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Healthy Marriages Work Problems Not People

by Dr. Barry Lord, Psy.D

The purpose of this paper is to help relationships that are struggling with emotional injuries. Emotional injuries happen when one person tries to control, condemn (judge), win arguments. demean, or work the other person while ignoring or deflecting their problems. 

This week a dear friend was describing the tension and harsh words that his wife and he were having. He asked what I thought. Without going into details, it was clear to me that he needed to win arguments, and he forgot to work on the problems.  I asked, are you working your wife or the problems? He’s a smart guy.  It clicked.  He got it.

During my 30 years of counseling with couples most of what I have learned these many years is from them.  People and their problems are complex.  What are problems for one couple, may or may not be what is causing problems with another couple.  Having said that, I have learned that there is an important thread of truth that is often common in very damaged relationships.  As you may be aware from reading my blog, most of my work is in the area of toxic anger, and domestic violence as it pertains to relationships.  

Power vs. Control

It is interesting that much of what people want is mastery over their lives.  When they can’t seem to get mastery over their own lives, they often seek mastery over the lives of others. Most often this is an illusion. To obtain that mastery people use “Power” or “Control” techniques. Power and control are not the same thing, even though people often use these terms interchangeably. Even well-educated people use these terms incorrectly.  If you ever want to get a handle on destructive relationships, you must understand this concept.

Power means getting another person to accept your definition of reality as their own.  Control means getting another person to do something that they don’t want to do through the use of force or fear, no matter how slight.

My students, employees, faculty, clients and family mostly give me power to define their reality to the degree that they can trust me and no further. Nor should they.  When I am focused on what is in their best interest, this is influence which is the foundation for leadership.

When I am focused on what is mostly in my interest, this can become manipulation. Manipulation is a form of deceit because it represents my interest, not the interest of all concerned.  Hopefully we manipulate objects not people. Hitler manipulated people to follow him. He was deceitful.

The only thing power and control have in common is that they can only be given.  They cannot be taken.  Power and control are on a continuum.


Influence                                                     Manipulation

The more power you have in a relationship, the less you need to use control techniques.  The more you use control (force or fear) in a relationship, the less power has been given to you.  Appropriate power is about influence.

The proper use of power is designed to provide value and leadership to others in their relationships.  Control or manipulation is about reducing the value of the other person to that of an object. Whenever someone uses manipulation and control to get them to do their bidding, they are devaluing the person and treating them as an object.

Reminder; a controlling person uses force or fear, no matter how slight to get others to do their bidding.  This comes in many forms, some of which I will describe later.

The need to be valued is an important human need. After 48 years of marriage to my wife, Peggy, I have learned that the most important thing is not how I feel about her or even how she feels about me.  As her husband I have learned to consider how she thinks and feels about herself, whenever she is in my presence. This requires that I am mindful of her feelings at all times.  This means that we talk about everything.  It means that I have taught myself to be interested in what she is interested in. It means that I am paying attention. Let me say it again (Gentlemen). It means that I am sincerely interested in her and what is of interest to her. When she is hurting, I am listening. I do not need to fix it. I just listen and value her and her ability to fix her own problem. Whatever it is, she knows that we are in it together. Sometimes I just sit with her and remain silent.  When she can hear herself work through her problems, then she doesn’t have to convince me of anything.  Then she can just go about the business of fixing it herself.  I can then cheer her accomplishments. She is valued.

Win/win vs. Win/lose

The problem with winning an argument or disagreement is that over time, it can result in a loss of love in the relationship.  You can win if you want to, but the result may be a loss of love.  In other words, each time you win and the other person loses, you still lose.  We find that with every little win, we experience a little bit of loss. My goal in our relationship is for Peggy to fall in love with me over and over again.  When she thinks about us, I want her to remember why she is in this relationship. 

Leaders v. Managers

In families, like any business, there are two types of heads. There are leaders and there are managers.  Like power and control, these could be considered two ends of a continuum.

Leaders………………………I…………………………. Managers

Both obtain followers of sorts.  They differ in that leaders tend to change the status quo, and managers tend to maintain the status quo.  Leaders use power techniques such as influence and tend to be other oriented. and managers tend to use control techniques and tend to be more goal oriented. Leaders tend to encourage others along on the trip and managers tend to drive others toward a goal.

The “Law of Entropy” says that any organism or organization will lose energy or become disorganized unless energy and reorganization are added. Leaders add energy. Managers maintain the status quo which in its purest form is an impossibility to maintain.  I would concede that an ideal business person would incorporate the management and leadership skills of both styles. I have learned that as with my business, leading my family requires incorporating the strengths found in both styles.

