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A controlling partner may not always be easy to spot. While some of them may act overtly menacing, others will resort to subtle manipulation tactics in an attempt to “keep you in check.”
Perhaps it started out with your partner wanting to spend all of their time with you and learning all the details of your life. It felt great having so much attention. But somewhere along the line, it started feeling like a bit too much for you. It’s hard to pin down exactly when.
What you do know is that you’ve been feeling increasingly hesitant about doing certain things on your own or making some decisions independently. You seem to crave the privacy and autonomy you once had. You feel you have to calculate every move around your partner.
If this is the case, you might be in a controlling relationship.
It’s natural and not uncommon to want to stay in a romantic relationship, even if some aspects don’t work for you. This is particularly the case if you love them and they say they love you.
Sometimes, controlling partners don’t even realize they’re doing it, making the decision of whether to stay or go even more complex. It’s a lot to unpack.
Relationships with controlling partners may be more common than many think. People of every gender identity can behave in controlling ways or can be on the receiving end of these behaviors.
Although the control may be obvious when your partner explicitly asks you to behave in certain ways, there are some subtler controlling ways that might lead you to feel confused and overwhelmed.
Learning some of these signs may help you make an informed and safe decision about your relationship.
If you jump into hot water, your reaction might be to rush out of it. But what happens when you step into lukewarm water and slowly turn the heat up?
This analogy may help you understand the dynamics of a controlling relationship. Some of your partner’s behaviors may be so subtle or crop up so gradually that they can be hard to detect at first. You may even start getting used to some of them. And then, one day, you may realize the water is too hot and you’re hurting.
Not all controlling partners behave in the same way, though. There are many degrees of control, and the control may be subtly integrated into your relationship.
What really matters is how you feel about these behaviors. Do they make you feel insecure, uncomfortable, or hand-tied about some aspects of yourself and your life? This may be a red flag in itself.
Here are a few signs of a controlling partner to watch out for:
They make decisions for you
There’s a blurry line between attentiveness and pressure. But it may be the latter if your partner routinely makes decisions for you.
Perhaps they always insist on driving you everywhere, or they hog time in your schedule.
They may also make arrangements with your friends without asking you first, or they may paint or redecorate according to their taste only.
If they disagree with the way you dress, they might tell you so, or they could start slowly “changing your wardrobe” by buying specific outfits as gifts to you.
Caring for you isn’t the same as controlling you, though sometimes it may be difficult for you to tell them apart.
A partner may be overprotective if they question who you’ve gone out with, get upset if you don’t answer a phone call right away, or act jealous of your friends and family.
They may also assume that you’re only safe when they’re around, or they may ask you to consult with them every time you’re making a decision about your life.
They may be on top of your medical appointments, draw a special diet for you, or advise you against that coworker they don’t like.
Any of these behaviors on their own might not mean anything in particular. But if they repeatedly act this way and won’t take your interests, needs, and opinions into account, they might be trying to control you.
They play the blame game
A controlling person can have a hard time taking responsibility for their actions.
You may confront a controlling partner, only to find that they’ve somehow turn it back around on you. You may even find yourself apologizing for something you didn’t know you needed to be sorry for.
For example, let’s say you’ve been texting your close friend about your relationship difficulties. While you’re in the shower, your partner goes onto your phone and reads those private messages, then gets mad at you for what they saw.
Instead of admitting that they invaded your privacy in the first place, they might shift the blame to you in order to avoid responsibility for their choices.
They criticize you
This is more than a careless remark here or there — after all, we all have our bad days.
Criticism can look like making jokes about you in front of other people, disparaging the way you dress, or always pointing out mistakes — like the one place you forgot to shave your legs or a little bit of dust you forgot to clean on the floor.
Over time, constant criticism can erode your sense of self-confidence, and it may also lead you to act in certain ways to avoid being criticized.
They micromanage you
A controlling romantic partner may try to prevent you from living your life as you typically would. They might:
- tell you what you can wear or how you should wear your hair
- pressure you to stay at a certain weight
- try to control your finances
- prevent you from getting medical care or seeing a therapist
- tell you when you can go to work or school
- hide your school or work materials from you
They may also show this tendency in everyday situations. For example, they could:
- always ask you about your conversations when you hang up the phone
- check what you just got out of the fridge
- supervise what you buy at the grocery store
They isolate you from others
This behavior can be subtle, like tuning out the conversation when you share stories about other people or giving you an eye roll when you answer phone calls.
