If controlling behaviors are a regular part of your dynamic with others, recognition of this interpersonal experience is the first step to making change.
Control is about having too much of the power in a relationship. It allows you to direct someone else’s thoughts and behaviors so they align with your own.
Controlling behaviors in a relationship are not always about maintaining a sense of superiority. Sometimes controlling behaviors stem from past experiences where a sense of being out of control has created a need to always be in control.
Regardless of their underlying causes, however, controlling behaviors can have a negative impact on relationship health and the well-being of your partner. Self-awareness about controlling behaviors is the first step in learning how to stop being controlling in relationships.
In order to be less controlling, you have to first acknowledge that others perceive you as controlling.
Karen Cunningham, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Anchorage, Alaska, explains it can be exceptionally difficult to acknowledge controlling behaviors in yourself because we often justify, or rationalize, our own behaviors.
“Controlling behaviors do not exist within people; rather they exist within relationships,” she elaborates. “The biggest indicator that you are controlling is if your partner expresses that they feel controlled by you.”
Once controlling behaviors have been brought to your attention, you can work to restructure them into more mutually beneficial actions.
1. Educate yourself on positive relationship characteristics
Marina Kerlow, a licensed graduate marriage and family therapist from Takoma Park, Maryland, recommends learning about positive relationship characteristics, like boundaries and open communication, to help you identify areas that need to be worked on.
“Understanding what constitutes a healthy relationship can empower you to make informed decisions about your relationship and replace controlling behaviors with healthier behaviors,” she says.
2. Practice self-reflection
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with what makes a balanced, positive partnership, you can reflect on your behaviors that seem out of alignment.
“Explore any fears or insecurities that may be driving the need for control,” suggests Kerlow. “Focus on identifying patterns of control and understanding the underlying emotions that drive them. For example, are you afraid of abandonment or feeling inadequate so you overcompensate by being controlling?”
Doing this introspection regularly can help you actively work on restructuring your behaviors as they occur.
3. Work with your partner
Relationships are a two-way street. While you may have controlling tendencies in other aspects of your life, interpersonal relationship control requires the participation of at least one other person.
For this reason, working with your partner on improving the relationship dynamic as a whole is often necessary.
“To improve controlling behaviors in a relationship, ideally the person with the power should recognize the impact they are having on the relationship…,” says Ronald Hoang, a registered clinical counselor and psychotherapist from Sydney, Australia. “The person with less power would look to ‘grow’ in power to become equal — other words, to become more assertive (not aggressive), to communicate firmly, but not confrontationally.”
4. Prioritize mutual decision-making
Once you’re aware control is a challenge in your relationship, you can approach change by focusing on one area at a time, like your decision-making process.
Rather than making up your mind without asking for input or swaying your partner to the decision you want, making an effort to reach a mutual decision is key.
“Practice making collaborative decisions together, valuing your partner’s input, and incorporate trust-building activities with your partner,” says Kerlow. “Focus on fostering a sense of trust and reliability in the relationship.”
5. Encourage independence
Oftentimes control can look like codependency. If your partner doesn’t do things independently and has no individual pursuits or friendships, it could point to an area where you’ve been controlling.
If you’re having trouble letting your partner do things on their own, introspection can help you understand why you feel that way. Once you know where those feelings come from, you can communicate them to your partner and find ways to encourage your partner’s independence.
6. Take small steps toward relinquishing control
There will always be moments in life you can’t control — and that can be terrifying. Kerlow suggests practicing flexibility in small ways during your day to show yourself circumstances out of your control can still have positive outcomes.
“Let go of control and show yourself that it will be OK! It’s hard to sit with discomfort and uncertainty, but keep practicing and it will get easier,” she says.
7. Seeking professional support
Many controlling behaviors are rooted in past experiences, but certain mental health conditions may also contribute to a need to be in control.
Speaking with a mental health professional can help you identify factors contributing to controlling behavior while teaching you new ways to process and cope with those underlying feelings.
The hardest part in learning how to stop being controlling is recognizing what controlling behaviors look like.
Signs of controlling behaviors include:
|dictating someone’s decisions or behaviors
|“You’re going to do this, not that.”
|making decisions without a partner’s input
|“I decided we’re going here.”
|manipulating someone through tactics like guilt or intimidation
|“If you loved me you wouldn’t do that.”
|limiting who someone can see and where/when they can go places
|“Jane doesn’t like me. You can’t hang out with her.”
|restricting self-expression with makeup, wardrobe, or hair style
|“No partner of mine is going to have short hair.”
|limiting your partner’s access to finances or financial responsibilities
|“Tell me what you need this money for.”
|dismissing or belittling another’s ideas or opinions
|“Don’t be silly. Don’t do it that way.”
Simply put, says Huong, hurt people hurt people. “Often, controlling people have been exposed to an environment where they themselves lacked control and therefore they need to seize that control where they can,” he explains.
These behaviors could be rooted in a traumatic childhood or adverse adult experiences, for example, where a sense of helplessness is closely linked to overwhelmingly negative experiences, such as:
- substance misuse or addiction in a parent
- enmeshed relationships during early childhood
If left unresolved, these negative experiences can impact your mental health and overall well-being as you grow older. According to Cunningham, this may lead someone to take on different coping mechanisms.
Among these are trauma responses like defensiveness, which involves controlling as much of the environment as possible.
“ … you need to first identify the unhealed parts of the psyche, then pay attention to bodily, emotional, and mental red flags to help you catch yourself when you’re feeling triggered,” says Cunningham.
“Then you must excuse yourself and take care of what has come up for you, and circle back around to your partner once you’ve established yourself strongly and comfortably as the wise adult.”
Controlling behaviors can take a toll on any interpersonal relationship, but it is possible to learn how to stop being controlling if you have the desire to change.
Learning how to recognize controlling behaviors in yourself, coupled with deliberate efforts to improve those behaviors, can improve the dynamic of any relationship.
If controlling behaviors have significantly impacted a relationship, working with a mental health professional can help you develop ways to re-establish the bond within a new relationship dynamic.