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How to Recognize a Controlling Relationship and What to Do About It

How to Recognize a Controlling Relationship and What to Do About It

A controlling relationship is not pleasant to be a part of. But the tricky part is that most people don’t realize when they are in a controlling relationship. The controlling behavior of a partner is often confused with “caring”, “protective”, “jealous” or “old fashioned”.

In this article, we will discuss what to look out for when a partner is controlling and when he/she just “cares” about you. We will also discuss what you can do if your partner is controlling.

Signs Your Partner Is Controlling

They try to keep tabs on you all the time.

You need to understand the difference between a controlling partner and someone who just really misses you and wants to interact with you throughout the day.

Someone who genuinely misses you and wants to speak with you throughout the day will text you often and get on a phone call whenever they can. They will text you the first thing in the morning (if you are not staying together) and share the day with you. They will take time from their busy day to reach out to you and ask you how you are. They will be excited to meet you at the end of the day.

On the contrast, a controlling partner will ACT like they want to share every living moment with you. But they will be acting out of fear and insecurity instead of the desire to interact with you. An interaction with you is a drug to them that constantly reassures them that they still have you.

A caring partner will give you space when you are busy or out with friends. But a controlling partner will text you more when he/she feels like you are in a situation that threatens the relationship; situations such as going to a bar with friends or at a social gathering.

The controlling partner will reach out under the disguise of missing you. But an easy way to find out if they are controlling is to tell them something like,

“I miss you too. I am busy right now and can’t talk. Can we speak later?”

They will most likely agree. But if they are controlling, they will be upset later when you speak. A caring partner will understand and just be cool about it.

Essentially, a controlling partner will try to affect your behavior by negative reinforcement. Every time you are not giving them full attention, they will get upset and it will most likely lead to a fight or argument. A caring partner will most likely be honest about their concerns instead of doing it indirectly with negative reinforcement.

You will slowly start alienating your friends and family.

This negative reinforcement usually takes a toll on you mostly because it is followed by positive reinforcement when you give them attention. They give you the love and attention you crave in a relationship. You feel intimacy and you get approval from the person you love. What more could you ask for?

Slowly, after being in this negative and positive reinforcement cycle for months (or years), you start craving the positive reinforcement and avoiding the negative reinforcement.

Every time you go meet your friends and can’t give him/her your full attention, there is a fight later. So, you slowly start avoiding your friends. You only do it when it’s convenient for your partner. And you make sure that they have something to do while you are busy with your friends or family.

You will soon realize that you are walking on eggshells. And that’s really no way to live a healthy life.

They criticize you – a lot.

A controlling partner will criticize you a lot. It can be something as little as the way you drink coffee or as big as your career choice. They will criticize you in a way that hurts.

If the partner is controlling, this criticism will usually start after you have been together for a while, well after the honeymoon phase is over and after they are sure you love them and can’t leave them easily.

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The criticism can also come in the form of backhanded comments or playful jokes about things they know you are sensitive about.

In contrast, healthy criticism is often said in an attempt to improve your partner’s life and self-esteem. For example, if your partner wants to criticize your career, they will sit down and have a real conversation with you. They will try to understand your aspiration and goals and tell you where they think you are going wrong.

A controlling partner will try to brush it off in a sentence to put you down: “What are you worried about? Playing guitar is not even a real career.”

You may end up in a codependent relationship without even knowing it.

If your partner is controlling and you don’t end the relationship in the initial stages, it’s likely that you will end up in a co-dependent relationship. Whereas before, you were an independent and well-rounded individual who was going through each day with pride and gusto.

Now, you are reduced to someone who often fights with their partner, is constantly stressed and is always walking on eggshells. You are no longer the person who was growing in life. Now you need your partner’s permission to grow.

Co-dependent relationships can range from extreme to mild depending on how severe the codependent dynamics is and how long you have been together. If you think you are in one, you should watch out for these signs of an unhealthy co-dependent relationship .

What Should You Do If Your Partner Is Controlling?

1. Watch out for early signs and take things slow.

The best way to deal with a controlling partner is to find out about it early. As discussed before, controlling behavior does not always how up until the later stages of a relationship.

A lot of people hide their true nature until they feel a bit secure in the relationship. This is why it’s important to take things slow whenever you start a new relationship.

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Take your time to get to know the person before making any huge commitments. If there are signs of controlling behavior, take your time to decide if it’s something you can live with and how severe it.

2. Figure out the severity of the controlling behavior and if it can be fixed.

Like everything else in life and relationships, controlling behavior is not just black and white. Someone with a controlling behavior can still become a good life partner if they are willing to learn and are compatible with you. Don’t immediately reject someone just because they have some controlling behaviors.

It’s important to know what’s important to you in a relationship. In my opinion, most problems in a relationship, including controlling behavior, can be solved with proper communication and understanding. Even if your partner shows some signs of controlling behavior, you can learn to deal with it if they are willing to communicate and understand.

