How Controlling Behavior Can Affect Relationships

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Individuals often seek relationships as a source of comfort and solace. However, circumstances might turn toxic if one partner exhibits controlling behavior over the other. Defining and recognizing controlling behavior and how therapy can teach effective, practical ways to communicate with your partner and cope with emotional reactions can be valuable. People may use power and control in relationships for various reasons, but it can be essential to avoid harming a partner with these behaviors.

Does your partner show signs of controlling behavior?

What is controlling behavior?

Controlling behavior may involve the words and actions of a person who expects, requires, or coerces others to cater to their standards, whims, and needs—often at the other person's psychological or physical expense. Controlling behaviors may be unhealthy and self-serving, damaging the trust and respect between partners in a romantic relationship. 

According to a 2011 study, controlling behavior is often more common than physical or sexual violence, though it can be equally disturbing and often is a precursor to increasingly abusive behavior. 

"Abusive people believe they have the right to control and restrict their partner's lives, often either because they believe their own feelings and needs should be the priority in the relationship, or because they enjoy exerting the power that such abuse gives them." — National Domestic Violence Hotline

Recognizing controlling behaviors

While the circumstances can vary from person to person, the mental health community has established several characteristics of controlling behavior that may serve as warning signs of a power imbalance in the relationship. Below are a few of these signs: 

  • You are blamed for everything, including minor issues you had no connection to
  • Your partner frequently criticizes you in public to undermine your confidence 
  • Your partner tries to isolate you from your friends and family
  • Your partner keeps score of conflicts in the relationship
  • They create drama or consistently shift attention to themselves
  • Your partner sabotages your other close relationships to gain more control over you
  • Your partner uses intimidation to get their way  
  • They refuse to take no for an answer or respect your boundaries
  • They are frequently jealous and try to control your clothing, way of speaking, friendships, and actions
  • They use gaslighting, manipulative behavior designed to make you second-guess yourself
  • They routinely make decisions for you
  • They use being overprotective as an excuse to control your behavior
  • They have drastic mood swings and contradictory behavior 

Who is at risk for controlling behavior in a relationship?

People with controlling tendencies may often harm those closest to them, cultivating an environment where others consider their needs first. Controlling personalities may take advantage of another's good faith, submissive tendencies, introversion, or conflict avoidance to manipulate the situation.

Romantic relationships aren't the only place people try to exert control over others. Some may develop toxic, controlling relationships with friends, family members, coworkers, or partners. Those who are kind and people-pleasing or put others' needs first might be at higher risk of being manipulated by a partner's controlling behavior. The control can often be subtle, so you may not realize it once you are committed to the relationship.

Why do some people try to control their partners?

According to a 2021 study, exerting control over yourself and your environment has physical and psychological benefits. Control is considered necessary for overall health and well-being, making it even more damaging when someone you love tries to take it from you. If someone feels out of control of their own behaviors and environment, they may try to control others to regain this sense of power. 

While each person may have unique reasons for supporting an uneven power balance in a relationship, researchers have identified several characteristics common to people with controlling personality types or traits, such as low self-esteem, experiencing similar control in their past, the desire to feel superior to someone else, past traumatic experiences, or other desires to feel in control of their environment.

Below are a few of these signs: 

  • Low self-esteem
  • High anxiety levels
  • A desire to have order
  • Enjoyment from a sense of power 
  • The belief that their needs and wants should come first
  • Disregard for the effects of their behavior on others
  • A past of witnessing such behavior during childhood 
  • Mental health conditions like borderline personality disorder (BPD), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and other conditions with a desire for control as a symptom. 

Types of controlling behaviors

People with controlling personalities often use multiple methods to manipulate others, including but not limited to the following. 

Psychological manipulation

Mental and emotional manipulation can take many forms. It may be intended to alter a person's perception so that they accept the version presented as reality or be less likely to question the controlling behaviors.

Physical control, abuse, or intimidation

Intimidation, threats, or physical abuse are often used to control people in a relationship. It may start small, with restrictions on what you can wear or who you can see, but these behaviors can escalate, including when you try to set boundaries. Physical abuse can be dangerous to your mental and physical health, so seeking help is essential. The hotline at the top of the article can be used to receive resources and support.

Financial control

A partner may control you financially by making you dependent on them to survive, such as not allowing you to work, controlling the flow of finances, making all financial decisions in the relationship, or refusing to work and putting all the financial responsibilities on you.

What controlling behavior does to a relationship

"Controlling behaviors are often hard to distinguish from the normal experience of being in a relationship. If you suspect your partner is controlling, look for clues in how your partner's behavior affects you." — Amy Lewis Bear, MS, LPC 

Controlling behavior can adversely affect a relationship in various ways. If you frequently disregard your feelings and needs in favor of your partner, you may have an imbalanced power dynamic in your relationship. This dynamic has the potential to cause misunderstandings and conflict and is one example of how behavior impacts relationships

Increasing cycles of seeking approval and punishment

As time progresses and controlling behaviors continue, you may notice that your partner shows their restricting tendencies more often, "punishing" you for real or imagined missteps. You may feel that you constantly run in circles to earn their approval. It can be exhausting trying to meet their exact expectations.

Toxic patterns 

Controlling behaviors can contribute to a toxic relationship that makes you feel misunderstood, unsupported, attacked, or demeaned, threatening your mental and emotional well-being or physical health.

Lowered self-confidence

If your partner uses negativity as a control method, you may notice that your self-confidence decreases over time.

Damaged emotional intimacy

If your partner doesn't communicate effectively and most of your concerns go unanswered, it can harm the emotional connection in your relationship. As issues in the relationship occupy more and more of your mind, you might struggle to be present with others, and your bond with friends and family may falter.

How to find long-term support

Speaking with a licensed therapist may help you identify unhealthy behaviors in yourself and your partner, helping you develop positive, practical ways to navigate relationships.

If you struggle to manage your emotional reactions to controlling behavior from a partner, consider working with a licensed therapist online. Virtual therapy platforms like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples offer the support and guidance of a mental health professional from home. You may learn positive, practical coping skills, build self-confidence and emotional literacy, cultivate healthy communication, and establish safe boundaries with the help of a qualified therapist. Fitting therapy into a busy schedule may be possible with flexible appointment options like phone calls, video calls, or online chat. 

According to the American Psychological Association, individuals see similar results with online therapy and in-person treatments. Some clients without therapy experience may show increased results. Teletherapy can be less expensive, has shorter wait times, and offers people who previously didn't have treatment options. Many study participants found the additional distance between them and the therapist made saying personal details easier, and the unmatched convenience of attending from home made it possible to participate in sessions more reliably. 


Feeling relaxed and safe in a relationship can be challenging if your partner displays controlling behaviors. Understanding how controlling behavior can impact a relationship may offer insight into why and how some people demonstrate controlling behaviors. If you want to talk about these behaviors individually or with your partner, consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and compassionate support.
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