My Significant Other Has Control Issues: What Do I Do?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Relationships are built on mutual satisfaction, enjoyment, and love. When these qualities aren’t present, or negative factors like control begin to take over, the relationship can quickly turn unhealthy. 

Control issues can look different in every relationship, and they may not be apparent right away. This article will cover why control issues happen, the signs, and what you can do if you believe that you are in an unhealthy, controlling relationship.

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Are you concerned with your significant other's behavior?

What causes control issues?

Control isn’t always a bad thing. Having appropriate levels of control in relationships allows us to set boundaries for ourselves, and it can let partners know what their expectations are. However, controlling behavior can get out of hand very quickly. This usually happens when an individual has a strong, incessant desire to dictate what happens in their environment, and, more often than not, this involves those around them.

This can become overbearing and even oppressive for the people on the other end, and it can ruin relationships. However, control issues aren’t just limited to domestic life; these types of problems can also be observed at a person’s place of employment as well, where a person can experience overly strict rules and micromanagement. When controlling behavior is brought home, it can lead to all sorts of negative outcomes. 

Control issues aren’t a symptom of a specific mental health disorder, but they can be a sign of much broader issues, including domestic violence or mental health issues, like personality disorders.

Nonetheless, control issues can become pathological in many ways. Someone displaying controlling behavior can have such a need for control that rigid rules turn into emotional abuse. Typically, these individuals don’t impose their will onto others out of pure maliciousness, but this can depend on the person. 

There are many psychological reasons why someone might try to gain control, such as:

  • Fear, such as abandonment, failure, uncertainty, or pain
  • A lack of trust in others
  • Low self-esteem
  • A history of trauma and abuse

Many people who want power and control can be doing so out of emotional sensitivity, fear, and pain; however, it can be deeply rooted and subconscious at times, and letting go of control can seem impossible. Exerting control can be a way to feel like the person is not losing control over their personal relationships. Acting out of fear or pain doesn’t make the actions of people with controlling tendencies justifiable by any means, but it can give insight as to why they feel the need to control everything around them.

When controlling behaviors start to physically or emotionally harm loved ones, especially intimate partners, it then becomes known as domestic abuse. Control issues and domestic violence are learned behaviors, and ultimately, it is a choice whether a person tries to exert power and control over others and make their well-being a priority over their partner’s through various tactics.

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The signs of control issues

Controlling behaviors can take many forms, and it can be important to be able to identify them so you can get help. Here are some common strategies that controlling individuals might use to maintain control and power over others. These can be qualities of unhealthy romantic relationships, as well as those that are platonic. 

Constant criticism

Controlling people often criticize others even for inconsequential things. This can add up and cause the target to believe their self-worth rests with how their partner feels. They might never feel “good enough” in the relationship and believe that they can’t do anything right. 

Constantly criticizing a person’s character, body, past experiences, etc. is emotionally abusive behavior and can lead to negative thinking, poor mental health, and a variety of other problems.

Insults

Criticism can eventually evolve into insults, where your partner demeans and belittles you and makes you feel shameful out of a need for control. For instance, they might try to accuse you of being a bad parent or make rude comments about your appearance.

Isolation

It’s common for controlling partners to try to isolate you from friends and family so that you depend on them solely for support. Controlling where you go and whom you interact with also makes it easier for them to keep tabs on you.

Spying and stalking

If by chance you can do things on your own, controlling people may still attempt to be a part of your life by doing things such as interrogating you about what you were doing and going out of their way to find information about your location and activities even when you refuse to give it. They may check your phone logs, text messages, social media accounts, and internet browsing history, and even follow you around in fear out of a need for control.

Guilt-tripping

Controlling partners often resort to guilt-tripping to get people to do something the way that they want. For instance, they might try to say things like “if you love me, you’ll do this for me,” and usually, the target of guilt-tripping obliges because they are emotionally vulnerable and want to make their partner happy.

Using threats

When they feel like they are losing control, controlling individuals may utilize threats to get what they want. These threats may come in the form of verbal or physical abuse and involve weapons and other people that you care about. Sometimes, these threats can make a person feel like they are at risk of losing their support, and this can cause them to feel stuck in an abusive relationship which can lead to dealing with confusing emotions.

Financial and career control

In domestic violence, gaining control over all the finances is quite common, and abusive partners may try to have power over each and every cent. They could also try to limit your opportunities, such as finding a job or continuing your education so that you can find a better one because this may allow you to have more autonomy. This dependence can lead you to be in an unhealthy environment and deal with unnecessary stress.