For example, your partner may have some left-over from a past relationship or a bad breakup. One such common issue is when they went through betrayal or when an ex cheated on them. The scars from that betrayal can be the reason they are trying to control you. It might be the reason they get insecure every time you go out with friends.

It’s not necessarily a good reason to breakup with them. Not if it can be fixed. If you speak to them about it, you can come to a reasonable conclusion where you can live your life freely and don’t press any triggers that cause them to panic and become controlling.

If you can’t figure it out yourself, get help. Learn communication skills in relationships or consider getting couples therapy.

3. Be willing to walk away no matter how you have invested in them.

It’s easy to leave a relationship if it’s only been a few months. But what if you have been with your partner for years? What if you just realized how controlling they have been all these years? You were blinded by love before, but you just can’t take it anymore. At the same time, you can’t get yourself to leave them because you are so attached to them. What do you do then?

Again, it’s not always black and white. But you need to figure out your boundaries and what you need in a romantic relationship. It may be a good idea to take a break for a short while to think things through.

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Once you understand yourself, your boundaries, your needs, your expectations and your goals, you should get back in touch with your partner and try to speak to them. Explain to them how their controlling behavior has been toxic and what you need from them to make the relationship work.

If they think they can do it, if they are willing to learn and grow, then try again. But take things slow this time.

Just like you are starting a new relationship. Watch out for red flags and try to figure out if they are sincerely making an attempt to improve or are just faking it.

Someone who sincerely wants to learn and improve will be open to listening and understanding. They will try to make serious changes in life like going to therapy or reading self-improvement books. They will not agree with you about everything and won’t act like a doormat.

On the contrary, someone who is just faking it will most likely do things that they think you want to see. They will agree with what you see and, in some cases, let you walk all over them.

Final Thoughts

A controlling partner is not always a deal breaker. In many cases, the controlling behavior can be the result of a past trauma or childhood issues. And in most cases, it is fixable if the controlling person is willing to accept it and work on themselves.

Learning these behaviors and communicating with your partner can help you avoid a toxic codependent relationship and a lifetime of misery.

But if they are not the type of person who want to learn and grow, you should most definitely leave them and move on.

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Featured photo credit: S A R A H ✗ S H A R P via unsplash.com

More by this author

Kevin Thompson

A breakup and relationship expert who writes about reconciliation and becoming a better person

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Published on April 7, 2021

6 Signs Of A Controlling Person To Be Aware Of

6 Signs Of A Controlling Person To Be Aware Of

Some of the most manipulative people are so good at what they do that their words and actions can convince you into thinking they truly care about what’s best for you when in reality, it’s quite the opposite. The most common signs of a controlling person are rarely obvious to outside observers. And for someone enmeshed in a controlling relationship or friendship, it can be incredibly challenging to stay away from this toxic person, even if you’re aware of their emotionally abusive tendencies.

While it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether to preserve or leave a lopsided, unfulfilling relationship, it’s nevertheless critical to understand the following six signs of controlling people so you can better advocate for yourself and mitigate the influence of their manipulative tendencies in your own life.

1. They Push Their Own Personal Agenda

Do you know someone who always tries to micromanage the words, behaviors, and attitudes of people around them? Does this person act like they have the right to know anything they want about you, including your location, what you’re doing in a given moment, who you’re talking to online, or any other private information about you? And when planning events and special occasions, does this person dominate conversations, steer plans in their own preferred directions, disparage others’ suggestions, and refuse to collaborate with anyone who might disagree with them?

If you answered “yes” to some of the above questions, then those are clear signs of a controlling person whom you absolutely need to be cautious around. Controlling people are reluctant to even consider alternative ideas, let alone enthusiastically work with people who have differing views. They prefer to be the captain of every ship—regardless of how much or how little an issue personally impacts them—and they have an arsenal of manipulative tactics to deploy if someone stands in the way of them achieving their own personal agendas.

In long-term relationships with controlling people, you may feel constantly pressured to meet their demands, follow their schedule, and focus on whatever they feel is most important. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these people act like the universe revolves around them, which can be exhausting to deal with for their family members, friends, and colleagues.

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2. They Make Everything Transactional

Controlling people aren’t always self-centered, but they’re not too empathetic either. Empathy for them tends to appear in the form of strategic concessions they use as a means to get what they want. They typically view interpersonal relationships as transactional opportunities to extract more value from people surrounding them, which can have a draining effect on those they interact with.

For example, one sign of a controlling person may be their insistence on “keeping score.” This can involve doing nice things for you with the ulterior motive of demanding something from you at a later date in exchange for what you thought was just an act of kindness or a friendly support.

Perhaps they shower you in praise (also known as “love-bombing”) or gifts then blow up at you if you don’t intuitively know they’re expecting something back from you. None of us are mind-readers, but controlling people behave as though everyone else should think and act like they want others to and those who fall out of line are punished for failing to meet their impossible expectations.

A controlling person may also threaten to withhold support if you don’t adhere to their demands, but they do so in such subtle ways that the guilt they impose blinds you from the unreasonable nature of their behaviors.