Mature vs. Immature

Immature people tend to direct their frustration and anger at other people. Mature people tend to see problems for what they are, just problems. Immature people see people as problems and tend to work people instead of their problems.

They tend to become emotional and blame or make others wrong in order to elevate themselves in their own minds. We are critical of others for one and only one reason; that is to elevate ourselves. Is it possible that this is an illusion? There is no other reason that I can figure out.

Immature people seem to want to compete and win all disagreements.  They want to win and make others lose.  The problem with this is that whenever you make others lose, you also lose!  You also damage relationships.  In our family we try to work problems not each other.

A problem solved and a relationship strengthened is a “win/win”.

B. Lord

Many years ago, I was lecturing to a very large adult church group about this subject.  I was interrupted by a middle-aged man who stood at the back and yelled, “What if they are wrong?”  I later learned that he had recently lost his job and his marriage. “Whether or not they are wrong is not the question”, I answered. “The question is why do you need to make them wrong.”  I probably could have been a little kinder.  We met later and talked.

Immature vs. Mature

Immature PersonMature Person
Directs anger at peopleDirects anger at problems
Makes others wrongMakes others strong
Sees people as problemsSees problems as problems
Must win at another’s expenseSeeks a win/win solution
Exhibits weak ego strengthExhibits strong ego strength
Tends to control othersLeads others with power

During the filming of “Confessions of Jeffery Dahmer”, we learned that Dahmer went on in his life to become a mass murderer and cannibal.  He stated in his interview that he had “Trained his mind to see people as objects, instead of as human beings.”  In addition, he said, “He wanted to keep them under his control.” He confirmed that this habit took over his fantasies and his life. (Investigation Discovery)

Now of course this is the extreme of my message.  None the less, it’s all on a continuum even to the extreme.  As I work in the field of domestic violence, I have seen some pretty bad outrageous behavior.  Many times in counseling sessions, couples will revert to judging each other which aggravates the already hurt feelings.

Doesn’t the Bible teach us not to judge?

I think it would be helpful to the reader to distinguish between judging others and correcting harmful behaviors. First of all, there is a huge difference between them. In scripture we are actually told that we should discern good from evil. Condemning them is another issue.

There are two meanings of the word “Judge”. In the Bible, the word “judge” is often an inaccurate translation of the Greek word “katakrino.” This word literally means “to judge”. There is another Greek word, “krino,” which when translated means “against.” In other words, it really means” to condemn.” However, I believe a more accurate meaning to the Greek translation for “to discern” or “Krino” actually means “to separate.” Or, to put it more clearly, it means “to separate the good from the bad” as in to discern good from evil.” (Depra, David A. 202)

Discerning good from evil is certainly helpful advice if we are to have an orderly lawful society. On the other hand, we probably should not go around condemning (another form of judging) others. When we condemn another person, we actually put them on the defensive and we hinder open communication and the opportunity for change.

“By the measure that we condemn others it will be measured back to us.” (Matthew 7:11)

So maybe we need to be very careful when we pass judgement on another person, especially when we may not have all the facts. An appropriate condemnation of a person’s behaviors might be
when the offender is:

  • Actively committing dangerous crimes
  • Using drugs
  • Harming themselves or others
  • Cheating
  • Stealing
  • Giving false witness
  • Lying, etc.

How do we know when we are working people (judging) instead of problems?
We might be working people instead of solving problems when we:

  • Label them
  • Lessen their value
  • Call them names
  • Continually bring up their past behaviors or faults
  • Defeating a person’s attempts at appropriate change
  • Interrupting them
  • Always win and they lose.
  • Try to fix them
  • Change them

We are working problems when we stick to finding solutions, and cheering on our family, friends and coworkers and by recognizing and genuinely celebrating their successes at correcting harmful or maladapted behaviors.

“Any behavior that is rewarded will usually continue, and any behavior that is not rewarded will discontinue”. B.F. Skinner

The question now arises, what role do you want to play in your relationships. Do you want to be a builder or a destroyer? Are you a leader who leads others for a better existence or are you a controller who manipulates others? I leave you with the following thought:

“The most important thing in life is the people we love, their love for us and the memories that we share. Beyond our relationship with God, what else is more important?”

B. Lord

Note: This article was intended as general information. We all have the right to be happy, and for our love for each other to remain strong and grow. This article is not intended to take the place of a licensed counselor.


Investigation Discovery Film, (2020) “Jeffery Dahmer. “The mind of a monster.” Facebook. Retrieved May 27, 2020 from

DePra, David A. (May,2020). Judging vs. Discerning. Retrieved June 17, 2020 from https://www.goodnewsarticles.com/May98-4.htm

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