If you’ve started to show signs of controlling behavior toward your partner, learning how to stop being controlling in a relationship will be the first step to making it last.
Below, sex and relationship therapist Rhian Kivits explains the root causes of controlling behavior in relationships, and how self-awareness, therapy, and setting boundaries can create a healthier relationship.
Controlling behavior can show up in different ways and it’s often so subtle that you might not spot it right away. Controlling behavior can be a partner monitoring your spending, who you hang out with, what clothes you wear, or showing signs of emotional abuse, such as gaslighting.
“Controlling acts can be manipulative and covert, or very overt, such as taking away a partner's car keys or canceling their social plans to stop them from going out,” says Kivits, who explains that controlling behavior is abusive because it limits a person’s freedom in a relationship.
But why do people get into controlling relationships in the first place? “People tend to get into relationship dynamics that are familiar to them, which means that people who experienced control in childhood are likely to get into controlling relationships when they are adults,” says Kivits.
“When a person has low self-esteem, but fears this can be exposed, they may revert to controlling behavior to avoid being vulnerable. Unhelpful beliefs, including ideas that they're not important or capable, or the sense that things in their life or relationship could easily spiral into chaos because they're not good enough are also linked to low self-esteem,” explains Kivits.
The need for power or feeling like you need to control the situation is also an underlying factor, says Kivits. “Controlling behavior is often driven by the need to feel like the more powerful partner. It can also be driven by uncertainty or fear of losing control. Underneath these feelings may be low self-worth or even childhood trauma.”
Feel like you could be controlling your partner, but you’re not sure why? It could be for a variety of reasons. Conscious or not, the control is creating some sort of perceived safety for you in the relationship. It could be calming anxiety and worry, or it could be familiar from past romantic or family relationships where addiction, codependence, and mental health were causing instability.
But, the main thing is that you start to recognize your behavior and identify the emotional impact it could be having on everyone involved. “A controlling person is responsible for their actions, even when they believe that their controlling tendencies were never intended to hurt or harm their partner,” says Kivits.
It can be hard for the partner of a controlling person to recognize the behavior, or if they do, speak up about it — it can feel especially hard to think about going from a moment of calm to upsetting your partner when bringing it up.
However, Kivits says it’s important to “let them know how their behavior impacts you and request that they stop. It can help to offer concrete examples of how their control manifested and how it made you feel.”
Want to learn how to stop being controlling in a relationship? It will take time and self-awareness, but if you’re willing to change and make a conscious effort to give up control over your significant other, it could help to create a healthy relationship environment.
Here Kivits explores how you could start to change your controlling ways:
Discuss and set boundaries. It can help to discuss examples and scenarios where control became a problem and consider what kinds of behavior or communication would have been appropriate instead.
Assess your behavior. If you can notice scenarios when you become anxious, preoccupied, or inflexible you can then consider whether there’s a pattern or whether certain situations trigger your need to control. Think about why the control helps you feel better in these moments.
See a therapist. They will be able to explore examples of controlling behavior with you, help you identify and address the root causes, support you to get clear on what healthy relationship behaviors look like, and hold you accountable for agreed changes as the therapy progresses.
Some people who are controlling in relationships don’t realize the extent of their actions and are caught up in a cycle of low self-worth — so recognizing this can be the first step to letting go of control.
“It may be that once they're aware that their behavior is causing harm and distress, they'll be motivated to explore self-help or seek professional support,” Kivits says.
Of course, not everyone wants to change. “In the case that a controlling person refuses to self-reflect and make efforts to change their behavior, it may be that you will need to consider whether the relationship is safe and healthy for you.”
Red flags include them becoming defensive and angry when you attempt to bring up their behavior and their controlling behavior becoming worse, sometimes bordering on domestic violence.
If you feel you’re in a controlling relationship which could damage your mental health or physical health confide in people you trust, such as close friends and family. If you want advice from a trained professional talk to a psychologist or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.