’s yours?
Dennis: Shoes, shopping, and shows. [Laughter]
I want to go to you, Karen, and just talk about a guy you met, when you were a single woman, named Foxy Todd. [Laughter] Tell us about Foxy Todd and how Foxy Todd helped you get in touch with how you are a control freak.
Karen: Yes; Foxy Todd Ehman was a transfer student at my university when I was a junior.
He had a chiseled physique, and gorgeous auburn hair, and beautiful green eyes that reminded me of the glassy sea. I set my heart upon—
Dennis: Oh, my goodness!
Nicole: Is this a romance novel?
Karen: No, that’s my husband!
Dennis: It sounds like Fabio or something! [Laughter] Like some kind of cover for a romance novel.
Nicole: How did you know he had a chiseled physique?
Karen: Because he had on a tank top in the dining commons; okay?
Dennis: Foxy Todd.
Karen: Foxy Todd—his name actually means fox, and I’m letting my 80’s roots show here.
Anyhow, I knew the minute I met him that I wanted to marry him. In fact, I went home and wrote in my Bible that I had met the man I was going to marry. Now, he didn’t really give me the time of day for a couple of years other than being a friend, but he soon came to that conclusion too. We did get married and walked down the aisle and into wedded bliss—“happily ever after.” But it wasn’t so "happily ever after" after all because of our personalities. They just really clashed!
In fact, we joke, often—that if we were dating in the day and age where they had these internet—
Karen: —places that match you up / you know, these online dating services—I’m sure if we both went in and crafted our profiles, it would put a bright, red blinking warning on our screen that said: “Do NOT date. You are totally incompatible.”
Bob: e-Disharmony, right there. [Laughter]
Karen: e-Disharmony—there you go! But it’s been quite a struggle through our marriage to really go to God. As hard as it is, sometimes—to meld those personalities, and to make our marriage work, and to make our marriage biblical—we know that the reason for this is so that God gets the glory. It’s not just because we are so compatible. We just enjoy—I mean, we enjoy spending time together; but our personalities clash / the way we do things clashes—just about everything between us clashes.
Dennis: Yes, but that wasn’t the way your relationship started out when you courted?
Karen: No, no!
Dennis: I mean, he went out of his way to totally please you and win you over. Then, you got married.
Karen: Yes; absolutely!
Dennis: What happened after you got married?
Karen: In our courting days, I loved the fact that he was so laid-back and easygoing. I didn’t know a single person that didn’t think Todd Ehman was just the most wonderful guy.
I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like my husband. He was so agreeable about where we were going to go or what movie we were going to see: “I don’t care. You pick!”
Dennis: “Whatever you want, Sweetheart.”
Karen: “Whatever you want, Honey!”
Karen: I loved that setup! I was pretty decisive and pretty much knew what I wanted and how I wanted to get things done. I loved his laid-back personality. He loved the way I got things done. He especially loved the way I could talk—he’s a little quieter. But about three days into our marriage, he finally had this thought: “When is she ever going to shut up?” because I just kept talking, and talking, and talking. In fact, he says he’s going to put a period on my tombstone because I’m finally done talking! [Laughter]
My strength of talking came out in a weakness of over-talking. His strength of being agreeable and laid-back came out in passivity. When you think about your upbringing and how that comes into your marriage—I grew up in a single-parent home. I saw my mom do everything. There was not a dad in the picture. So, she brought home the bacon, fried it up in the pan, fixed things—did everything.
I thought that was just how you did things!
My husband grew up in a family—although, his parents had a great marriage and were married for 53 years—where it was pretty much that the dad was kind of passive and the mom kind of was in control. So, he just thought it was natural to just kind of sit there, and take a back seat, and let the woman do everything. I wasn’t used to seeing a dad in the home—so I just thought the woman did everything.
It set up a lot of tension in our marriage because we weren’t a partnership. We weren’t trying to do things according to who had a good strength or whatever. We were just doing things according to how I thought they should be done. I wanted him to get with my program!
Bob: You know, Nicole, we talk a lot about passivity being a root issue for men. I’m just wondering if that fuels the urge to control in a woman?
Bob: I mean, if a guy’s just saying, “Whatever,” doesn’t a woman just say: “Okay. I’ll take over”?
Nicole: Absolutely. Well, the big therapy word for this—that you’ve probably talked about before—is the pursuer-distancer dynamic.
Dennis: I want you to know, “We’ve been on the radio 20 years—
Bob: Yes; we’ve never—
Nicole: Come on!
Dennis: ——“we have never used that word before.”
Nicole: Let me enlighten you.
Dennis: Is that one word or three?
