“No, this restaurant is better.”
“Why would you go that way? My way is faster.”
“I told you to tell me before you use the credit card.”
“You didn’t tell me you had plans with friends this weekend.”
Some of these statements may sound familiar. The trouble with controlling relationships is that they seem normal at first. Maybe that restaurant really is better or that route really is faster.
But when the corrections come at every turn, when your friend, partner, or even your supervisor questions every decision you make and dictates every action you take, you might be dealing with a controlling person.
Understanding Controlling People
It’s likely your friend/partner/boss/spouse is a good person: Why would he or she try to control you?
There are a few explanations for controlling behavior that may explain why a person wants to maintain control over a situation, or in this case, someone else:
- Insecurity — Controlling behavior is often the result of fear or insecurity on the part of the controller, despite the image of strength and confidence he or she often projects.
- High-functioning anxiety — What might seem on the outside to be the pinnacle of organization, preparedness or leadership — he or she has the day planned down to the minute — could actually be the symptoms of high-functioning anxiety. “They may use control as a coping mechanism to create safety for their own spiraling worries and concerns,” said licensed psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson. “Being the one in charge serves them by allowing them more control over the little details.”
- Low self-esteem — Counterintuitively, a controlling person may also have serious issues with low self-esteem. Maybe he or she was abandoned as a child or experienced some other sort of lasting trauma. “They can’t believe anyone would truly care about them, so they try to control or buy love,” Tina Tessina said.
- OCD — Even without poor self-image or past trauma, people who are controlling in one aspect of life might be subconsciously compensating for a lack of control in another. In extreme cases, the controller might even be suffering from OCD.
Understanding where controlling behavior comes from doesn’t make it any less frustrating, especially if the controller is a friend or loved one whom you don’t want to remove from your life.
What Does Controlling Behavior Look Like?
Much like the term “OCD” — the abbreviation for the clinical disorder obsessive-compulsive disorder — has been commandeered by contemporary culture to mean a love for color-coded day planners, the term “control freak” is often tossed about unceremoniously and synonymously with “type-A personality.” Someone who likes things done their way.
But it’s not always that simple, and what might initially seem like a relationship with a “type-A personality” can take a turn into a controlling relationship.
Signs of a controlling relationship
“Controlling relationships exist any time there is not an equal partnership present,” said Lauren Cook, M.M.F.T. and University of San Diego clinician. “While this can look like traditional forms of abuse, including physical, emotional, financial, and/or sexual abuse, it also can include communication styles that silence, belittle, or demean a partner.”
Here are a few signs that you might be in an unhealthy controlling relationship:
- The person in question is constantly “checking in” with you, asking where you are and/or when you’ll be home
- They flatter you and shower you with gifts, “until you feel you owe them and have to be nice, also,” said Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. and licensed psychotherapist. “Then they gradually increase the pressure until they’re not nice at all, and you are still being nice. Once they get there, they’re controlling you.”
- They tell you to change your clothes, or even break off relationships
- They dismiss your point of view, controlling patterns of behavior aren’t always so overtly manipulative
A controlling partner might insist on doing all the chores, for example. It might seem like a favor, but really, the controller wants things done his or her way. “Typically, lack of flexibility or openness to feedback are less apparent signs that this person is being controlling in some way,” said Dr. Annie Varvaryan, a licensed clinical psychologist. A controlling person might also make you feel guilty, whether intentionally or inadvertently.
So, what should you do about this controlling person?
How to Respond to a Controlling Person
There’s no single correct way to deal with a controlling person, and the most effective response varies depending on the type of relationship. Across the board, the least productive response is to just give in — but there are ways to stand your ground without becoming overly combative.
If you wish to preserve and improve your relationship with a controlling person, let him or her know how you’re affected by their behavior. The controlling person probably isn’t aware of how you’re feeling. When you do, “it’s also essential to communicate how this behavior is impacting you with the use of ‘I’ statements instead of blaming the other person,” Annie Varvaryan said.
Additionally, offer an alternative course of action to replace the controlling behavior. Is your partner constantly making plans for you without asking first? Ask him or her to send you a calendar invitation instead. “This helps the person know what to do and gives them an alternative and/or healthy behavior to engage in,” Varvaryan continued.
You don’t always have to say “no” to a controlling person; after all, there may be times when his or her opinion is helpful and sound. But constantly agreeing just to keep the peace will only reinforce the controlling behavior and establish it as the norm.
If the controller makes a demand of you, ask yourself what you really want to do. “Many people in controlling relationships lose touch with their internal cues and learn to silence their internal voice,” said Dr. Anna Yam, a clinical psychologist. “The next step is assertively stating what you want and assertively saying ‘no’ when you are unwilling to do something.”
Make your choice and be firm, but don’t waste energy trying to change the controller’s mind. “That is likely to lead to a power struggle about the nature of reality — i.e., who is right — that could turn ugly,” said Adelphi University Psychology Professor Lawrence Josephs, Ph.D. Politely agree to disagree and then end — or exit — the conversation.
Seek help if necessary
As does most human behavior, controlling tendencies exist on a spectrum. You may be able to deal with a partner who insists you text when you’ve safely arrived at your destination; it’s another situation altogether if your partner tells you where you can and cannot go, and tracks your phone’s GPS.
Here are some signs that the situation is becoming dangerous:
- Constantly asking where you’ve been/are going and with whom
- Insisting you share your phone and computer passwords
- Monitoring your spending
- Making threats if you don’t comply
- You find yourself changing your behavior or hiding things out of fear of the controller’s reaction
If the relationship is moving toward the danger zone, reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist and make a plan before confronting the controlling person.
“It could include someone you call if you need to talk, having a neighbor on standby, or a plan to call 9-1-1 if needed in a dangerous situation,” Annie Varvaryan said. “Make sure that there are no children present or in the environment if the situation is worsening.” Domestic violence shelters and services can also help you safely exit the relationship.
Can You Still Be Friends?
If you are in a relationship with a controlling person, does this mean your friendship or partnership is doomed?
No. If the situation is safe and both parties are able to engage in open and honest communication, you may be able to enjoy a rich and wonderful relationship with a so-called “control freak.” Just stay true to yourself and remember — you can’t control them, either.
“No one can change the behaviors of others or be responsible for that change,” Varvaryan said. “It is ultimately up to the controlling person to look at how their behaviors are impacting not only others but themselves [and] to consider changing their behaviors.”
Ultimately, you need to do what’s best for you. Remaining friends with this person might be possible with some boundaries and open communication. However, if you’re uncomfortable maintaining this relationship, or feel unsafe in anyway, it’s best to cut ties with this person. If you feel you’re physically threatened to seek help right away.