It can also be more overt. A controlling partner may complain about how much spend time you spend with other people, like friends or family. They may put down your loved ones or say that they’re a bad influence on you. They may even act in certain ways that create friction when your friends or family are around.
They can also isolate you by demanding your attention with a crisis, in order to prevent you from following through on plans with other people. They might give you the silent treatment whenever you choose to spend time with someone else.
They gaslight you
The term “gaslight” is inspired by the 1944 film of the same name. In it, a husband slowly leads his wife to believe she’s losing her mind by doing things like dimming the gaslights and then pretending that he didn’t.
A controlling partner may downplay an experience, like an angry outburst, and then accuse you of being overly sensitive. They may also say something hurtful, then follow it up with, “It was just a joke. You’re being dramatic.” This is gaslighting.
They may even deny saying things, lie to you or tell you that your gut instinct is wrong. At times, they may even ask you to seek help, saying that you’re losing your grip on reality.
They invade your privacy
A controlling partner may demand to see your recent chat history, or they may read your diary while you’re at work. They may also constantly ask what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling.
They may monitor your activity, like following you in their car, watching how many steps you take on Fitbit, or keeping track of what you’re doing through social media or searching in Google.
They may also ask to have your passwords and present it as “if you have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t I have those?”
They trespass your boundaries
If you say “no” to something, a controlling partner may try to talk you out of it. This can look like pressuring you to change your mind or arguing with you about why you’re wrong.
This goes for physical boundaries as well. For example, you make plans with someone else and let your partner know that you’re going to be unavailable, but your partner shows up at your house uninvited.
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Being in a relationship with a controlling partner can be exhausting. It may take a toll on your self-esteem, moods, and your outlook in life.
You may feel you’re always walking on eggshells, afraid for the other shoe to drop. You could also blame yourself, thinking that if you only did everything right, they wouldn’t need to behave this way.
The thing is, however, that the way they behave is only about them and has nothing to do with how you behave.
When you’re in a controlling relationship, you may also experience some distressing mental health symptoms, such as:
- confusion about your partner or what relationships should be like
- humiliation, uncertainty, and poor self-worth
- isolation and loneliness
- numbness about your life, partner, or situation in general
- hesitancy about giving your opinion or living life your way
It can be even more confusing if your partner says that they’re doing this because they’re looking out for you or they’re afraid to lose you.
The dichotomy between what you feel and what’s actually happening may lead you to doubt yourself or justify your partner. This, in turn, could make you feel worse.
Controlling behavior may actually be a defense mechanism for some people — an attempt to cope with a strained inner world.
Sometimes, people focus on trying to control outside circumstances when they’re frightened by what’s happening internally. They may be terrified of being abandoned, anxious about losing control, or uncertain about what’s going to happen next.
Controlling behavior may also be a symptom of a more complex mental health challenge.
When someone behaves in a controlling way, they aren’t necessarily a “bad” person. This may be a clinical symptom of a mental health condition. For example, it may be a sign of a personality disorder, unresolved abuse or trauma, or depression.
However, this doesn’t mean you have to accept behaviors that hurt you or limit your free will. There’s help available for someone who behaves in controlling ways. But providing that support may not be up to you.
By being more aware of the underlying causes of their behavior, you can keep things in perspective and see what’s really going on: They may be in pain. Also, it’s not about you. There’s nothing “wrong” with you.
You deserve to feel at peace and free in all of your relationships.
In a way, a controlling partner and a codependent partner may be two sides of the same coin.
A controlling partner may demand all of the attention, and a codependent partner may assume this control is love and be willing to give them that attention.
Codependency, like controlling behavior, could be an attempt to cope with distressing situations.
The term refers to being “dependent” on another person and putting their needs before your own by engaging in people-pleasing behavior and caregiving.
Sometimes, codependent people may end up in relationships with controlling partners. They become controlling, too.
Research suggests that codependency is a coping mechanism that’s often picked up in childhood as a way to stay safe in an unstable environment.
For example, perhaps you had a parent with an inconsistent mood, relaxed one day and lashing out the next. You may have learned to adjust your personality, behavior, and needs according to what was happening in the house that day.
