How to Recognize a Controlling Relationship So You Can Stop Being Part of It

Learn how to create a vibrant & healthy relationship

It can be challenging to deal with a controlling relationship. You may not even recognize the relationship is controlling since it is commonly confused with “caring,” “protection,” or “jealousy.”

Control is a human behavior that starts when we are young. As teens and into early adulthood, having control becomes very important because we are beginning to move towards independence. But what turns into a toxic relationship is when that desire for control takes over, and the other person is no longer respected. I want to talk about how to pinpoint the control issues in your relationship and what you can do if your partner is too controlling.

Signs of a Controlling Relationship

When you are in a relationship, there are going to be disagreements that someone is going to “win.” It is typical for people in a relationship to occasionally control the outcome of a decision or decide how something is going to happen. But, when this becomes a lop-sided relationship or an aggressive grab for that control, things are not healthy. If you feel like you need more control or have no control, then you may not be in a balanced relationship. Signs of a controlling relationship include:

Clingy Behavior

There might be a time early on in the dating part of a relationship where you want to be together all of the time. New relationships are like that. And, as your relationship develops, it’s normal for the other person to want to know what you are up to and be excited to see you at the end of the day.

The unhealthy behavior in a controlling relationship would be the need for continual reassurance and comes from a place of insecurity. When you push back and say you are busy, does your partner get angry or start an argument? In a healthy relationship, the other person is understanding.

The Toxic Scorecard

In a relationship, you continually exchange favors and do important tasks. For the most part, you shouldn’t be tracking who does more, but sometimes this is needed if you are addressing an issue of one person being overwhelmed. But in a controlling relationship, that score isn’t kept fairly. Your partner might try to manipulate you by making it seem like they do more for you than you do for them. They may count things that shouldn’t count (like putting up with aspects of your personality or bringing up past grievances as if they cover a lot). If your partner brings up old issues to counteract your request that they help more, then they are attempting to unfairly manipulate the situation.

Overly Criticizing

Even the smallest of behaviors, like how you drink your coffee or load the dishwasher, might be critiqued by the controlling partner. Sometimes this starts to occur over time in a relationship when the controlling partner is sure you love them. They criticize every little thing that isn’t how they would do something, assuming their way superior. In a healthy relationship, criticism should be constructive and improve a partner as well as their self-esteem.

Ultimatums and Veiled Threats

When there are overt threats, violence, or belittling, you can probably see the abuse easily. But, veiled threats are harder to see for the abusive behavior they are. When you aren’t doing what your partner wants, are they threatening to cut off financial support, leave you, take kids away, or something else? Rather than trying to reason with you about the things they don’t like, they turn to threats. When they aren’t getting what they want, they present an ultimatum to make you choose between them or your own perspective. This isn’t to improve you or the relationship (like an intervention), but something they do to get their way—even on tiny things.

They Sabotage

If your partner is creating problems to get their way, then that is a sign of unhealthy behavior. A controlling partner is going to demand their way. If you try to do something different, they may make it seem bad to prove you wrong. For example, during a date, they want to go out to eat and you want to have a picnic. They have a terrible attitude about the bugs, the weather, and anything else they can conjure up to make that picnic seem like a bad idea. Often, they won’t directly ruin the event, but they will try to emphasize the bad parts so you learn your lesson and do what they suggest moving forward. It may also take the form of them ruining your plans by needing you at the last minute and causing you to cancel or be very late (which will get old to your friends).

They Isolate You

A controlling partner doesn’t want other people to give you ideas about things they don’t agree with. They don’t trust you to make the right decisions, and they want to keep control over most aspects of your life. It is much easier for you to see the problems and hold the power to leave if you have strong connections to friends and family in healthy relationships. A controlling partner will sabotage or even forbid these relationships by stopping visits, ending calls, and even monitoring your text messages. That isolation often occurs slowly over time as they make it harder and harder. It might be as simple as them expressing distaste for a friend, sister, or even your mother every time you get together. It could be them always needing you or blaming you for things that go wrong when you are gone, so you don’t feel comfortable doing things without them.

A partner that isn’t trying to control you is going to encourage all healthy relationships in your life. Even with the unhealthy relationships, like a controlling parent or a toxic sibling, they are going to support you and help you through those relationships.

What Causes Your Partner’s Controlling Behavior?