Some statements to be wary of include:

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  • “I did ___________ for you. What do you mean you can’t do ___________ for me?”
  • “Remember how I helped you with ___________? That took a lot of time and energy from me, but I guess you didn’t appreciate my help.”
  • “I always give you ___________. Don’t you care about my needs too?”
  • “You’re so selfish!” or “You don’t care about me at all!” (gaslighting if you respond with hesitation or politely decline their request for help for perfectly valid reasons, such as not having enough time or resources to assist them)

3. They Criticize Everything

One of the most common telltale signs of a controlling person is their capacity to criticize anything and everything, even small things that seemingly don’t matter. As with many toxic traits in relationships, these problems typically start out so small that you may not even notice. At first, you may even agree with their criticism or at least be able to understand their perspective when they bring up an issue.

However, the criticism tends to get more intense, more constant, and more perplexing for people who maintain relationships with controlling people. You’ll likely notice how they rarely seem to criticize something they do. It’s almost always other-oriented and these types of people are so manipulative that any rationale they offer can seem plausibly legitimate.

Some warning signs of a controlling person who’s overly critical to the point of abusiveness include:

  • Criticizing things about you that you have little to no control over (e.g., appearance, disability, family)
  • Criticizing your personal choices and interests, such as educational pursuits, career, clothing, favorite music, time spent on your hobbies, etc.
  • Punishing you for expressing vulnerability by invalidating thoughts and feelings you share with them
  • Attacking you whenever you express an opinion counter to theirs

4. They Balk When Someone Criticizes Them

We all know the adage, “what goes around, comes around.” But this statement doesn’t apply as much to toxic, controlling people. They’d much prefer to dish out criticism without ever having to take it in return.

For instance, if your friend constantly talks about your appearance with little regard for your emotions but flips out if you make just a single comment about their appearance, there’s a possibility that they could have some hidden controlling tendencies left unchecked. Remember, these people aren’t just controlling in their behaviors towards others. They’re also actively trying to stay in complete control over every aspect of their lives, which includes how others view them.

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This seemingly insatiable desire for control can prompt them to lash out against even the smallest bits of criticism, leaving people around them too weary or scared to speak up again in the future. While it’s possible they may suffer from something called rejection sensitivity dysphoria, this does not excuse them from the consequences of their words and actions. They should seek professional help to better manage their reactions to criticism.

5. They Socially Isolate You

Not all controlling people do this, but for manipulative narcissists, socially isolating victims is a go-to strategy for maintaining control because it’s effective at preventing people from truly understanding how toxic their partner, family member, or friend is treating them. Think of it this way—if you don’t talk to many other people in your life, there’s less of a risk that you’ll damage their reputation by revealing their abusive tendencies.

Socially isolating others also gives the person more control over you and your life as it becomes more difficult to break away from them if you don’t have other healthier channels of communication and interpersonal support to turn to.

This process doesn’t happen overnight, nor is it something you can readily recognize as abusive. At first, it may seem reasonable, such as asking you to stop engaging so often with family members with whom both of you disagree on major social or political issues. As the social isolation progresses, they may suggest cutting people out of your life—especially if they don’t like that person, regardless of how you personally feel—or even conjure up high-stakes problems like “it’s me or them” under the guise of saving you from people in your life whom they don’t like for whatever reason.

In a controlling person’s life narrative, they’re always the protagonist who’s incapable of any wrongdoing. The blame is always redirected at someone else, whether that’s you or other people in your life. The more they isolate you from other supportive people in your life, the more susceptible you’ll be to falsely believing that they’re right and you “don’t need” your other friends and family when you have someone as perfect as this person.

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6. They’re Emotionally Abusive

It’s hard enough to be in control of your own emotions but when someone else is constantly belittling you and your interests or leveraging guilt and shame to manipulate you into saying or doing what they want, this can make it even more challenging to stay in control of your own life and emotional well-being.

Emotional abuse is another sign of a controlling person that is often overlooked in relationships. After all, human personalities vary widely in terms of passivity, and it’s not uncommon for one person in a relationship to be significantly more passive than the other. This becomes an issue when the controlling partner or friend exudes signs of emotional abuse, which can start subtly and become much more pronounced over time.

Concerning signs of emotionally abusive language or behavior to watch out for include:

  • Dismissing your needs and/or belittling your interests in counterproductive ways
  • Privately or publicly shaming or humiliating you
  • Making you feel as though you can never live up to their expectations or do anything right (according to their own vague, subjective standards)
  • Gaslighting you into thinking they said or did something that never actually happened (making you question your own reality)

Final Thoughts

It’s sometimes hard to see the negative things about someone with whom we have a relationship. We may sometimes unconsciously overlook the signs of a controlling person, especially if that person is someone we have known for a long time or are close to us. However, cutting them off your life is the best thing you can do for yourself. Just watch out for these six signs of a controlling person and take immediate action when you spot them.

More Tips on How To Deal With a Controlling Person

Featured photo credit: Külli Kittus via unsplash.com

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