7 Steps to Breaking Free of a Controlling Partner

6. Understand that your feelings may be mixed.

Posted Feb 05, 2016

The tremendous response to my post, "20 Signs Your Partner Is Controlling," was both heartening and depressing. As happy as I am to get the word out about these warning signs within relationships, the sobering fact remains: Too many people are suffering in toxic relationships.

Many of you wrote to me to say that your partner fits the controlling profile, and that you feel somewhat stuck. Of course, your plan of action may vary depending on your level of entanglement: Leaving a marriage of 40 years is very different than saying no to a fifth date. But if you have recognized a controlling partner, are looking to make changes, and could use a little bit of guidance, read on.

ProStockStudio/Shutterstock
Source: ProStockStudio/Shutterstock

1. Assess your level of safety.

For some, leaving a controlling relationship may just mean a few uncomfortable words and an otherwise clean break. For many, though, the controlling behavior will persist during the breakup and after — and become a personal threat. If your partner is controlling, then even if they have never been physically violent, there is a real risk that the anger and grief they feel over a breakup may push them over the edge with increasingly threatening behavior. It can be quite simple: They are threatened by the ultimate lack of control — being left by someone. Be realistic about what your partner may be capable of. Document your concerns, and keep law enforcement in mind as an option for added protection. Even if you aren't at a point where you are ready to leave, it is important to have a safety plan. If you are already within a controlling relationship, the risk of escalation may be closer than you think: Check out thehotline.org for further guidance in assessing and increasing your safety.

2. Assemble your support system — in whatever ways you can.

If you have been in a controlling relationship for a long time, there is a real chance that you have become at least somewhat isolated from friends and family, by your partner's design. He or she may have disapproved of certain relationships and ultimately wanted to increase his or her control by decreasing the number of "outsiders" you had contact with. Additionally, your embarrassment or discomfort with the troubling aspects of your relationship may have made you paint a rosier picture to friends and family than was really true. You may feel intimidated or ashamed to tell them what's really going on. Take a deep breath and do so anyway. It is crucial that if you want to make changes, you strengthen your ties with trustworthy friends and family who can help see you through this process. Whether it's a sister or a coworker, a neighbor or an old, dear friend, the more people who truly have your back, the better off you will be. A trusted doctor or clergy member — or, of course, a therapist — are just some of the professionals who can help as well. 

3. Map out different paths and scenarios.

Get specific about short-term and long-term plans and goals. If you are going to leave a household, what are the financial steps you need to take? Where will you stay? What possessions or belongings do you need with you? If you are going to ask your partner to leave, what legal (and, if necessary, physical) protection will you have in place if they refuse? If you are going to give an ultimatum, such as seeking counseling together, how long will you give them to meet it? If there are children involved, how will you keep them emotionally and physically secure — and what will you tell them? What will you say to mutual friends — or your partner's family? None of these questions is intended to intimidate you or paralyze you into inaction; on the contrary, the more you can anticipate the logistical challenges of the changes you're hoping to embark on, the less likely they are to bring the process to a grinding halt. Preparedness and predictability equal power.

4. Practice self-care.

Making up your mind to confront a partner about controlling behavior or to leave the relationship is challenging. As with many things in life, the right thing to do can be far from the easiest. There are few times when it is more important to pay attention to your eating, sleeping, and mental health, and to keep up your strength. Of course, the cruel paradox is that this will also be the time when eating, sleeping, and emotional health fall to the bottom of a very long list of concerns that you seemingly need to prioritize first. But don't ignore your health. It may just be devoting five minutes to taking a walk, meditating, or listening to a song you love. Or maybe it's making sure that you stick with the wine in your glass and avoid the hangover of finishing the bottle. Overall, it's the small daily steps of taking care of yourself during this challenging time that will add up to make a very big difference.

5. Reach out and ask for help — really.

You've already identified who your support system is. Keep them in the loop, and be specific about what you need. After however long you've been in a controlling relationship, it can feel downright uncomfortable to have someone considering your own feelings and needs above their own; so many people in your shoes stop short of actually asking for help. Or they tell their story, and when their friends don't follow up, they never bring it up again. Ask the people you trust for whatever it is you think they can do to help. Many times they will be grateful for the specifics, because people watching their loved ones go through this often feel uncertain of what to say and what to do. From letting your loved one stay the night to having dinner together, helping you install a new door lock, or just being "on call" for a few minutes of phone conversation and support — this is what friends are for. But it is up to you to ask.

6. Understand that feelings can be mixed.

It's a common story: Someone gets motivated and inspired to leave a bad relationship — or even just have a real conversation with a partner about problematic behavior. Then, in the light of day the next morning, things feel much scarier. Or they've determined that their relationship is unhealthy and they need to leave, and then their partner (perhaps sensing them pulling away) does something so sweet or loving that they have second thoughts. The more you can anticipate this, the more likely you are to follow through with your original plan. That doesn't mean you have to stuff your feelings, though: Being all-or-none about your relationship won't do much good. You can and should acknowledge that there were good parts — otherwise you wouldn't have stayed as long as you did. And it can help you understand how you fell into the pattern, to better avoid it next time. Talk, write, and think about some of the things you will miss, and acknowledge that you might not feel certain each and every day that you are making the right choice. That's okay; it's part of the experience.

7. Keep following through.

Leaving a relationship — or even just trying to make changes within one — is a dynamic and continuing process, not a singular event. It takes care, planning, and multiple steps. If your first attempt to make changes or get out has failed, take a breath and give yourself a break. Then start again. Rely on your support to help you keep your eye on your long-term goal. Is this controlling person really who you want to be with in six months, a year, 20 years? To give your life to? Each bit of headway you make, no matter how small, takes you closer to being true to yourself and getting the life that you deserve. It's not a failure to have your first attempt not work out. If you can bolster your support and learn from the challenges, then your second — or even seventh — attempt may be the one that sticks. And that could change your life — truly.

Wondering if your partner may be controlling? There are 20 signs here.

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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a speaker and licensed clinical psychologist. She is the author of The Friendship Fix and serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. Her mental health advice column, Baggage Check, has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more than 11 years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and goal-setting, and she is a TV commentator about psychological issues. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.