By Lisa Joseph –
I still remember the thrill and joy of being able to introduce my husband as “My” husband right after my wedding. It was also a joy to hear my husband introduce me as “his” wife. Having taken on the commitment of marriage gives a spouse the freedom to claim that the other belongs exclusively to him/her. That is the beauty of this relationship.
In fact, come to think of it, marriage is the only relationship which calls for an exclusive belongingness to each other. In every other relationship there are others who could share the same relationship with the same person. For e.g. “My friend”- There can be many who call the same person ‘my friend’. I have siblings who lay claim to the relationship ‘my mother’. Perhaps because of this exclusive belongingness, marital relationships are more prone to the ‘mine forever’ attitude or rather ‘only mine forever’ attitude, in other words possessiveness.
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘Possessiveness’ as demanding someone’s total attention and love. The online dictionary defines it as being jealously opposed to the personal independence of, or to any influence other than one’s own upon, a spouse, child etc. The key words here are ‘demanding’ and ‘opposed to personal independence’.
Symptoms & effects of possessiveness
Possessiveness can be identified through the following behavior which completely disregard ‘personal independence’.
Controlling: Prevent you from holding a job or managing your own money. Prevent you from seeking employment, choosing your own clothing, cutting your hair or making other basic day-to-day decisions
Manipulation: Threaten to leave, if you do not do exactly what he/she wants. Self-injure, threaten suicide or engage in other self-destructive behaviors if you show interest in friends, family, hobbies, work or school.
Jealousy: Be angry or upset when you socialize with friends, family or co-worker. Accuse you of cheating or be suspicious of innocent behaviors such as sending an email or a text message and in extreme cases cut off your contact with friends and family.
Abuse: Make negative comments and verbal abuse like name-calling, rudeness, sarcasm or critical remarks with a goal to make you feel worthless and incapable of finding another relationship by damaging your self-esteem. In extreme cases resort to physical abuse such as shoving, punching or slapping.
The paradox here is that these behaviors are counter-productive because they ‘demand’ time, attention, love and fidelity. When something is demanded of you it always removes the joy of giving and expressing freely and it becomes something to run away from. Every person in love likes to spend time with their spouse. They wait to share what happened while they were away from each other. Personally, I can make all my decisions on my own like whether to work or not, which job to take, what clothes to buy etc. However, I love asking my husband for his choice and decision precisely because he does not demand that I do!
Catch all the foxes, those little foxes, before they ruin the vineyard of love, for the grapevines are blossoming (Song of Solomon 2:15). Possessiveness is one of those ‘little foxes’ if not caught and eliminated it can destroy a tender new relationship and prevent it from ever maturing into love.
Possessiveness rears its head in the early part of a relationship, when the individuals in the relationship are still unsure of how much they are loved and how much to trust. Perhaps the most common form is possessiveness of time spent with parents, family or close friends. It can be tough in the early years of marriage to cope with this. For instance, if the wife spends all her time talking and updating family instead of her husband or the husband spends more time with his mother or family rather than his wife especially in sharing things that happen in their life, asking for opinions etc. The point is that this is normal because until you get married, your family/friends are all you depend on. Making the transition to your spouse being your key confidante, soul mate etc. is not always magical and instantaneous.
I want to share a real life story of a couple who fell in love and got married. The husband was an excellent NCC cadet and he was well on his way to a stellar career in the armed forces. However, his young wife was gripped by the fear of losing him and threatened to die if he joined, etc. Finally, the husband took a job in a manufacturing company and went into a regular shift job. A person who loved the open, physical activity and was really good at it ended up on a factory floor. There began the self-loathing and anger. This led to alcoholism and resentment to everything related to the responsibility of family. The couple’s life continued, however, the relationship could never be everything it could have been. This may seem like an extreme case but it shows how serious and damaging possessiveness can be.
Causes of possessive behavior
Insecurity, fear of losing a loved one, painful or difficult childhood, low self-esteem and selfishness are the common causes of possessiveness. In the extreme cases it’s caused by psychological disorder. Very often possessiveness is romanticized in most media like novels and movies to portray depth of love and desire. This contributes to the confusion and wrong ideas in our minds about what love really is and how it ought to be expressed.
Prevent possessiveness from ruining your relationship
Step 1: Make Jesus your role model for ‘love’
The foundation of a Christian Marriage is the primary commitment of ‘Yours forever ‘ i.e. it is about giving oneself to the other. It is about working at stirring up the fire of love in your spouse through selflessness and not about demanding and taking. In this we have only one role model– Christ. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”(John 13:34). Jesus ‘emptied himself’ (Philippians 2:7) in his love.
Step 2: Pray for the grace to understand and be patient
Let your first and most fervent prayer be “God grant me the grace to be patient with my own imperfection and those of my spouse”. Seek to know the underlying cause for possessive behavior either in yourself or in your spouse. The causes of possessiveness cannot be easily rooted out; they are deeply emotional and not always rational. However, “What is impossible with men, is possible with God” (Luke 18:27), so with confidence take the causes to Him for “whoever the Son sets free is free indeed” (John 8:36).
Step 3: Be honest about your feelings and be alert to misleading ideas about ‘love’ that can come in through the media
Share with each other your real emotions, find hobbies and things to do which boost self-confidence and keep one engaged mentally and physically. Be on your guard on the kind of books, magazines, movies and serials on which you spend time and ensure that you ‘fill your minds with those things that are good and deserve praise: things that are true and honorable, fair, pure, acceptable or commendable’ (Philippians 4:8).
Step 4: Always look for ways to affirm your exclusive belongingness to each other
One way to do this is to make decisions together or at the least discuss them and respect your spouse’s opinion. With respect to spending time whether it is with family, friends or on hobbies, check with your spouse on how he/she feels about it. Always ensure this does not overshadow time for each other. It’s one of the ways to let go, be open and give oneself. Another is to make sure that your spouse knows what’s new in your life first before anyone else.
In conclusion, possessiveness is a serious threat to a marital relationship. At the least it leads to conflicts, misunderstanding and distrust and at the worst leads to separation, addictions and dysfunctional families. It is never good and it’s not a desirable emotion to have. If either you or your spouse show any of the symptoms listed earlier, it would be important to introspect or have a trusted mutual friend, preferably a person well rooted in God, speak to your spouse and identify the root cause and address them immediately. Remember, the marriage covenant binds you to your spouse in a unique and exclusive relationship. The covenant helps us cleave to each other and no other creature or creation, except God. The secret of this covenant is to be a gift to one another and thereby stir up and inspire love and not take it as a legal right.
Lisa Joseph is an IT Process Consultant with Tata Consultancy Services. She loves to write on Catholic values in the family, spousal relationship, etc.