What To Do If Your Partner Is Exhibiting Controlling Behavior

Updated April 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Every relationship dynamic is different. What works well for one couple may not work at all for another. However, recognizing when a dynamic may be harmful to you is important for your own health, safety, and well-being.

If you’re concerned that your partner may be too controlling, you shouldn’t ignore that feeling. A relationship with a controlling partner may negatively impact your life and your health, so it’s important to notice the potential signs of this dynamic and act accordingly. The first step is to recognize the signs of controlling behavior in your partner.

Are you worried about controlling behavior in your relationship?

Signs Of Controlling Behavior In A Relationship

Once you’re familiar with the red flags of controlling behavior, you can more easily recognize if they’re ever present in your relationship, or in the relationship a loved one is in. It’s important to note that it can happen in many different types of relationships and be exhibited by many different types of people. While it’s often discussed in regard to romantic relationships, it can also appear in relationships with parents, siblings, friends, or coworkers. It can be displayed by anyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or other factors.

Controlling behavior can take many forms, but it’s generally characterized by a desire—sometimes powerful or forceful—to gain power over people and/or situations. It often reflects the person’s desire to be completely in charge of something to an unhealthy extent. Some examples of controlling behavior in a romantic relationship may include:

  • Criticizing their partner’s choices with the intent of getting them to change
  • Isolating their partner from friends and family and any other outside opinions or perspectives
  • Demanding to know every detail about where their partner is or what they’re doing at all times, which may also be associated with jealousy
  • Imposing conditions on love and affection; making their partner feel they’re never good enough
  • Using guilt to try and make their partner behave differently

This list is not exhaustive, as this type of behavior can take many forms. It can start right away, or not crop up until later in a relationship. It can also range from subtle and well-disguised to overt, aggressive, and threatening.

When trying to identify if your partner is being controlling, ask yourself if their behavior regularly makes you feel belittled or insecure, or if you feel that they’re convincing or forcing you to make choices you’re unhappy with. If you’re not sure, trusted friends and family who have witnessed your dynamic may be able to help you identify red flags. A qualified therapist may also be able to assist you with the identification process.

Understanding Controlling Personality Types

Learning more about where this behavior may come from can also help you identify if you’re in a relationship with someone controlling. People are diverse, and there’s no one-size-fits-all explanation for someone who shows controlling tendencies. However, getting familiar with a few of the most common explanations or sources of it may be helpful to you.

Why Do Some People Try to Control Their Partners?

Managing Editor of Psych Central and mental health expert Sarah Newman explains that people with control issues may be narcissists, and/or are often motivated by fear and high levels of anxiety. Instead of addressing this problem directly and learning to overcome it, they may attempt to solve their problem by trying to control every aspect of their lives—including the people around them. One study also found that people with a strong dependency on controlling others score lower “on a scale of "self-affection” (dissatisfaction with oneself).” In other words, people who exhibit controlling behavior may struggle with their own levels of self-esteem as well.

Controlling behavior can be very serious. However, sometimes lower levels of controlling behavior may have a more easily identifiable cause that you and your partner can address and overcome together. For instance, let’s say your partner claims not to like any of your work friends and says negative things about them to try and get you to spend less time with them. This could be a sign of a deeper issue with controlling behavior, or they could simply feel left out or like they’re not getting enough quality time with you. While this reasoning doesn’t make the behavior right, having a discussion to get at this root cause may be helpful. You could set aside one night a week to spend with just them, and you could encourage them to say yes to more activities with friends from their own job, for example.

Is Controlling Others a Personality Disorder?

"Controlling personality disorder" is not a recognized condition at this time. However, more extreme controlling behavior can sometimes be caused by other recognized conditions. These may include narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, or others. Some people who exhibit controlling behavior sometimes also have substance abuse issues, problems with impulse control, and/or anger management issues as well. In other words, this type of behavior can have multiple causes, contributing factors, and/or co-existing conditions or challenges.

How Controlling Relationship Dynamics May Develop

How does someone end up in a controlling relationship? First of all, it’s important to understand that if you have a controlling partner, it’s not your fault. There are many ways this type of dynamic can appear or develop. Learning to identify them can help you see when you or someone you love may be experiencing this type of relationship dynamic, and help you decide what to do about it.