Nicole: It is three words. It’s a little thing we talk about in counseling—the pursuer-distancer dynamic—which is this: “If you have a friend who pursues you, most likely, you’re going to pull away. If they’re overbearing with the way that they come at you, you’re likely to pull away. If you’re a person who pulls away, you’re most likely to have a dynamic where someone comes at you because of the way you pull way.”
The technique and tip, if you’re in that dynamic—most of us are one or the other—we’re either the person who pulls away, or we’re the person who pursues. It’s sort of that fight or flight. What do you do in conflict? Do you pull away or do you pursue? The little tip, from marriage counseling, is: “If you know that you’re the person who is a distancer, the best way to be in relationship with the other person is to pursue them.”
So, for me, this played out in finances with my husband. My husband is very conscientious—he is budget-driven. His grandfather taught him everything about how to run a family. His grandfather grew up in the Depression era.
He is very serious about the way that you save money—which I very much appreciate.
I grew up in a family where my dad was pretty faith-driven when it came to money—a risk-taker—not afraid to spend / not afraid to sort of figure things out as we went—it always worked out. We always had enough. I lived in that sort of freedom when it came to finances—probably, too much when it played out in my own life.
My husband and I would absolutely butt heads about saving, about spending, about giving—which, I think, is one of the main things that couples fight about. I would be so frustrated at how much he wanted to manage me, and he would be so frustrated that I seemed to care so little.
So, one time, I was thinking about this pursuer-distancer. I realized that one of the best things I could do for my husband is be more concerned about our finances because, then, I’m coming towards him. I remember coming to a place where I said: “You know what? I do get worried, and I don’t know exactly how this is all going to work out. You’re right. I never think about how we’re going to pay for college, and that does worry me.”
I said that to him.
Do you know what he said? He came to me: “Don’t worry. It’s all going to work out / it’s going to be okay,”—he had always been the worrier—when I walked toward him rather than pulling away. So, he would be more and more worried, and I would be more and more frustrated: “Stop worrying so much! Stop worrying so much!” He would be more worried because I was worried less—instead of us trying to come to the middle.
Dennis: You know, it occurs to me, that in moving toward him, you respected him as a man.
Dennis: You respected a strength he had instead of pulling away and taking flight from leadership he was trying to give your family.
Bob: You were talking about this issue of respect. It brings up a story you share in your book, Nicole, which is actually the opposite of what goes on in our car. In our car, Mary Ann will sometimes flinch at the aggressive way that I tend to drive. [Laughter] You were actually—
Dennis: Bob—Bob, I flinch. It’s not Mary Ann. [Laughter]
Nicole: He’s not taking us to the airport; is he? [Laughter]
Dennis: He isn’t!
Bob: Aggressive driving is a healthy pattern—I’m convinced of that.
Nicole: I appreciate that, Bob.
Bob: You were actually getting onto your husband because he was going too slowly!
Nicole: Now, let me say—that was an internal conversation / that was not an external conversation. That was what was going on in my mind as the frustration meter—
Dennis: You hadn’t articulated that yet?
Nicole: No, it was the frustration meter going up. You know, you’re sitting in the passenger [seat], tapping your finger: “Are you serious? Are you serious right now? Are you really going 44? Like you could, at least, go 52 on this road, if the speed limit is 45, and we’re going to be late!”
You know, it’s fueling that feeling rising up in you. I like to try to be a scientist of my own behavior. I love to help women and men think about what they’re doing. That story about us driving down this road to our church is that feeling of: “Let me really get into what was going on in my head.” Okay; “You’re not driving fast enough. Why can’t you drive a little faster? I’m about to press your leg down onto the gas pedal because you clearly could go faster than this, and you’re not going fast.
“We’re not going to be on time. When we’re not on time, I don’t like that because I like to keep it together. I like to keep it together because I like people to like me.”
Nicole: “I like to be perfect.” Then, you really are getting at the heart of it. Now, the heart of it is completely self-centered. There is nothing in that about me loving my husband, respecting my family, caring about him, at all. At the heart and root of it, it was really about me; but I could have deceived myself to believe that it was about my family/ it was about my children: “The kids don’t want to be late to Sunday school.” I could have said a whole lot of things that wouldn’t have actually been true.
It says in Jeremiah 17:9 that “The heart is deceitful beyond all cure. Who can understand it?” If you believe that the Bible is really real and that it really is speaking to you, you can go ahead and put your name in that verse: “Nicole is deceitful beyond all cure,”—to think I can deceive myself into believing that what I’m doing has a good purpose if I’m not slowing down, and opening up, and allowing the Lord to be the One who searches my heart and tells me who I really am.
