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
on October 20, 2023
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

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. 

“When considering any relationship dynamic, it is crucial to take a moment to examine how larger systemic, cultural, and societal influences impact the relationship,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.  

“While your personal experience of feeling controlled may be valid, it is important to recognize that the motivations and dynamics between you and your partner may be influenced by factors such as culture, trauma history, neurodiversity, and other mental health symptoms. One of the most important things to think about is the motivation behind the behavior for either one of you.” 

As you explore and understand relationship dynamics, incorporate your personal history while also appreciating the complex layers that shape how we connect and relate to one another. Communication styles and definitions of words are not universally shared; each of us has grown up in unique environments. 

“Therefore, it is vital that we continue to open up and approach our partners with curiosity to understand why certain patterns occur and how they feel for us,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Asking yourself questions like “Is my partner controlling me from a place that is deeply rooted in our culture? Or “Am I pushing or controlling my partner for actions and beliefs deeply rooted in culture?” 

So, how do you spot the signs of a controlling relationship, and how to know when to walk away?

What is a controlling relationship?

Being in a controlling relationship can be a confusing experience, making it difficult to understand the toxic behaviors that you’re being subjected to. 

“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 Fedricka licensed psychotherapist

If you find yourself being subjected to constant criticism for your personal decisions, and that you’re unable to set boundaries in your relationship, you could be in a controlling relationship. This toxic dynamic can rob you of your self-esteem, with your partner making it increasingly difficult to maintain your own personal space and autonomy. 

By establishing a codependent dynamic, it’s easier for your partner to control you, with these controlling tactics facilitating an abusive relationship. Before things escalate, it’s important to learn how to spot the warning signs. 

While controlling behaviors can escalate to abusive behavior, this isn’t always the case. In some scenarios, one or both partners may be engaging in controlling tendencies without their knowledge. For example, one partner may introduce restrictions and rules into their romantic relationship, without realizing this kind of controlling behavior isn’t acceptable. 

“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.” 

It can be what they experienced in romantic relationships to be growing up, leaving them to believe these experiences reflect how a healthy relationship should function. Such as people getting confused about how to talk about a boundary and it comes across as control over a request.

In these cases, a healthy relationship could become contaminated by these toxic behaviors, with one partner overstepping the boundaries of control — even if it’s done without malicious intent. 

“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.”

If both partners are introducing controlling tendencies into the relationship, the dynamic can quickly become toxic — with codependency often facilitating these behaviors. 

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.”  

When we think of controlling behaviors, we often imagine strong and harsh statements. However, it isn’t always so clear.  

“We may easily overlook subtle and quieter ways in which partners can exert control, influenced by our perception of gender roles or even race within the relationship,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“For example, crying instead of talking through a situation or pulling away when we don't get what we want. Control is not solely about telling your partner what to do; it can also manifest in the behaviors you withhold unless your partner conforms to your desires.”

It’s important to spot these red flags early on in the relationship, so you can put boundaries in place to protect your well-being and autonomy. If these boundaries are not adhered to, it could indicate an abusive partner is in your midst and you may need to leave the relationship. 

15 signs of a controlling relationship

Dictating how you spend your time and with whom.
Isolating you from friends, co-workers, family members, and overall support network.
Deciding what you can and can’t wear.
Financial manipulation.
Being overprotective or jealous towards you.
Acting paranoid and constantly accusing you of wrongdoing.
Invading your privacy, such as asking to go through your phone, social media, and email accounts, or monitoring your phone calls.
Criticizing or belittling you.
Getting upset with you or attempting to make you feel when they don’t get their way.
Displaying other signs of emotional manipulation, such as gaslighting, blame-shifting, or stonewalling.
Acting extremely clingy and not allowing you any alone time, or preventing you from spending time with your loved ones.
Feeling like you’re constantly walking on eggshells around your partner.
Feeling trapped or stuck in the relationship.
Being constantly worried about upsetting your partner.
Feeling like you’ve lost your confidence, autonomy, 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. After all, controlling your partner in any way is a form of abuse, and you have to trust your gut when these signs start to appear. 

By themselves, these may not seem like a big deal and could be excused as a protective partner, but it’s important to take heed of early warning signs in order to protect yourself. 

What causes a partner to be controlling?

Controlling tendencies don’t just appear overnight, and there are a variety of reasons why your partner may be displaying these toxic behaviors. 

In some cases, your partner may not realize these tendencies are not acceptable or normal in a romantic relationship. However, in other scenarios, these methods of control are part of a wider agenda — indicating an abusive relationship. 

“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.” 

Some partners may enact control in their relationship due to negative past experiences. Such as childhood trauma, attachment trauma, or having experienced previous betrayal in relationships. For example, they may feel the need for excessive control as their partner cheated on them in the past and they’re paranoid about the same situation happening again. In this case, these traits come from a place of low self-esteem, which can hopefully be dealt with and overcome by attending to the root of the fear.

Or, they may have seen these patterns of behavior in their familial relationship, and believe that there’s nothing wrong with these tendencies in the first place.  

There are also a number of personality disorders that can manifest themselves in rigid and controlling tendencies. For example, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, or people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can be overly critical and controlling without realizing it. 

With the help of a licensed therapist or mental health professional, it’s important to explore these avenues in order to effectively deal with the situation. 

Is it possible to save a controlling relationship?

Depending on the circumstances, certain controlling behaviors can be addressed, decreased, and eliminated entirely from your relationship patterns.

“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. 

In this case, it may be necessary to seek professional help in order to find a safe place to chat through your issues and work out how to move forward. 

“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.”

If you’re worried about walking away from the relationship or are afraid of your partner’s reaction, it’s important to seek help and support from your family members or professionals to ensure your safety.*

*National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)

If you are in immediate danger, call 911 and ask for the police.

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