Sexual control

In romantic relationships, sexuality can be used as a form of control, and although people may use it to do things that make their partners uncomfortable or upset, some partners can try to withhold sexual activity in order to get their significant other to do what they want. Neglect from control issues can feel distressing. 

Holding grudges

Instead of forgiving and forgetting, people with control issues may tend to hold onto their significant other’s past mistakes, no matter how small. Additionally, they might bring them up when it is convenient for them to make their partner feel bad about themselves. This can also be considered a form of guilt-tripping.

Gaslighting

People with controlling behavior can use gaslighting to manipulate you into doubting yourself. You may start to question what is true or not, even if you have the facts and know you are in the right. Nonetheless, gaslighting techniques can be powerful, which is why abusers can use them to control others psychologically.

In addition to these specific examples of controlling behavior, there are some general behaviors that people with control issues have that you can keep an eye out for such as jealousy, dishonesty, not taking “no” for an answer, and getting upset or moody when they can’t control the situation or don’t get their way.

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Are you concerned with your significant other's behavior?

What to do if you have a controlling partner

If you’re in a relationship with a partner who is controlling, you may feel vulnerable, experience anxiety, be under extreme stress, or feel helpless all the time. In these situations, fear and strong emotions make sense. There are many potential causes for a controlling partner, such as a specific disorder, a factor of environment, and more.  

Since control can vary in severity in life, the steps that people should take can differ from person to person. However, there are options that you can take and apply to your own situation. 

Pay attention to the signs and assess the severity

Controlling and abusive behaviors tend to gradually evolve over time, but it’s possible to catch them early. If noticed early enough, these behaviors can be addressed and potentially fixed; however, even if it has reached the point of violence, it isn’t too late to get help.

Reach out

Navigating a controlling relationship can be tedious and exhausting, and it can require the assistance of a professional as well as support from friends and family. In addition to giving people ways to cope with the stress of a controlling partner, therapists can help people with control issues identify the reasons why they feel the way that they do and address them so they can improve and start letting go of control in life.

Be ready to leave

Although some of them can be fixed, not every controlling relationship is salvageable, and in severe cases, it’s important to know when to call it quits. This is especially true if your partner is abusive and makes you feel dependent on them. In severe cases like these, professional assistance is also highly recommended because it can be physically and emotionally difficult to leave these types of relationships.

Where to find help

Counseling and therapy that involve addressing relationship dynamics, such as control, are widely available, and help is available to both parties involved in the relationship. For example, therapy can help controlling partners identify the negative emotions and past experiences that make them want to control, and then they can change their behaviors. Therapists can identify if a specific disorder is causing the control issues. The controlling partner can also find new ways to cope, let go of control, and feel safer within themselves and with their partner.

It can be important for the controlling partner to take responsibility for the physical and mental control that they have taken over your environment. This process can be difficult, and the outcome is not guaranteed, but seeking treatment through a licensed therapist is often the first step of many to changing your relationship and your life.

Additionally, both of you can participate in sessions to try to understand where you each are coming from and learn ways to improve the relationship in life together. If you have been on the receiving end of controlling behavior, therapy may be an effective next step to take. Treatment can help both of you move on with your lives.

Overcoming control issues can be tough work, and your partner may not acquiesce. If things appear to be irreconcilable or you are being abused, professional support is recommended to overcome the feelings that come from a controlling relationship as well as to adjust to life without that partner. The pain of control issues can lead to an anxious understanding of life, but with some extra support, you can find your way to the other side.

If your relationship is showing signs of abuse, you can always contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. In many cases, legal assistance may also be recommended, such as getting involved with law enforcement and obtaining a restraining order against your former partner.

Online counseling with BetterHelp

Finding a therapist to help you cope with the effects of a person from controlling relationships is easy, and BetterHelp strives to give you a comfortable, safe, and discrete way to find a therapist. Online therapy is also convenient, and even though one of the perks of it is being able to attend from home, if you feel like you can’t do it at home, because of your significant other, all you need is internet and a mobile device to connect to licensed professionals.

The efficacy of online counseling 

Online counseling can be helpful and healing for those who have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). Researchers found, in one study, that an internet-delivered cognitive-behavioral therapy program for survivors of IPV proved satisfactory for participants. Those participating experienced reduced symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. 

Takeaway

It isn’t always easy to know what to do when in a controlling relationship. However, by recognizing the signs of control and learning about the steps you can take if you find yourself in one, you can gain a clearer understanding of how to proceed. 

Being in a relationship with a controlling partner can make you feel alone, but you aren’t. Discreetly confiding in an online therapist can allow you to get the support and encouragement you need. It can also lead you to find relationships that bring you happiness and are healthier for everyone involved.

Learn to manage impulsive behaviors

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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