What To Do If Your Partner Is Exhibiting Controlling Behavior

Medically reviewed by Corey Pitts, MA, LCMHC, LCAS, CCS
Updated May 11, 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.

Every relationship dynamic can differ, and romantic relationships can face various challenges. However, recognizing when a dynamic is unhealthy can be crucial for your health, safety, and well-being.

If you’re concerned that your partner may be controlling, it may be a sign to look into your relationship further. A relationship with a controlling partner may negatively impact your mental and physical health, so it can be crucial to notice the potential signs of this dynamic when they occur. Becoming familiar with what makes a behavior controlling can be a starting point. 

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Are you worried about controlling behavior in your relationship?

Signs of controlling behavior in a relationship

When someone is familiar with the red flags of controlling behavior, they may be able to recognize if these behaviors are present in their relationship or the relationship of a loved one. This behavior can happen in many different types of relationships and be exhibited by people from various backgrounds. While controlling behavior is often discussed in romantic relationships, it can also appear in relationships with parents, siblings, friends, or coworkers. Controlling traits can be displayed by anyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and life background. 

Controlling behavior can take many forms, but it’s often characterized by a desire to gain power over people or situations. It may reflect a person’s desire to be entirely in charge 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 specific details 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

  • Telling their partner they are not “enough” or must change core aspects of their personality to “fit the relationship” or their expectations 

  • Using guilt to try to make their partner behave differently

  • Attempting to stop a partner from partaking in their hobbies 

Several behaviors can be controlling, and the above list may not be exhaustive. In addition, this type of behavior may not become noticeable until a relationship has progressed. It can also range from subtle and well-disguised to overt, aggressive, and threatening. In some cases, controlling behavior may be a sign of emotional or mental abuse

When identifying if your partner is acting controlling, ask yourself if their behavior regularly causes you to become insecure or believe you are not loved. If they are convincing or forcing you to make choices you’re unhappy with, it may be a sign of this type of dynamic. If you’re unsure, trusted friends and family members who have witnessed your dynamic may be able to help you identify red flags. A qualified therapist may also assist you with the identification process.

What causes controlling behavior?

Learning more about where a controlling partner’s behavior may come from may also help you identify if you’re in a relationship with someone acting this way. 

One potential cause of controlling behavior is narcissistic tendencies. Although narcissistic behavior may sometimes be associated with mental health conditions like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), people can have narcissistic tendencies without having a personality disorder. One study also found that people with controlling traits may score lower on a "self-affection” scale, showcasing a profound dissatisfaction with oneself). For that reason, people who exhibit controlling behavior may struggle with their levels of self-esteem, which may be a cause of their attempts to control others. 

Controlling behavior can be serious. However, lower levels of controlling behavior may have a more easily identifiable cause that may be treatable or worked on through healthy communication. For example, perhaps a person’s partner doesn’t like their work friends and tries to get them to spend less time together. In this case, they may believe they are being left out or want more connection in the relationship, which might be solved by more quality time together and healthy conversations about the root of the challenge. 

While understanding the causes of controlling behavior doesn’t necessarily make the behavior right or healthy, having a discussion may be helpful. You can also consider attending couples therapy with your partner if the situation is not abusive, as a therapist can guide you in healthily navigating the conversation with each other. 

Controlling behavior vs. personality disorders 

"Controlling personality disorder" is not a recognized condition, and people without personality disorders can have controlling traits. Associating any mental illness with a negative trait that isn’t necessarily a symptom can lead to stigma, so it can be crucial to identify behavior as it is and consider reaching out for professional guidance if you’re confused. 

In some cases, manipulative behavior may be associated with certain personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder. If you believe you or a loved one is living with a personality disorder, consult a therapist to explore your treatment options. You’re not alone, and help is available.

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How controlling relationship dynamics may develop

If you have a controlling partner, it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong or are at fault for their choices. There are many ways this dynamic may appear or develop. Identifying these signs may help you notice when you or someone you love may be experiencing this type of relationship dynamic. 