That little tiny exercise is an expression of that.
Bob: You know, at some level, the passenger seat of a car is the ultimate place where control issues start to emerge; isn’t it?
Nicole: Oh, yes!
Karen: And a lot of prayer happens! [Laughter]
Nicole: Yes. I haven’t taught any kids to drive yet. So, Karen will have to tell us about that!
Karen: Oh, believe me—I’ve got my youngest right now. That’s why I had to touch my gray up before I came here—[Laughter]—even though this is radio and not TV.
Bob: Whether it’s “You’re going too fast,” or “You’re going too slow,” it’s the fact that—
Dennis: Or “You should have parked over here.”
Bob: —somebody else is driving. It drives you a little nuts; doesn’t it?
Bob: It starts to get to the root of the issue.
Dennis: Well, last night, you and Mary Ann and Barbara and I had dinner together.
Dennis: Right. So, I’d shoulder surgery. I could have driven; but my arm was hurting, and it had been a full day. I said: “You know what? You can just drive us just a few miles down the road to where Bob, Mary Ann, and I are going to have dinner together.” As Barbara pulls into the parking lot, we’re a few minutes late.
I’m sitting over in the passenger seat. This is kind of funny, Nicole, because she will tell me:“You should have parked here. Why are you doing that?” So, she turned in. I said, “You know, you could have turned in up here.” [Laughter]
Bob: Did you really?
Dennis: Oh, I did! I did. It was all teasing to her—I was totally teasing her. She goes, “Yes, but I told you I was going to turn in here.” [Laughter] Then, I teased her a second time. She said, “You can tease me once, but not twice.” She said, “I get it.”
Seriously, here’s the question for you both—I’d like you to take a crack at this—there may be a woman listening, right now—she is out of touch with how she is a controller. It may be that she’s hearing but not hearing. It may be that her husband is listening and he is saying, “You know, I think they’re describing my wife; but I don’t think—
Bob: —“I can say anything about that.”
Dennis: Yes. In that marriage, what do they do? I’m really asking two questions here.
First of all, for the woman who’s listening but not hearing; and then, secondly, what does the husband do to—not condemn his wife, or judge his wife, or point out her sin—but to help her?
Karen: I think, for the woman, she needs to really drill down deeper to the issue and not just try to answer the question: “Am I a control freak?” because most women will say, “No; I’m not a control freak,” because they instantly, in their mind, can think of someone who’s more controlling than them.
Karen: So, by comparison, they’re not control freaks. But I like to ask women this: “Are you trying to do a job with excellence, or are you trying to fix the outcome?”
If we’re tackling tasks in our lives and roles that we have and doing them well, that’s okay. But ask yourself, “Am I really trying to manipulate the outcome?”—whether it’s a child who tries out for a sports team / and if they don’t make it, am I going to march down to that school and stomp my little high heels and say, “Why isn’t Johnny on the team?” or am I going to step back and let the child learn a lesson by not playing a sport that year?
Am I trying to fix outcomes?
Am I trying to get people to revisit issues? Am I trying to manipulate what actually happens? Or am I just trying to do my job with excellence? I know, for me, that’s when I can tell I’m crossing the line between being conscientious and being controlling. So, a woman can ask herself that.
But for a husband to kind of approach this subject with his wife, it’s touchy because you don’t want to feel like you are putting a label on and you’re calling names. I don’t think I would address it in her entire personality—like: “I just think you have control issues, Honey.” Maybe, I would choose a particular issue that’s on the table, right now, in their marriage and talk more from the back door—not: “Are you controlling?” or “I think you’re controlling,”—but: “Are you trusting God? Are we trusting God in this issue?”
Maybe, explore the whole journey with the Lord, in this certain issue: “Are we going to trust Him? What is He trying to teach us? How are we hearing from the Holy Spirit?” Tackle the process of learning in those different issues of life rather than just kind of approach the subject in such a way that sounds like you’re calling names or you are accusing.
Nicole: I would say that true growth doesn’t happen until you’re ready for it. Many people can listen to all kinds of things—all kinds of sermons and read books—and not take it in for themselves. So, you may not be ready to address the issue or not sure that it applies to you; but the question is: “Are you willing to pray a bold prayer that you are asking the Lord to search your heart? / ‘God, would You search my heart and reveal any way in me that is not from You?’” That is a bold prayer because I believe that’s a prayer that God wants to answer!
“How are you really loving people?” because Jesus did say that people will know you by the way that you love one another. “How are you doing?” If you have an issue with every person in your life—you are the common denominator in those relationships—it’s you!
