The (Pesky) Trouble With Control.

This morning, I walked outside at 7:28 am to let my dog out. To my left, in the very tall trees were birds gathering (for their version of morning coffee, I’m sure) and chatting up a storm.

More and more joined the group and the sound grew louder. Crackly high notes, low rumbles, cackles — so many bird voices.

Then they moved. Things go quiet except for the sound of wings.

They moved as a group over my head (totally breathtaking) to another set of high treetops and continued the conversation. As they moved, there were stragglers, some flew outside the flock a bit, some flew slower, some faster, but they all arrived safely and effortlessly at the next destination.

There was the single mind of unison, but also freedom in how the flock moved.

We could learn from birds.

(I’ll explain.)

Recently, I read online about a woman who was irked because her husband interrupted their conversations to answer text messages.

She also confessed that she was uncomfortable confronting her husband, and tended to build up resentment rather than express her concerns on the spot. She wasn’t sure how to find the right way to address the behavior in the moment.

She wrote to an online therapist for advice. The therapist answered with this opening line. “Please don’t answer that text while we’re talking.”

That’s what to say to a man whose priority is texting over a conversation with his wife, said the therapist. Be direct.

And if that felt too confrontational, the therapist went on, think of it as as request for his attention that you don’t think twice about such as, “Can you get the door for me please, my hands are full.”

The therapist offered additional words about interpreting the husband’s actions.

If your husband defends, she said, stop all conversation until the phone is off because it’s a matter of respect. It’s disrespectful of him to divide his attention between you and the phone.

And finally, if your husband defends his ability to text while having a conversation with you by saying he can multi-task successfully, he’s wrong. “People don’t multi-task” she said. “They toggle-task.”

That’s simple advice. Quite common advice. It might work.


Except over time.

When partners control each other’s behavior, it manages one moment. Sure, in that moment, a partner might be willing to adjust his/her behavior.

To avoid a fight.

To get through a public moment.

To prevent an emotional tsunami.

But a longer term view might note that attempts to control each other backfire somewhere around 100% of the time.


In a relationship, controlling another person’s behavior is like pushing a beach ball under water. As soon as pressure is removed, the issue pops right back to the surface. It shows up again somewhere else, often when least expected, and sometimes with a slightly different identity.

You can manage the moment, but without addressing the heart of the issue, that “beach ball” will torpedo out of the water when no one’s paying attention, busting open the seams of that tidied up, zipped up, bottled up relationship in another way.

It would have to.

You can’t improve a situation by pushing it under water and walking away as if it’s taken care of. 

You can’t grow love that way, either.


My question is simple.  Why does the man interrupt a conversation with his wife to answer texts?

Are we curious enough to ask?

Even wonder?

Or are we aghast that this man mistreats his wife? Do we have our hands on our hips about how disrespectful he is? Are we so caught up in “wrong” that we can’t see anything else?

If we are, we aren’t going to get very far.

Being aghast at how wrong our partner is, by the way, is no different than political leaders yelling threats of annihilation, hands on hips, while name calling. Things naturally escalate.

Do we know what to do differently in our own house?

(There’s a question worth our time.)

If we do know, do we practice what we know?

(Another interesting inquiry…)

When I see leaders creating the set-up for a potentially disastrous outcome, I pray. (I really do.)

I say to myself, OK. Let me see where this happens in my own house. Let me heal that. Where does it happen in my community? How can I be of service about that?

It’s what I can do.

(Can you imagine if everyone who could do that, would do that? What a difference…)


This husband who chooses texting over speaking to his wife — how could he possibly have a good reason for his bad behavior, you say?

I don’t know. I’ve got no clue. But I would ask about it. I would start there.

Let me tell you a personal story.

This is where I would normally get up from writing my blog and wander over to Eric to see if he had time for a conversation. He would say yes if at all possible. I loved that about him.

If he had time to talk, I’d tell him I’m writing about husbands giving wives attention when it’s asked for. He would nod and re-arrange himself in his chair, ready for questions.

If I was lucky enough for him to come back into this world for a visit right now, I’d ask him about his memory of things with us.

Where did we start with this attention-giving issue ourselves? How were we at the beginning? Did we have trouble with it? Did it change through the years? What made it change?

I’d ask him about relationships with other women before me. Did he ever do what the man in the above example did? If so, why? If not, could Eric imagine reasons a man would choose to text during a conversation with his wife?

I’d ask him how he had come to the decision to pause the TV any time I walked in the room while he was watching a show. I never asked him to do that. It’s something he did automatically, even if I was walking through the room on my way to somewhere else. He paused the TV just in case.

I’d ask him about all of that.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I miss those conversations. He would usually share in a way that let me know there was so much more to the story than I had considered.


I’m halfway through a book by Joan Didion called “The Year of Magical Thinking.” published in 2005. If you don’t know Joan, she lives in New York City and has been a well-known writer since the sixties. She’s now 82.

Physically, she’s a waif of a woman with a little bitty birdy body. She’s barely there.

She wields a mighty pen, however, having published five novels, and seven other books of non-fiction. She also wrote for Vogue, Esquire, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times and New York Review of Books.

Joan is a brainy little bird.

She can write a sentence as long as a trip through the known Universe and still, the sentence makes sense. She’s a meticulous researcher. She has led a fortunate and privileged life.

(As you might imagine, there are plenty of opinions from critics about a woman like this.)

“The Year of Magical Thinking” is essentially about bereavement, the quirky mind of grief. Her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack in their living room and Joan wrote the book while she was raw. It took her 88 days to get it on paper.

She said, “I found it amazingly easy to write. It was like sitting down and crying.”