Ego

It may indicate an unhealthy dynamic if your partner acts like they know more than you, is more experienced, or is otherwise more equipped to make decisions. People have strengths in different areas. However, there can be a difference between asking someone to show their expertise or opinion and letting them make decisions for you. Controlling dynamics often fall under the latter category. 

Love bombing 

Love-bombing may make it challenging 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” occurs when someone lavishes another with affection to manipulate them. The findings of a 2017 study suggest that love-bombing is a strategy that individuals with high narcissistic traits and low displays of self-esteem might employ. However, since receiving romantic attention and affection is often enjoyable, some may hesitate to see when it has crossed the line into manipulation or control.

An escalating dynamic 

A controlling dynamic can develop gradually over time, which may make it more challenging to spot. A partner exhibiting controlling behavior may seem the opposite at first. They may try to gain the other’s trust or struggle more over time to manage their thoughts or feelings. 

What to do if your partner exhibits controlling behaviors

Humans are complex, as are 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 balanced dynamic may be happier. 

One study found that “partners in the happiest pairs both believe they have a measure of power.” If one partner is controlling, it may cause problems in the relationship. In some cases, controlling tendencies can lead to aggression or violence. In this case, prioritizing your safety and leaving the situation can be crucial. You can contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at the beginning of this article to avail of support over the phone or via chat within the US. 

Every situation can be different. However, if you’ve noticed some controlling tendencies in your partner’s behavior, it can be crucial to take action. Below are a few ideas for coping with this behavior. 

Express how their behavior makes you feel

Communication may be a helpful first step when facing a challenge in your relationship. It’s possible that your partner doesn’t realize that they’re acting in a controlling manner or that it’s negatively impacting you. Speaking to them about how their behavior makes you feel may help them recognize the discomfort or harm they’re causing and make adjustments. 

When bringing up this subject, try to use “I statements” (“I felt…”), use specific examples, and try to keep the overall tone of the conversation calm. Begin intending to work on the problem together instead of accusing or blaming.

Set healthier boundaries

Boundaries are limits you can set to keep yourself safe. Setting boundaries may be helpful if you find yourself in a relationship with someone exhibiting controlling behaviors because you can help them understand your discomfort. 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. 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.

It can be normal to make mistakes, but setting boundaries can help you distinguish between your partner making a mistake or deliberately disrespecting the boundaries you’ve set. If they continually ignore your clearly stated limits, consider whether the partnership has the potential to be healthy. If they’re generally able to honor your boundaries, it may be a sign that they’re capable of keeping their tendencies toward controlling behavior in check.

Consider speaking with a therapist

A therapist may be able to help those who find themselves in a controlling relationship or those who frequently seem to end up in this type of dynamic. Having a partner, friend, or family who exhibits this behavior is not your fault. However, a trained counselor can help you learn to manage or potentially avoid these situations in the future.

Your therapist can start by helping you identify the causes of your partner’s controlling behaviors. Therapy may help you or your partner build your self-esteem, as evidenced by a 2017 study that found a correlation between cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and improved self-esteem. A therapist may also help you become more assertive, communicate more clearly, learn to set healthy boundaries or identify red flags in new partners. 

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Are you worried about controlling behavior in your relationship?

Consider alternative treatment options 

In some cases, living with a controlling partner may make it challenging to avail of in-person therapy. In these cases, you may benefit from talking to a therapist online through a platform like BetterHelp for individuals or ReGain for couples. 

Online platforms allow individuals to choose a session time that works for their schedule and between phone, video, or live chat sessions with their therapist. When you sign up, you can get matched with a therapist who has experience treating the challenges you’ve experienced. 

Research suggests that online therapy may be as effective as in-person therapy in supporting individuals through various life challenges. In addition, studies have found it to be more cost-effective for individuals and groups. 

Takeaway

If your partner exhibits controlling behavior, it may be a cause for concern. There are a few ways to move forward when noticing this behavior, including open conversation, asking for support, setting boundaries, or talking to a therapist. For further guidance in your relationship, consider contacting a therapist online or in your area to get started.
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