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Recognizing the Effects of a Controlling Relationship

Does your relationship feel like a pretzel? Try these 8 ways to untwist.

Key points

  • If you suspect your partner is controlling, look for clues in how your partner’s behavior affects you.
  • You may be disregarding your own feelings and needs to get your partner’s approval or manage his or her moods.
  • Trying to keep the peace in a relationship by putting up with controlling behavior will only invite more of it.
  • Hope with no action is a way to deny reality.

Controlling behaviors are often hard to distinguish from the normal experience of being in a relationship. If you suspect your partner is controlling, look for clues in how your partner’s behavior affects you.

 quisp99/Imgur, Inc.
Source: quisp99/Imgur, Inc.

Do you feel like you’re twisting yourself into a pretzel to gain approval or keep up with an endless stream of expectations?

Do you discount your own needs and feelings?

Domineering people have a pattern of using tactics to bend the will of others by provoking guilt, shame, and self-doubt. Some of these tactics are blaming, making harsh judgments, emotional invalidation, and the silent treatment.

Naming the effects makes them easier to identify and understand and gives them more credibility.

Here are eight ways you could be twisting yourself into a pretzel—and how to untwist.

Chasing your tail: The unmistakable feeling of going around in circles to placate a partner who can be moody, critical, punishing, or emotionally withdrawn.

You’re chasing your tail if you exhaust yourself to respond to your partner’s every need while disregarding your own.

How to untwist: Accept that your partner is manipulating you for self-centered reasons. Respectfully state what you can do and what you cannot do and why. Keep your comments short and don’t engage in a lengthy defense. Then follow through.

Muzzled: A self-imposed gag order to refrain from voicing feelings, thoughts, or opinions. Why? To avoid anger or demeaning treatment. You may feel it’s more important to manage your partner’s moods and feelings than it is to tell the truth.

How to untwist: Accept that shutting you down is a power move. Take charge. Expressing yourself is a personal right, so go ahead. The response to derogatory comments is to say calmly, “I need you to treat me with respect,” or “I won’t be intimidated by you.”

Feeding the dragon: To give in to sex with your partner even though you don’t want it to avoid angry backlash. When dragons are refused, they breathe fire. They believe their partners owe them sex, regardless of ill treatment. Dragons use sex for dominance and as an attempt to meet all their emotional needs. They have often mishandled other opportunities for meaningful connection.

How to untwist: Calmly state you don’t feel emotionally safe after being mistreated. Tell him or her what you need to feel emotionally safe. Avoid defending yourself. You have the right to say no.

Heeling: When discussions are more like a competitive game to determine who’s right and who’s wrong. You may feel as though your partner has commanded you to “heel,” as when training a dog. In other words, sit down, stop tugging at the leash, and be quiet. The conversation is one-sided, and issues remain unresolved leading to anger and resentment.

How to untwist: Agree that each of you will take a turn giving your point of view. One partner talks while the other listens, then gives a summary. Debating, defending, or bringing up the past is not allowed. Then focus on reaching a compromise taking into consideration each person’s feelings and opinions. You can respectfully agree to disagree.

Unplugged: Being so preoccupied with relationship issues and their effects that you can't be emotionally present for friends and family. People who are unplugged seldom spend quality time with others. Unplugged parents can’t always nourish the emotional needs of their children.

How to untwist: Realize that ruminating about your relationship issues will keep you stuck in your anguish. You must take action. Get informed about what’s driving the dysfunction in your relationship and create a plan to address it head-on.

Put your worries aside and devote separate time to family and friends. Have meaningful conversations. Ask questions about their lives and be a good listener. If you feel comfortable, share what concerns you about your relationship.

Fictional thinking: To create fiction about oneself, a partner, or a relationship to cope with difficulties. Fictional thinkers bury the facts with their stories and believe what they want to believe. When friends or family members see the truth and try to expose it, fictional thinkers get angry. They defend their stories by denying, minimizing, or normalizing their partner’s behavior.

How to untwist: The first step in resolving issues is to know what they are. Find the truth in your relationship and determine why you’ve chosen to deny it. Be curious, ask questions, and learn what makes a relationship toxic. Fictional thinkers become truthful thinkers when they muster the courage to face painful realities.

Hooked on Hope: To cling to the expectation that a partner will change for the better when there is no real and lasting evidence that change will happen.

Unhappy partners pin their hopes on the possibility that their mates will become aware of harmful behavior, feel shame and remorse, show true empathy, and transform their ways.

Hope hookers keep trying to resolve issues in ways that lead to the same disappointing results.

How to untwist: Hope with no action is a way to deny reality. False hope will only lead to despair. Accept what’s happening in your relationship and get professional help.

Staging: To cover up emotional turmoil at home, stagers collude with perpetrators to present a united front of a “happy couple” when the two of them are with friends and family.

How to untwist: Stop playing a harmful game with your emotional health. Talk about your relationship with people you trust. Address painful issues rather than hiding them.

Hold Yourself and Your Partner Accountable

First, you must understand why you’ve been tolerating your partner’s controlling behavior. You may think it’s to keep the peace but putting up with controlling behavior will only invite more of it.

Try holding your partner accountable for mistreatment by naming and explaining the effects on you. The best outcome is your partner accepting responsibility and treating you with empathy and respect.

If your partner responds to your attempts to resolve issues by throwing a tantrum or with more controlling behavior, you may be dealing with someone who has a serious psychological condition and is not likely to change.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Bear, A.L. (2014) From Charm to Harm: The Guide to Spotting, Naming, and Stopping Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships. Bloomington, IN: Balboa Press, a division of Hay House.