Let’s Talk Control

There’s a big difference between being controlling and being in control. Being in control is awesome. It means you’re self-aware, confident and that your self-esteem is strong. Being controlling is unhealthy. It’s actually a sign that you feel out of control, that you are living in some fear state and that your self-esteem is relatively low. 

In a romantic relationship, controlling behavior is often couched as being helpful: giving suggestions and advice to make your life better. In reality, it’s criticism, fear and manipulation. It’s someone trying to get you to match their expectations of how things “should” be. 

Sometimes controlling behavior is obvious: 

“I don’t want you hanging around that guy.”

“You need to be home for 6:00 dinner every night.”

“You can’t have the credit card – I don’t trust you with it.”

“I don’t want a wife who works.”

“You look ridiculous in that – here, wear this.”

“You’re doing that wrong. Can’t you do anything right?”

But, other times, it’s harder to identify because it’s done so commonly:

“Are you sure you want a second helping?”

“Do you think it’s a good idea to go out this late?”

“Make a left up here – it’s a quicker route.”

“Here’s a better way to chop the garlic.”

“Is that what you’re wearing to the interview?”

“How many drinks have you had tonight?”

“Did you get to the gym today?”

“He should know what I like after 10 years of marriage.”

“She knew that would upset me!”

“I was just trying to help!”

There are many ways your partner might be trying to control you. Do you recognize any of these behaviors or patterns of control?

  1. Micromanagement: where your partner has an opinion on every little thing you do and the “right” way to do it. 
  2. Dishonesty: where your partner lies so they can do what they want (they hide money or keep you in the dark about overall finances; they lie about something they’re doing if they think you’ll disagree). 
  3. Manipulation: you feel manipulated into doing what your partner wants although you often don’t realize it until after; this could also be when they minimize something you or they have done in order to get their way. “If you care about me, you’ll….”
  4. Over-protective or helicopter parenting: if you have kids and your partner is controlling with you, it’s a sure bet that they’re also controlling with your kids and this is usually how it shows up.
  5. Emotionally bullying behavior: this can look like constant criticism, taunting or gaslighting: I want to say a quick word about gaslighting since I’ve had so many people ask about it. In a nutshell, a person who is gaslighting tries to make their partner doubt themselves and their perception of reality. The gaslighter will go to great lengths to convince their partner that they’re overreacting (so they minimize serious things or dismiss concerns), or they’ll confidently deny truths, events or memories (“That never happened” or “I don’t know what you’re talking about”). The person who is gaslighting will then declare their own thoughts and feelings as the gospel.
  6. Interrupting: This is when there’s a consistent pattern of interrupting you or speaking over you in conversation. 
  7. Making decisions without asking you (cars, where you’ll eat, tickets to events)
  8. Nagging you about your food, smoking or some other health concern
  9. Jealousy: This is all about your partner’s insecurity and fear – it has nothing to do with you. They’re feeling inadequate and they’re letting you know that their self-esteem is low.
  10. Attacking you when you confront them: When you draw a boundary with your controlling partner (“Please don’t speak to me in that way”), they’ll likely attack you (“Why are you yelling at me when I was just trying to help?” or they might even accuse you of being controlling, “You can’t tell me what I can say or feel – you’re being controlling!”)

The 3 Key Traits of a Controlling Person

First and foremost, control freaks rarely know that they are one! They believe that they’re just helping you with their “feedback or suggestions” or by finishing something “so it’s done right.”

They don’t see their controlling behavior as a symptom of their own anxiety.

Anxiety is at the root of all control issues. This anxiety makes them feel internally out of control. This drives them to find something to control to make them feel better and back in some sort of power – that “something” is you (among other things). 

Second, controlling people can’t understand why you see things differently than they do! They haven’t even considered that there’s another way of seeing something. If you see something in a different way, then you are simply wrong. If they feel passionately about something and you disagree, then they’ll get even more upset. You might be deemed stupid, ignorant, immoral, or obnoxious.

They say things like: “Polite people do X” (that’s the only option if you’re polite). “Rude people always Y.” “Loyal people X.” “It’s unprofessional to….”

Lastly, controlling people have pretty low self-esteem and are terrified of being vulnerable. This is one of the reasons they can get angry when you don’t follow their advice. When you don’t do what they’ve said is right, their self-esteem takes a hit so they lash out.  “Why do I waste my time giving you advice when you never listen?”

Six thing to do if you’re in a relationship with a control freak

  1. Figure out your boundaries and stick to them. Your first job is to determine your standards. What do you need to be OK in the world and in this relationship? Understand that you cannot act like a victim or blame your partner. If you don’t like something it’s your responsibility. Your happiness is 100% on you. 
  2. Don’t try to control a control freak. Talk about paddling upstream… trying to assert control over someone who’s determined to hold on to it is pointless. Step back and check in with yourself. It’s up to you to be different. You can’t change them- you can only change yourself. 
  3. Don’t get into a power struggle: Control freaks love a good power struggle. They know they’re right and can’t wait to prove their point to you. They tend to be excellent at arguing their point(s) – and can suddenly seem like high-powered lawyers. Your “opinions” (otherwise known as your feelings and boundaries) will get lost or demolished in their excellent word-smithing and clever language. You’re never going to win if you get into a control tug-of-war with them, so don’t play the game. 
  4. Hold onto a mantra using the “I feel approach.” One of my favorite tools that works excellently here is a tried-and-true technique called the “I Feel Statement”. Basically, you’re telling your partner how you feel when they do a certain behavior. You can find the instructions below. 
  5. Check in with your gut. If you listen to my podcast or read any of my stuff, you know I’m a freak for self-awareness. Here’s another reason for it. You need to check in with your gut if you’re with a controlling partner. How do you feel in a moment? Does it feel like your partner is just trying to persuade you in a thoughtful and open discussion? Or are you feeling pressured or manipulated? Your gut has the answer, and you need to key into it in the moments so you know what’s happening and can intervene on your own behalf. 
  6. Loving Detachment: This is the overarching approach I want you to have with your controlling partner. This means that you don’t take what they’re doing personally. You do your best not to be full of resentment and frustration. Instead, you find the compassion. Your partner is hurting – that’s why they’re being so controlling. This isn’t about you, it’s about them. So, hold your boundaries, but do it with a loving heart. Holding this intention is key to healing your relationship and it’s also key to you feeling happier and more confident.


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