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What Is a Controlling Relationship? 15 Signs to Look Out For

How to spot the signs of a controlling relationship, and how to know when to walk away

A controlling relationship is one where one person exerts control over their partner, monitoring and dictating different aspects of their life, such as their finances, social life, and even appearance.

When we think of abusive or toxic relationships, our mind might immediately go to physical abuse or aggression — but even when a partner isn’t violent, controlling behavior can be incredibly damaging to your mental health and relationship. 

Controlling behavior in a relationship isn’t always obvious, so it can be hard to spot. Control can manifest in many ways and varying degrees, and not every controlling partner will act the same way. 

We asked an expert how to spot the signs of a controlling relationship, and how to know when to walk away.

What is a controlling relationship?

“A controlling relationship is one in which one or both partners attempt to influence or even dictate the behaviors of the other partner,” says Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick, a licensed psychotherapist

“While there are many times when only one partner is engaging in these behaviors, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s the possibility in many relationships where both partners are engaging in controlling behaviors in similar or different ways.”

Controlling behavior in relationships is often a sign of emotional abuse, but not always. “Controlling behavior isn’t always a form of emotional abuse because there are times when someone might display controlling behaviors unknowingly out of fear or insecurities,” explains Dr. Fedrick. “This doesn’t make the behavior appropriate or acceptable, but it also doesn’t mean it is abusive or malicious.” 

What are the signs of a controlling person?

Controlling behavior in relationships isn’t always easy to spot, so knowing the signs of a controlling partner can help recognize unhealthy behavior in relationships.

“Controlling partners are not always overt with their control and they might do this in more subtle ways, such as passive-aggressive comments or through making ‘jokes’,” explains Dr. Fedrick.

“But frequently as the relationship progresses, these behaviors become more overt and are presented as demands versus suggestions.”  

15 signs of a controlling relationship

  1. Dictating how you spend your time and with whom. 

  2. Isolating you from friends, family, and overall support group. 

  3. Deciding what you can and can’t wear. 

  4. Financial manipulation.

  5. Being overprotective or jealous towards you. 

  6. Acting paranoid and constantly accusing you of wrongdoing. 

  7. Invading your privacy, such as asking to go through your phone.

  8. Criticizing or belittling you.

  9. Getting upset with you or making you feel guilty when they don’t get their way. 

  10. Displaying other signs of emotional manipulation, such as gaslightingblame-shifting, or stonewalling.

  11. Acting extremely clingy and not letting you spend any time alone or apart.

  12. Feeling like you’re constantly walking on eggshells around your partner.

  13. Feeling trapped or stuck in the relationship.

  14. Being constantly worried about upsetting your partner.

  15. Feeling like you’ve lost your confidence or sense of personal identity.

None of these behaviors are acceptable in a relationship, and if you notice your partner showing a pattern of controlling behavior that makes you feel unsafe, it shouldn’t be ignored.

What causes a partner to be controlling?

“There are various reasons that a partner might demonstrate controlling behaviors,” says Dr. Fedrick. “The biggest cause of attempting to exert control is rooted in fear. This could be fear of something not going the way they want, fear of losing a partner, fear of feeling rejected or abandoned, fear of embarrassment, etc. Similarly, controlling behaviors are often the manifestation of deep insecurities.”  

Is it possible to save a controlling relationship?

In some situations, controlling behavior can be fixed. “It’s possible to save a relationship like this if the controlling partner is willing to increase awareness and work towards change,” explains Dr. Fedrick. 

If your partner is showing signs of controlling behavior, Dr. Fedrick suggests talking to them first. “It’s not guaranteed that your partner is even aware of these behaviors, nor that they are engaging in them intentionally to be controlling,” she says. 

“Talk through how their behaviors are impacting you. It’s helpful to have specific examples so that you can effectively communicate the behaviors you would like for your partner to work on changing.”

However, this is only the case when the relationship isn’t abusive. If your partner is unwilling to change their behavior or acknowledge how it’s affecting you (and the relationship), Dr. Fedrick says the relationship is probably unsalvageable. 

“Self-awareness is key to any necessary relational changes because the partner engaging in these behaviors has to first recognize and take accountability for the dysfunctional behaviors,” she says.

“If the controlling partner is incapable or unwilling to see how their behaviors are impacting their partner, and are unwilling to try to change, then it’s likely best to walk away.” 

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