What If You Are a Controlling Partner?

I've heard from many of you over the years; here's a path toward change.

Posted Dec 30, 2019

In all of my years of blogging for Psychology Today, the piece that has generated the most user mail and views—by a very large margin—is my piece about the signs of a controlling relationship.

As heartening as it is for me to hear from those out there who are recognizing their situation and trying to find a path forward, it is also distressing that controlling relationships are so common. I created a follow-up piece about steps to take if you were with a controlling partner, and that received a tremendous response as well.

Lately, I have heard from an increasing number of people who admit that they read the original piece and recognized themselves.

In other words, they are the controller.

And they are desperate to hang on to their relationship, now that their partner may recognize their behavior too—and they have varying degrees of motivation to truly work on themselves.

Does this describe you? There is hope. 

First, acknowledge the damage you are doing—to yourself and to your partner.

One of the reasons why it is often difficult to get the motivation to change controlling behavior is that you can convince yourself that it is coming from a good place and that it could be helpful to your partner.

You may think that you know what's best for them, or you may think that by micromanaging their lives, they will be better off. You may truly believe that if they don't stay with you, then they will have bad things befall them or they will enter into a relationship with someone who is not as deserving of them as you.

While any of these ideas may have hints of truth to them, it's crucial that you realize that you are harming them by being controlling. When you exhibit the classic controlling behaviors, you are on the spectrum of abusive behavior.

Until you truly recognize that your partner is better off with no one than they are with someone who is attempting to control them, then you are shielding yourself from reckoning with the full damage that your behavior is causing, and you are unlikely to fully engage with the process of changing it.

Try to uncover what is at the root of your behavior.

There are a variety of causes of controlling behavior, from deep-seated psychological dysfunction to past hurt to stress and anxiety exacerbating bad habits. Be careful not to fall into the pattern of excusing your behavior, however. This exercise is not meant for you to abdicate responsibility for what your actions are doing, but rather instead to gain insight into how to address them.

Much controlling behavior comes from trust issues; perhaps you were burned in a past relationship and now you have vowed to keep your new partner on a tight leash so as to not risk getting hurt again. Maybe you come from an abusive or neglectful background yourself, and you never had positive, collaborative and loving relationships modeled for you, and you act in the toxic ways you have picked up from other dysfunctional models.

Maybe you have some cognitive distortions that put you somewhat out of touch with reality or increase your anxiety to unhealthy proportions. Or maybe your relationship itself has been dysfunctional from the beginning, and your bad habits have been positively reinforced until they've grown completely toxic. Or perhaps you have an insecure, suspicious, angry, or narcissistic personality where the only way you have ever felt comfortable is to be in charge of others, getting them to do what they want you to.

There can also be a combination of factors, in addition to many others. Are you willing to do the work to understand the root of your behavior? Seeing an individual therapist can be one of the best ways to do this.

Begin to outline small, specific actions toward change.

Often, this will involve listening—really listening—to what your partner sees as the specifics of the most problematic behaviors, and thinking about ways that you can begin adjusting them and nudging yourself outside of your comfort zone to give up a little bit of control and be vulnerable.

You may be tempted to make grand pronouncements, unrealistic goals that say you will never be jealous again, for instance. But that’s not helpful because it’s not sustainable. Instead, focus on small and concrete goals that can be realistically attained.

Will you go a week without checking your partner’s phone? Will you stop nagging your partner about something specific? Will you stop calling your partner when they are out with their friends? Start small and concrete, and collaborate. That’s the only way to begin building something new and getting it to stick.

Commit to getting support.

Depending on what underlies your controlling behavior, it is likely that you can use a professional counselor or psychologist’s support in making changes. Past traumatic history, difficulty managing uncomfortable emotions, problems with trust, or ingrained dysfunctional habits can all benefit from working with a psychotherapist.

And if the deeper underlying issues don’t seem “worthy” of a psychotherapist, all the more reason to try to explore with some support what may really be leading to your controlling tendencies. A therapist can also be instrumental in setting behavioral goals and helping you stay accountable to them, putting you on a path toward real change—and you won’t have to be alone as you do it. Remember that change takes time.

Remind yourself to work hard in respecting your partner’s autonomy, even when they choose a different path.

Sometimes, the damage done by a controlling relationship is irreversible, or your partner may decide—very justifiably—that continuing on the path of being in a relationship with you is just no longer the best option for them.

If you truly want to make changes to your controlling patterns, then part of that entails acknowledging—even with sadness—that the person you want to be with may be better off without you, and it is their choice and their responsibility to do what is best for them. Put your money where your mouth is and focus on the fact that you are making positive changes in yourself that will serve you well, whether you end up with this person or not.