Here are a few ways in which a controlling dynamic may take root in a relationship:

  • You may feel (or be made to feel) that your partner knows more than you, is more experienced, or is otherwise more equipped to make decisions. People have strengths in different areas. However, there’s a difference between asking someone to share their expertise or opinion and letting them make decisions for you. A controlling dynamic falls under the latter category: when your partner has convinced you that they know best in most areas and that it’s better for you if you let them consistently take control of your life.
  • Love-bombing may make it difficult to recognize controlling behaviors. Romance can be a normal and exciting part of the early stages of a relationship. However, when taken too far, it could be a red flag. “Love-bombing” is when someone lavishes another with affection, usually in order to manipulate them. The findings of a 2017 study suggest that love-bombing is a strategy that “individuals with high displays of narcissism and low displays of self-esteem”—two traits that can correlate with controlling behavior—might employ. However, since receiving romantic attention and affection is enjoyable to many people, some may be hesitant or unable to see when it has crossed the line into manipulative or controlling.
  • The dynamic slowly escalates. A controlling dynamic can develop gradually over time, which may make it harder to spot. It’s possible that a partner who ends up being controlling may seem the opposite at first. They may be trying to gain the other’s trust, or they may simply become less able over time to manage feelings that cause them to behave in a controlling manner.

What To Do If Your Partner Exhibits Controlling Behaviors

Humans are complex, as are our interpersonal dynamics. It may not be realistic to require perfect equality in every aspect of a relationship, especially since people have different desires and different areas of strength. However, research shows that relationships with a generally balanced dynamic when it comes to power and control may tend to be happier. One study found that “partners in the happiest pairs both feel they have a measure of power.” If one partner is too controlling, it may cause problems in the relationship. In some cases, controlling tendencies can even lead to aggression or violence. In this case, you have every right to prioritize your safety and leave the situation. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Every situation is different. However, if you’ve noticed some controlling tendencies in your partner’s behavior, you have the right to take the appropriate action. You may consider trying one of the following tactics to handle the situation.

#1. Express How Their Behavior Makes You Feel

Communication is often a helpful first step when you face a challenge in your relationship. It’s possible that your partner doesn’t realize that they’re acting in a controlling way, or that it’s negatively impacting you. Speaking to them about how their behavior makes you feel may be all they need to recognize the discomfort or harm they’re causing and work on adjusting it. Make sure to speak in “I statements” (“I felt…when you…”), use specific examples, and try to keep the overall tone of the conversation calm. Begin with the intention of working on the problem together instead of accusing or blaming.

#2. Start Setting Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries are limits you set in order to keep yourself safe. Setting boundaries may be useful if you find yourself in a relationship with a person who is exhibiting controlling behaviors, because you can help them understand what you do and do not feel comfortable with. For example, if you want to enjoy one-on-one time with a friend, you can ask your partner not to call you while you’re at lunch with them. If you don’t like when your partner criticizes the choices you make at work, you can ask them to refrain from commenting or making suggestions and simply listen when you need to vent.

Everyone makes mistakes, but you’ll likely be able to tell the difference between your partner slipping up and deliberately disrespecting boundaries you’ve set. If they continually ignore your clearly stated limits, you may want to consider whether the partnership has the potential to be healthy at all. If they’re generally able to honor them, it may be a sign that they’re capable of keeping their tendencies toward controlling behavior in check.

#3. Consider Speaking With A Therapist

A therapist may be able to help those who find themselves in a controlling relationship, or who frequently seem to end up in this type of dynamic. Having a partner, friend, or family member who exhibits this type of behavior is never your fault. However, a trained counselor can help you learn to manage or potentially avoid these situations in the future.

First, they can help you identify this type of behavior in your partner and help you understand your options for dealing with it. If it’s non-threatening, they may help you with tactics for managing it such as improving your own self-esteem—as evidenced by a 2017 study which found a correlation between cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and improved self-esteem—which may help you stand up to partners with controlling tendencies. A therapist may also be able to help you with things like becoming more assertive, communicating more clearly, learning to set healthy boundaries, or identifying red flags in new partners. It all depends on your specific situation and needs, which you and your counselor can uncover together.

Research suggests that online therapy may be just as effective as in-person therapy for helping people with a variety of life challenges. If you’re interested in exploring online therapy, consider getting started with BetterHelp. You’ll be matched with a licensed, professional therapist who can offer help for the challenges you may be facing in your life and relationships. Below, you’ll find reviews for BetterHelp therapists who have helped others in similar situations.

BetterHelp Counselor Reviews

"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships and really gaining skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I really like how direct she is, it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her a year!!!"

"Dr. McCune has helped me so much already in a short time! I feel like my life is spiraling out of control and she reminds me that all is well and I can get through it with her support. She is truly a blessing in my life!"

Are you worried about controlling behavior in your relationship?

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