Being overly controlling isn’t normal. In a healthy relationship, we recognize where we are too controlling because we ultimately want what is best for the other person. We realize that certain responses aren’t helpful or appropriate, so we grow. In a toxic and controlling relationship, the control doesn’t get better and might even get worse!

Powerlessness or Helplessness

Reactions of control may stem from feeling a lack of power. You might notice that when the power is taken (you make a decision or something out of their control happens) their grip on your relationship gets much tighter. They may ban you from social media or want to keep tabs on your every move to avoid feeling powerless.

This is a response we often see in our toddlers. When your two or three-year-old is throwing a fit or demanding something ridiculous, it is often stemming from their feelings of powerlessness. With a toddler, they don’t usually get to control their meals, clothes, activities, or plans. You often see them act out to try to gain control, like refusing to eat what is on their plate, not wanting to go/leave, or demanding a certain shirt or specific cup.

With an adult stuck in this stage, it is much different. They do have control, but the average level of adult control isn’t enough. They want to take power away from you, and they will try to control everyone around them. If someone isn’t willing to be controlled, this controlling partner will pitch a fit, threaten, or cut them off.

Poor Coping Skills

Sometimes the control stems from your partner’s inability to cope with internal struggles. Instead of dealing with anxiety or disappointment, they want to pass the feelings off to you. They want someone to solve those issues and make them feel better. You will notice the behaviors worsen when things are stressful, or the other person starts to feel down about themselves. The clingy and critical behaviors are likely to come out—making you feel all the feelings they are feeling. Remember the saying, “Misery loves company?” Your controlling partner could be using this in an unhealthy effort to feel better themselves.

Fear of Abandonment

If for any reason, they are afraid they will be abandoned, they might turn to controlling behaviors. If a child is abandoned or neglected, its possible they grow up with a normal view of love and work to form healthy relationships. But sometimes, no matter the background, a person can feel fear of being abandoned. And, whether that is justified or not, they turn to a very unhealthy way of ensuring they aren’t left.

Rather than form a healthy relationship where the other person wants to stay because they are loved and built up, the controlling partner essentially takes a hostage. There isn’t a good excuse for this, so even a tough past has to be worked through. The answer to a fear of abandonment is never forcing someone else to feel guilted or threatened into staying. That does not create the kind of commitment and desire that a strong relationship should have. It only builds fear and resentment, which poisons that relationship.

Projecting Insecurities

If someone feels unlovable or unworthy, they might project that on the people around them. Most of us internalize our hurts and try to heal so we feel worthy. But, some will try to get rid of those feelings by pushing them on other people. This is often the motivation for a bully that makes another kid feel bad. Often, the bully is trying to feel better by pushing down a weaker kid.

Rather than work on improving things in themselves, your partner might prefer to push you down. Perhaps your partner isn’t excelling in their career, but instead of just feeling frustrated, they criticize your spending habits or make you feel like your own work is a joke. Or, perhaps your partner is unable to perform well sexually, but blames you and insults something about what you are doing. The goal in these situations isn’t to work with you towards a solution (talking about budgeting or what might help in the bedroom), but to drag you down with them. The toxic behavior is wounding in nature and not a real effort to build or improve anything.

Arrogance and Superiority

On the other hand, these controlling behaviors can come from a place of arrogance (especially for the narcissist). Your partner may assume that they just do things better or know more. Does your partner have trouble conceding to experts or having anyone in their life that is better at things than them? Rather than realizing that many people have equal (or even more informed) views, the controlling partner ultimately thinks their ways are the best. They are often successful themselves but don’t allow other people to find their own path.

The controlling father might try to force their child down a path that seems best in regard to sports, studying, friends, and career plans. The controlling wife might demand the dishwasher is loaded a certain way or harass her husband for his whereabouts (not trusting him when the distrust has never been earned). The controlling husband might demand everyone to respect his time and become irate if he has to wait on his family or wife for anything. These are just a few examples of controlling people who have too high a view of themselves and their perspective or position.

Stop Being Part of a Controlling Relationship

A controlling relationship isn’t healthy and will hurt you over time. I want to help you find freedom and power to be yourself.

