Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage XIX. Overcoming The Coercion Perception Stumbling Block

There is a popular adage that many are quite familiar with: ‘Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.’ Just such a proverb exists as a stumbling block for many in troubled marriages. In disrupting marriage it is called coercion perception. The basic idea a husband or wife has which engenders the coercion perception stumbling block is the belief, attitude or cognition that if my spouse persistently insists or even recommends that I do something and I do it, this indicates that they are in command and control and I have lost out. If I should capitulate to my spouse’s wishes this means I am worthless in some way. The only way to maintain my self-esteem and sense of self is to never do anything anyone tells me to do, that is to say, to do only what I have decided to do entirely on my own.

Spiritually, this stonewalling of suggestions from one’s spouse even when they could be helpful is succumbing to the passion of pride. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us: “The passion of pride arises from two kinds of ignorance, and when these two kinds of ignorance unite together they form a single confused state of mind. For a man is proud only if he is ignorant both of divine help and of human weakness. Therefore pride is a lack of knowledge both in the divine and human spheres. For the denial of two true premises results in a single false affirmation” (Philokalia II).

Instead of intelligently judging the content of a recommendation or suggestion made by a spouse on its own merits, they react by being oppositional. They frequently focus on what they consider the audacity of their loved one telling them what to do. Admittedly, the other spouse may not always communicate suggestions or recommendations in a respectful manner. Sometimes the tone of the suggestion is authoritarian or bossy. One spouse may even communicate what they want of the other as a command. Frequently this shifts the attention of the listener from the content of what is being said to the tone of voice, the pragmatics of the language that is being spoken (Morelli, 2006c). In this case, the spouse receiving the suggestion should act in an assertive manner (Morelli, 2006c,d) and inform their mate that they do not want to be talked to ‘in command mode’ in such a tone of voice. i

A Non-Marital Clinical Example

Several years ago I had a new patient come to my office. I greeted him in a pleasant tone and said in a welcoming tone, gesturing toward a couch in the office: “Have a seat.” He looked up at me and remained standing as I took my seat across from where he would have sat down. The first few minutes of the initial interview took place with me seated and “Jack” walking back and forth in front of me. Without getting into the issue of body language, a person standing over (a position of power) looking down at someone seated (a position of weakness), I continued the interview.

At one point the patient indicated he was tired after a long day at work. A technique I use when I want to bring up something to a person I am talking to which they might find offensive is to ask their permission. My query went something like this: “Jack, I would like to ask you something; I do not want to offend you; I want to ask you a question that may help you, may I ask the question?” After a moment’s hesitation Jack gave his consent. Then I went on: “Jack, you just told me you were tired after a long day of work. When you came in I nicely invited you to sit down. You did not take my offer and kept standing. Could you explain this to me?” Jack said: “No one tells me what to do.”

I responded, “Jack, it sounds to me that you are telling me you want to be ‘Master of your own ship,’ so to speak, in other words, in control.” He said, “Yes.” I went on: “Before I gestured you to sit down, did you want to sit?” Again he said, “Yes.” Then I responded, “how then are you the ‘Master of your own ship?’” You let me control you. Instead of doing what you really wanted to do, because I offered you a seat you acted opposite to what you genuinely wanted to do. So, actually, I have learned to control you. All I have to do is to suggest to you to do something you would have done on your own and I can make you do the opposite. If you really were the ‘Master of your own ship,’ you would say to yourself, ‘I don’t care what Fr. George asked me to do or if he thinks he is controlling me, if I want to sit down I will, furthermore, the only thing that is important is that I know the real reason I sat down was because I actually wanted to, not because Fr. George told me.” Jack got it. He sat down.

Godly Self-Esteem

In a previous paper (Morelli, 2006a) I pointed out:

For many Orthodox Christians the term "self-esteem" sounds like a four-letter word. One reason is that various academic disciplines use the term in different ways. In psychiatry and psychology in particular, the term is used in two contexts.

The first defines "self-esteem" as a mental disorder (as in the personality disorder of narcissism). The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association (2000) describes self-esteem as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. . ." The second, used mostly by developmental psychologists, defines self-esteem "as being true to [the] real self" (Cole and Cole 1996, The Development of Children).

Educators acknowledge and distinguish these different definitions (Katz & Chard, 1989). Cognitive-behavioral psychologists, for example, recommend that parents, when dealing with their children, should praise or critique behavior, and not the child. Parents should say things like, "Good job," not "You are such a good boy or girl." (Morelli, 2001, 2004) This focuses the child on the action they have performed and not on themselves.ii

When the word self-esteem is found in English language translations of the works of the holy Fathers of the Church such as in the Philokalia series, it can be seen that it actually refers to what is understood as narcissism. On the other hand, Godly "self-esteem" means a true and honest appraisal of both one's strengths and weaknesses. We see here an inversion of meaning where good self-esteem is close to the patristic definition of humility. St. Peter of Damaskos taught that, "… the signs of humility: when one possessing every virtue of body and soul, to consider oneself to be the more a debtor to God ... because one has received so much by grace" (Philokalia III). Centuries earlier St. Isaac the Syrian wrote: "The person who has attained to knowledge of his own weakness has reached the summit of humility" (Brock, 1997).

Cognitive Therapy an Adjunct to Humility

In the Cognitive-Behavioral model, distorted cognitions can initiate and sustain dysfunctional emotions and behaviors (Ellis, 1962; Beck, 1967; Morelli, 2006b,c,d). In the case of what is perceived as coercive communication by one’s spouse, a pre-activated or hypervalent appraisal modeiii of perceiving that one was ‘being significantly intruded on’ would trigger the dysfunctional emotion of anger and the ensuing oppositional behavior in the partner being “told what to do” (Morelli, 2009).