For a husband, I would say that prayer is a huge one. Have you actually, intentionally, prayed for your wife? A lot of us talk about doing but don’t actually do it. What would it be like to say—let’s say take something that is realistic—
—14 days: “Can you pray for your wife for 14 days straight?—that the Lord would reveal this issue in her life? Would you pray that God would give you a heart for that woman, that is looking out because of the way that you love her—not because you want to stop dealing with this problem—but because you love her so much that you want to see her flourish and be free of something that is hindering her?”
God does such a work in our heart when we pray for people. He gives us a spirit of love for them. When you address issues with people, out of a real heart of love for them, it comes across completely differently. I think of a husband saying to his wife: “You seem so not at peace. What is happening with you?” or “Are you happy? Are you really happy?”—just trying to get at the heart of what’s really going on in her.
Karen: I think that’s so brilliant, Nicole, because I feel like—in the women I’ve observed and in my own life—if I feel like my husband’s just trying to “fix” me, then, I just bristle, and I back away. I think a woman needs to hear—not “Hey, I’m trying to fix you,”—
—but “Hey, I hear you. I hear what’s going on.” Maybe, that will help get to the root of why she’s controlling: “What’s going on? What anxiousness does she have in her heart?” Rather than trying to fix her, try to hear her.
Bob: Nicole, has your husband ever taken you aside and said, “Sweetheart, are you happy?”
Nicole: Yes; he has. I think that he’s taught me more about sort of a spirit of authentic safety. To your point, Dennis, I love what we talked about earlier—saying to a woman, “I want you to feel safe,”—you know, trying to understand her deepest felt-needs and meeting her in those. So, for him to say: “I believe in you and all that God’s made you to be. How can I help you to get there? Can I help you when you’re frustrated in this place?”—to sort of affirm truth.
That comes—this is going to be 16 years of marriage—we got married when we were just baby babies. So, we’ve gone through a lot of hard times. At year one or two, or even seven or eight, that’s not the man that Dave was yet. I certainly wasn’t the woman, then, that I am trying to be now.
That maturity is something that makes you appreciate and love your spouse so much. It comes over time; it doesn’t come in year one or two—it’s over time.
Bob: Karen—has Foxy Todd ever taken you aside and said—
Karen: Actually, Foxy Todd is wonderful at getting to the heart of issues. He doesn’t often ask me, “Hey, what’s going on in your life?” He often asks me and my children, “What’s going on in your heart?” He knows what’s going on in my life. All he has to do is walk over to my desk and look at my day planner and know what deadlines I have and what speaking engagements I have and all of that.
Karen: He knows what’s going on in my life; but he’ll ask, “What’s going on in your heart?”
Even with our kids, sometimes, when we’ve gotten into discipline issues with them—and I’m the “freak out” mom: “What are the church ladies going to think!?”—I want to fix the issue of the behavior. He’ll take them aside and say, “Just tell me what’s going on in your heart.” I think that really helps a woman to open up and feel that safe place that she can share with him.
Dennis: I really like what we’ve talked about here—your idea of a bold prayer. I think that is the place to start because Jesus Christ left the planet to send the Holy Spirit to teach us, convict us, and instruct us.
He’s fully capable—God’s fully capable of doing His job.
The second thing—and we scooted by it pretty quickly—is the idea of loving well. I think one of the ways I might encourage a woman—or, for that matter, a man—who needs to pray the bold prayer of: “God, would You show me if I’m a control freak / if I’m trying to control others?” is to take a step back and look at how you impact people around accomplishing the objective: “How do your children suffer? How does your marriage suffer—your husband suffer / your family—because you’re trying to manage an image or perfection or some kind of phantom?” I promise you—if the task is more important than people, that doesn’t mean you’re a control freak; but it may be a symptom of something going on in the heart that does need to be dealt with.
Bob: If your pursuit of perfection and control is bigger than your concern about the relationships you’re involved with, that’s a symptom; isn’t it?
Dennis: It is.
Bob: And both of you ladies outline a number of the symptoms of control, and you help ladies understand how to diagnose and how to deal with this issue in the books you’ve written. One is called She’s Got Issues: Seriously Good News for Stressed-out, Secretly Scared Control Freaks like Us. That’s the book by Nicole Unice. The other is called Let. It. Go.: How to Stop Running the Show and Start Walking in Faith. That’s the book by Karen Ehman.
We have both books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Just go to the website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order these books—1-800-FL-TODAY is the number—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, we are going to talk about how trying to be a controlling perfectionist can kill you—it really can. We’re going to talk about how you deal with that and the whole issue of grace. Our guests, Nicole Unice and Karen Ehman, are going to be back. I hope you can be back with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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