Determine Your Part in This

There are two kinds of people who stay in controlling relationships. You need to closely examine your own behavior and consider which one you are. Armed with this knowledge, you can absolutely change your responses to end a controlling relationship. This might require walking away, or sometimes it just requires standing up for yourself. So, be honest in how you are part of this relationship:

Enabler: If you are letting your partner stay in control without a true fight, then you are enabling the behavior. You might try to give some push back, but give up when things get hard or ugly. You might give a lot of excuses for toxic behavior. If you are an enabler, the first step is to stop excusing or allowing the behavior. Sometimes, just the act of being unwilling to accept the controlling behavior is enough to help the other person see their toxicity.

If the other person becomes threatening or you feel unsafe, then this is a red flag that indicates a high risk for domestic violence. It is possible that standing up to the other person could result in them becoming volatile, so if you feel scared by even the possibility of physical violence, get out immediately.

Controller: Yes, it is very possible you are a controller as well. Two controllers often end up in an abusive relationship creating a cycle of abuse. You might be an overt controller, but if you are reading this, it is more likely you are a passive-aggressive controller and may not realize it. Are you overly critical, use your emotions to try to control situations or guilt-trip? You have to stop attempting to control and be honest with your communication.

As you stop trying to control the situation with hidden agendas, the other person might realize they don’t have to fight for the control either. It could take time for this healing to occur because you are both feeling backed up into corners. It is important to call out motives and agendas for what they are. Stop trying to control and bring up issues, concerns, or arguments for what they really are. Consider why things are important to you, and if the other person doesn’t agree, you have to consider their perspective as well.

Practice Self-Care

Don’t let yourself get cut off from loved ones. Maintain a healthy support system and stay connected with friends and family no matter what (unless they are truly toxic themselves). Even when you aren’t fully agreeing with your friends or family members, your response shouldn’t be to cut them out. Not being able to handle some differences and conflict is a sign that something is wrong.

Take care of your mental health by enjoying the things you love. If your partner isn’t willing to let you spend time on yourself, buy things for yourself, or do the things you love, then you will lose a sense of self. Perhaps you can’t spend money because you are both holding to a tight budget for good financial reasons, but you can always listen to a song you love, take a walk or pick out a meal you like. Your well-being is just as important as your partners (and vice-versa). The relationship shouldn’t have one person getting more of what they need and want than the other.

Improve Communications

As mentioned above, you might be enabling or participating in the issues of control. You need to be direct and not allow passive-aggressive manipulation (from yourself or your partner). Set limits on criticism and emotional outbursts. Create opportunities to truly listen without feeling hurt by constructive criticism or an honest perspective. Don’t allow name-calling or gaslighting (acting like your feelings are crazy and should be discarded). Never give in to threats or ultimatums, but do consider your partner’s concerns.

Try to talk about concerns and issues when you aren’t in the middle of feeling upset. It is much easier to address issues when emotions aren’t running high on either side. Try to diffuse situations without giving up or giving in by staying calm and trying to remove emotion out of your argument. This doesn’t mean your emotions aren’t valid; it just means you aren’t using those emotions as a part of your communication because you understand the other person doesn’t share those emotions. If you are being honest, sometimes emotions and emotional arguments (no matter how valid) can be used as a kind of ultimatum.

Be Willing to Walk Away

It can be really hard to walk away from something you’ve invested so much time and energy into. You might deeply love someone, but you cannot stay in a toxic relationship. Not only do you hurt yourself by staying in a controlling relationship, but you enable the other person to remain toxic, and you might even cause a continued hurt for others impacted by the controlling partner. If you aren’t willing to leave, the other person has far more power.

You may not even need to end the relationship forever. Sometimes creating space gives you both time to consider what a healthy relationship should look like. It can give the other person opportunity to change. It’s possible that after a period of time, you could get back together. Be careful this doesn’t become an ultimatum or point of control on your end. You have to want what is genuinely good for both of you and respect the other person’s perspective.

You Have the Power!

I know you are probably feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, but you have the power! You are a powerful person with a valid perspective and so much worth. Always be honest with yourself and assess yourself as well as your situation. Working through this will help you avoid future patterns of getting caught in controlling and toxic relationships.

Many times our toxic relationship patterns come from childhood wounding. On July 20th, I’m leading the Healing Center members through a guided experience of the Healing Plan for Childhood Wounding. Join the Healing Center now to start your 14-day FREE trial so you can heal the root cause of your relationship issues.

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