This is how she starts the book:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

Joan and her husband spent a great deal of together time during their 40 year marriage.

At one point after John’s passing, she realized she had no letters from him, because they spent most of their time in the same location. They consulted each other about everything. As writers, they worked from home, they went out to dinner together.

(With their daughter, they were a small flock.)

This moment in writing my blog would be the moment where I would be like Joan.

I would get up from my computer to consult with Eric. I would poke around in his thought process so that I could learn his point of view, and in so doing, understand Eric even more deeply.

(That, without question, grows love.)

In lieu of “in person” could I imagine the conversation Eric and I might have had about giving attention to each other when it was requested?

I don’t think so.

At least I can’t imagine his answers. That was the part I loved most, hearing what he had to say.


I can tell you a personal story, though, about my version of being irked by a husband who answers texts during a live conversation. I can tell you the story, and how the experience changed me.

It was 2004 and I was working for California Closets in Huntington Beach, CA, as one of their top design/sales people. Selling the jobs I designed was fairly easy for me. I never worried much about it and I earned a good living.

We were paid commission only. (If I sold the closet I designed for the customer, I got paid.)

Normal size jobs were generally in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. Medium jobs were about $10,000. Large jobs were $20,000 or $30,000 and up. On a $20,000 job I could earn between $2,000 and $2,600.

I had worked hard on a large job for a woman who kept asking for more features — for less money.  I was at the end of my rope.

During a Friday night phone call with her, Eric walked up to the phone as I was going over the re-design idea and pricing. He leaned in and said something (loudly) to my customer that my customer heard clearly.

I lost the $22,000 job.

I was furious. Hopping mad. Livid.

I had been counting on the commission to pay off bills. I didn’t speak to him the rest of the evening.

Eric and I were in the last gasps of our failing relationship, and this didn’t help. This was by far the biggest, loudest blow-up we’d ever had and of course it happened at a turning point. 

As fate would have it, I had resolved that I was going to learn a different way to fly in a relationship. The way I was flying wasn’t working for me.

I had signed up for flying lessons.

The class about understanding men began the following morning. Now, after this blow up, with all this hate in my heart, the last thing I cared to hear about was understanding men. Frankly, the idea made me slightly nauseous.

That night, we turned our backs to each other and went to sleep.

The next morning, I slid out of bed, hoping not to wake him. Before heading to the seminar, I did the only thing I could do. I left a written note, saying that I was going to this seminar to find out why he did what he did.

I got in my car and left for the weekend.


It turns out Eric had a very good reason for his “bad behavior.”

Eric and I both worked at home. He had heard me bend over backwards with this closet customer. He had watched me do too much for her, make adjustments, re-design, and spend many hours trying to please a person who was never going to be pleased.

He didn’t like how I was treating myself. He didn’t like that I was apologizing to her. He didn’t like how I was giving in to her in ways that were costing me emotionally.

So he stopped the nonsense. He killed it. Shot it dead.

(The nonsense, not the woman.)

He told the woman off right there within earshot while I was speaking to her on the phone.


He was protecting me.

From myself, really.

He was protecting me from being misused. Walked on. Trampled. Pulled this way and that.

If I didn’t have enough sense to stop hurting myself, then he would make it stop.

I considered the implications of his actions.

It rocked my world.

How else had he been protecting me that I hadn’t noticed? In what other ways did he have my back when I didn’t even know it?

This experience changed me. It changed our relationship. It was a turning point.

Yes, there was another side to the story. I’m glad he flew a different way to the next set of treetops.


If he had been able to express to me what he was doing in a more conscious way, would that have been helpful?

Yes. Of course. Certainly.

If he had known why he was flying the way he was flying, and could have explained it, would that have been useful?


However, it wasn’t all smoothly thought out in his mind and heart. He just wanted to get me out of my misery. Even though we were having trouble in our relationship. Even though it would cause a fight. Even though I would hate him for doing it.

He still did it.

He didn’t have the words, or even the conscious understanding. Only the action.

Only the love.

Well, there you go.

He had the love. And that’s why he did what he did.

He didn’t care about my commission. He cared about me. He stood up for my well-being. He blew the woman off. He told her to take her business elsewhere and she did.

There are so many ways men stand up for women, protect women, go to bat for women, care for women. There are so many ways they make our lives easier. There are quiet favors they do every day without being asked, burdens they carry willingly, jobs they do, without a word.

It would be good, I thought, if I started noticing more often how men express the love they have for women they care about.

Protection is only one golden leaf on the shimmering tree of love. There are so many more leaves and every one of them holds an amazing secret about loving.

And then, there is the sound of wings…







control, how men love women, In Care of Relationships, Joan Didion, Terri Crosby, The Year Of Magical Thinking

Comments (6)

    • Thank you so much for suggesting that I read Joan Didion again. It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up her work and I’m so thankful I did. It was just what I needed.

      For one thing, all those years I spent in LA, I knew the streets and restaurants and schools she spoke of. It was my own trip through memory lane. Sometimes she would go on and on about something and then, BAM. She would say something about grief that hit me between the eyes. As in… I didn’t know anyone else would think that way,too. Like when she realized she had no letters from John because they didn’t need to write them. They were usually together. Same with Eric, I have no letters.

      And she talked about wanting to save John’s shoes, because of course he would need them when he came back. I remember sobbing my heart out one morning on my front steps when I noticed Eric’s tennis shoes were still there, just like always. It was a long, long time before I moved them. You know, he might need them.

      Thank you, Toni. You’re a dear friend to me. I love you.

  • What a lovely Eric story, and how true that making assumptions instead of asking is writing Fairy Tales instead of Non Fiction about someone’s behavior.that is “bothering” you.
    Research really works!

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