How to Recognize a Controlling Relationship and What to Do About It

A controlling relationship is not pleasant to be a part of. But the tricky part is that most people don’t realize when they are in a controlling relationship. The controlling behavior of a partner is often confused with “caring”, “protective”, “jealous” or “old fashioned”. In this article, we will discuss what to look out for when a partner is controlling and when he/she just “cares” about you. We will also discuss what you can do if your partner is controlling.

Signs Your Partner Is Controlling

They try to keep tabs on you all the time.

You need to understand the difference between a controlling partner and someone who just really misses you and wants to interact with you throughout the day. Someone who genuinely misses you and wants to speak with you throughout the day will text you often and get on a phone call whenever they can. They will text you the first thing in the morning (if you are not staying together) and share the day with you. They will take time from their busy day to reach out to you and ask you how you are. They will be excited to meet you at the end of the day. On the contrast, a controlling partner will ACT like they want to share every living moment with you. But they will be acting out of fear and insecurity instead of the desire to interact with you. An interaction with you is a drug to them that constantly reassures them that they still have you. A caring partner will give you space when you are busy or out with friends. But a controlling partner will text you more when he/she feels like you are in a situation that threatens the relationship; situations such as going to a bar with friends or at a social gathering. The controlling partner will reach out under the disguise of missing you. But an easy way to find out if they are controlling is to tell them something like,
“I miss you too. I am busy right now and can’t talk. Can we speak later?”
They will most likely agree. But if they are controlling, they will be upset later when you speak. A caring partner will understand and just be cool about it. Essentially, a controlling partner will try to affect your behavior by negative reinforcement. Every time you are not giving them full attention, they will get upset and it will most likely lead to a fight or argument. A caring partner will most likely be honest about their concerns instead of doing it indirectly with negative reinforcement.

You will slowly start alienating your friends and family.

This negative reinforcement usually takes a toll on you mostly because it is followed by positive reinforcement when you give them attention. They give you the love and attention you crave in a relationship. You feel intimacy and you get approval from the person you love. What more could you ask for? Slowly, after being in this negative and positive reinforcement cycle for months (or years), you start craving the positive reinforcement and avoiding the negative reinforcement. Every time you go meet your friends and can’t give him/her your full attention, there is a fight later. So, you slowly start avoiding your friends. You only do it when it’s convenient for your partner. And you make sure that they have something to do while you are busy with your friends or family. You will soon realize that you are walking on eggshells. And that’s really no way to live a healthy life.

They criticize you – a lot.

A controlling partner will criticize you a lot. It can be something as little as the way you drink coffee or as big as your career choice. They will criticize you in a way that hurts. If the partner is controlling, this criticism will usually start after you have been together for a while, well after the honeymoon phase is over and after they are sure you love them and can’t leave them easily. The criticism can also come in the form of backhanded comments or playful jokes about things they know you are sensitive about. In contrast, healthy criticism is often said in an attempt to improve your partner's life and self-esteem. For example, if your partner wants to criticize your career, they will sit down and have a real conversation with you. They will try to understand your aspiration and goals and tell you where they think you are going wrong. A controlling partner will try to brush it off in a sentence to put you down: “What are you worried about? Playing guitar is not even a real career.”

You may end up in a codependent relationship without even knowing it.

If your partner is controlling and you don’t end the relationship in the initial stages, it’s likely that you will end up in a co-dependent relationship. Whereas before, you were an independent and well-rounded individual who was going through each day with pride and gusto. Now, you are reduced to someone who often fights with their partner, is constantly stressed and is always walking on eggshells. You are no longer the person who was growing in life. Now you need your partner’s permission to grow. Co-dependent relationships can range from extreme to mild depending on how severe the codependent dynamics is and how long you have been together. If you think you are in one, you should watch out for these signs of an unhealthy co-dependent relationship .

What Should You Do If Your Partner Is Controlling?

1. Watch out for early signs and take things slow.

The best way to deal with a controlling partner is to find out about it early. As discussed before, controlling behavior does not always how up until the later stages of a relationship. A lot of people hide their true nature until they feel a bit secure in the relationship. This is why it’s important to take things slow whenever you start a new relationship. Take your time to get to know the person before making any huge commitments. If there are signs of controlling behavior, take your time to decide if it’s something you can live with and how severe it.

2. Figure out the severity of the controlling behavior and if it can be fixed.

Like everything else in life and relationships, controlling behavior is not just black and white. Someone with a controlling behavior can still become a good life partner if they are willing to learn and are compatible with you. Don’t immediately reject someone just because they have some controlling behaviors. It’s important to know what’s important to you in a relationship. In my opinion, most problems in a relationship, including controlling behavior, can be solved with proper communication and understanding. Even if your partner shows some signs of controlling behavior, you can learn to deal with it if they are willing to communicate and understand. For example, your partner may have some left-over from a past relationship or a bad breakup. One such common issue is when they went through betrayal or when an ex cheated on them. The scars from that betrayal can be the reason they are trying to control you. It might be the reason they get insecure every time you go out with friends. It’s not necessarily a good reason to breakup with them. Not if it can be fixed. If you speak to them about it, you can come to a reasonable conclusion where you can live your life freely and don’t press any triggers that cause them to panic and become controlling. If you can’t figure it out yourself, get help. Learn communication skills in relationships or consider getting couples therapy.

3. Be willing to walk away no matter how you have invested in them.

It’s easy to leave a relationship if it’s only been a few months. But what if you have been with your partner for years? What if you just realized how controlling they have been all these years? You were blinded by love before, but you just can’t take it anymore. At the same time, you can’t get yourself to leave them because you are so attached to them. What do you do then? Again, it’s not always black and white. But you need to figure out your boundaries and what you need in a romantic relationship. It may be a good idea to take a break for a short while to think things through. Once you understand yourself, your boundaries, your needs, your expectations and your goals, you should get back in touch with your partner and try to speak to them. Explain to them how their controlling behavior has been toxic and what you need from them to make the relationship work. If they think they can do it, if they are willing to learn and grow, then try again. But take things slow this time. Just like you are starting a new relationship. Watch out for red flags and try to figure out if they are sincerely making an attempt to improve or are just faking it. Someone who sincerely wants to learn and improve will be open to listening and understanding. They will try to make serious changes in life like going to therapy or reading self-improvement books. They will not agree with you about everything and won’t act like a doormat. On the contrary, someone who is just faking it will most likely do things that they think you want to see. They will agree with what you see and, in some cases, let you walk all over them.

Final Thoughts

A controlling partner is not always a deal breaker. In many cases, the controlling behavior can be the result of a past trauma or childhood issues. And in most cases, it is fixable if the controlling person is willing to accept it and work on themselves. Learning these behaviors and communicating with your partner can help you avoid a toxic codependent relationship and a lifetime of misery. But if they are not the type of person who want to learn and grow, you should most definitely leave them and move on. 
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