This appraisal mode combined with the cognitive distortions, sustain, the coercive marital stumbling block. Some cognitive distortions particularly relevant to the initiating and sustaining of a coercive response are:

  • Selective Abstraction: focusing on one event while excluding others. Ruminating about the perceived coercive communication. Example: saying over and over: “My wife is telling me how to dress.”
  • Arbitrary Inference: drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. Example: “My husband is trying to control me.”
  • Polarization: perceiving or interpreting events in all-or-nothing terms. Example: “All she does is try to run my life, this is the sum total of my marriage.”
  • Generalization: the tendency to see things in always-or-never categories. Example: “My husband will never stop trying to manage my life.”
  • Demanding Expectations: beliefs that there are laws or rules that have to be obeyed. Example: “No one can tell me what to do, only I can command myself.”
  • Catastrophizing: the perception that something is more than 100% bad, terrible or awful. Example: “It is terrible when my husband tells me what to eat; I’ll show him; I’ll eat as much as I want.”
  • Emotional Reasoning: the judgment that one's feelings are facts. Example: “I feel my wife doesn’t respect me, so I know it’s true.”
Declaration of Psychological Independence

Challenging these interpretations by inquiring what they are based on, and finding alternative interpretations is critical in overcoming them. The bottom line is to declare psychological independence: “I will do things because I make the choice to do them, not because someone, in this case my husband or wife, tells me or does not tell me. If it is good for me then I will do it. My choice is independent of anyone else’s perception. Just because someone thinks they are controlling me doesn’t mean they are. God and I know the truth. I will consider what others say, but what they say will not be the basis of what I do or do not do.” Interactions between husband and wife will no longer be perceived as a “battle of wills which someone has to win.” The husband or wife will consider each encounter they have with one another based on its own merits.

What I Do Will be Godly and Based on my God-Given Free Will

Those committed to Christ will want to make Godly choices, not because they are coerced, but out of the free will given to them by God when He made them in His image. They will freely choose to follow the wisdom of Solomon told them in the book of Proverbs: “My son, if you will receive my words and treasure my commandments within you, make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding; for if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Pv 2: 1-6).

I Will Freely Choose Not to be a A Slave to Sin

St. John (8: 31-32, 34-36) records the words of Jesus: “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free… Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

In the words of St. Isaac the Syrian: “The mind that has discovered wisdom is like a person who has found, in the midst of the sea, a well-equipped boat: when he gets aboard it, it conveys him from the sea of this world and brings him to the isle of the world to come.” (Brock, 1997).


American Heritage Dictionary. (3rd ed.). (1994). Boston: Houghton Mifflin

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: author.

Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. The Guilford Press: New York.

Brock, S. (1997). (Trans.). The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation.

Cole, M., & Cole, S.R. (1996). The Development of Children. (3rd ed.). New York" Freeman

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.

Katz, L.G. & Chard, S.C. (1989). Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex

Morelli, G. (2001). Response to Faros In J. Chirban (Ed), Sickness or Sin?: Spiritual Discernment and Differential Diagnosis. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

Morelli, G. (2004). Christian asceticism and cognitive behavioral psychology. In S. Muse (Ed.), Raising Lazarus: Integrating Healing in Orthodox Christianity. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 06). Self Esteem: From, Through, and Toward Christ. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliSelfEsteem.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.

Morelli, G. (2006c, March 10). Sinners in the Hands of an Angry or Gentle God? https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHumility.php.

Morelli, G. (2006d, July 02). Assertiveness and Christian Charity. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliAssertiveness.php.

Morelli, G. (2009, October 24). Overcoming Anxiety: Christ, The Church Fathers and Cognitive Scientific Psychology. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Morelli-Overcoming-Anxiety-Christ-The-Church-Fathers-And-Cognitive-Scientific-Psychology.php.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1994). Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers. Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery.


[i] Assertiveness is defined as an honest and true communication in a socially acceptable manner. For the Orthodox Christian, this also means communication in a Godly manner. A little trick: A particular technique I have found very effective when others start to raise their voice in telling me something is to match their loud voice with an even lower voice response on my part. This never fails to get their attention. Because of the tonal contrast, it captures the other’s attention and it actually becomes a more powerful communication on my part.

[ii] The roots of faulty self-esteem (narcissism) start in childhood with faulty parenting. Parents often make "statements of "being" in rewarding and/or punishing their children. "You are a good or bad boy [or girl]" . . . is a statement of being. The child attributes what they have done or failed to do to "themselves.” They begin to develop concepts that they themselves are inherently "good" or "bad" and thus worthy of adulation (or even glory) or damnation. Parents should focus and evaluate the actions of their children: "That was a correct (or incorrect) answer." Parents should always respond to their children in this latter way.

[iii] “An analogy may help the reader to understand pre-activation or hypervalence. Think of a light that is on a dimmer switch. Under normal, non pre-activating or hypervalent conditions the switch is completely off. To turn the light on to full brightness, the knob has to be turned from completely off to full on, possibly a 180° half turn. If the light were on dimly (analogous to pre-activation or hypervalent) a 90° quarter turn would only be needed to full brightness. Persons with pre-activated anxiety, depression or anger carry around with them a semi-lit (so to speak) semantic-imagery network to interpret events that occur by the particular cognitive set that is always

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: December 25, 2009

Copyright © 2001-2021 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Text size: A  A  A