Or maybe one of your parents was struggling with substance use, so you had to learn to tiptoe around the house and pretend that you didn’t exist. It’s also possible that you had to become the parent for your parent, taking care of them while they were intoxicated.
As you age, you may subconsciously gravitate towards interpersonal situations that feel familiar to what you experienced in childhood. There may be a part of you that is trying to heal an old wound by seeking out what feels like “home.”
Or you may have learned that relationships are about taking care of the other person’s needs and making them happy, even if it’s at your expense.
Change is possible, though. Reaching out to a mental health professional can help you learn to manage both controlling behavior and codependency.
Although childhood experiences may affect your adult relationships, you always have the chance to heal and improve your quality of life.
No matter how you feel right now, you can get your power back.
Someone else’s reaction to your boundaries isn’t your responsibility — it’s theirs.
To set boundaries in your relationship, consider these tips:
- Use “I” statements. For example, “I feel uncomfortable when…”
- Ask for time to process requests. You can say, “I need some time to think about that.”
- Show your compassion, but continue with your plans. For example, “I understand that you feel upset when I go out with my friends, but this is healthy for me. Let’s talk about this later.”
- Negotiate and compromise to get your needs met. For example, “I will silence my phone on our dates, but the rest of the time it may be on. It’s important for me to be available to my loved ones.”
- Write down concerning conversations in a journal or in a notes app. Do this right after the conversations happen so that you have something to refer back to.
- Change the passwords on your devices, social media accounts, and email accounts. Feel free to say “no” if they ask that you share these.
- Keep nurturing other relationships, like trusted friends and family members. Keep in touch with them on a regular basis.
- Reach out to a mental health professional. They can offer guidance about the particulars of your situation. If you believe your partner is willing to put in the effort, invite them to couple’s therapy to discuss important topics in a safe environment.
It can also be helpful to adjust your expectations. You may want to reconsider staying in a relationship in the hope that maybe, one day, they’ll change. In order to heal, a controlling person has to want to change for themselves.
You may also want to focus on behaviors and actions instead of words. A controlling partner may offer you change or make promises about the future. But if they’re not getting the professional help they need, it may be difficult for them to translate those words into actions.
There’s a wide range of controlling behaviors. Some of these can be worked on and overcome with professional help.
Other behaviors might make you feel insecure and afraid, or they could threaten your safety.
These behaviors includes punching walls, breaking or throwing objects, or bringing weapons into the house. It can also include harming your children or pets, saying they’ll hurt you (even if it’s disguised as a joke), or threatening self-harm to prevent you from leaving.
If you feel concerned for your safety, it’s important to create a safety exit plan and get help right away.
Consider these steps:
- Seek mental health support. You may want to search for local therapists and support groups. If you can’t leave just yet because your safety is at stake, a professional may be able to support you and monitor the situation.
- Reach out to someone you trust. Tell close friends or family members, as long as they’re trustworthy. You can also reach out to a spiritual leader, like a pastor or rabbi, if that feels more comfortable.
- Remove your personal belongings. If you share a home with a controlling partner, start to move your personal belongings to a safe location a little at a time. If you need to move out all at once, bring people with you and let friends and family know where you are. Avoid moving out by yourself, if possible. You may also consider leaving your things behind until it’s safer to return. In this case, you may want to only take important documents.
- Move to a safe place. Be sure to keep your location secret. Stay in a safe place, like a family member’s home, a friend’s spare bedroom, or a shelter in your local area.
Being in a controlling relationship can be a confusing and overwhelming experience. But you don’t have to go through this on your own. Help is available.
The more education you have about controlling relationships, the better equipped you’ll be to handle one. It may help to review the “Power and Control Wheel” developed by the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
You can also consider these resources for more information:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- love is respect
- Pathways to Safety International
- National Center for Victims of Crime
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Casa de Esperanza
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has a “Find A Therapist Directory” to help you look for someone to talk to. TalkSpace and BetterHelp offer services online, so you can do therapy with a professional from the comfort of your own home.
You can also find an Al-Anon meeting. It’s not just for people who love someone with an alcohol use problem — it can be very helpful for people who may live with codependency and people-pleasing behaviors as well.
You will get through this. Take it one day — one moment — at a time.