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Signs of Controlling Behavior

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 07, 2022

What Is Controlling Behavior?

Everyone wants a measure of control over their own lives. But controlling people also want to have a say in the lives of others.

When you’re on the receiving end of controlling behavior, it can make you feel embarrassed, angry, or inferior. In severe cases -- which can sometimes include a pattern of behavior called coercive control -- you might face threats, intimidation, or abuse.  

Find out how to spot the signs that someone is trying to control you. Then, you can learn practical ways to take charge of your life.

Signs of Controlling Behavior

Some of the signs are:

They insist on having things their way

Controlling people often insist everyone do things their way, even when it comes to small issues that are a matter of personal choice. Your partner might insist you change clothes if you’re wearing something they don’t like. They may refuse to back down even after you make it clear you disagree with them.

They refuse to accept blame

No one likes to admit they made a mistake, but people who are controlling seem incapable of admitting fault. Even when their actions are clearly the issue, they'll find some way to blame you for what went wrong. It may be as petty as accusing you of distracting them when they made a mistake. 

They need to be the center of attention

If you have a victory, no matter how small, you can count on the controlling person in your life to try to upstage you. They want to be in the limelight regardless of the circumstances. 

They’re unpredictable

They will keep you uncertain about what they will do next. They may swing between telling you how great you are and sulking because you don’t do what they want. The goal is to keep you guessing and focused on them. 

They lie

Controlling people want to control your reality. Truth is the bedrock of reality. They will try to deny your reality by lying about their behavior or yours. They may insist you’re the crazy one when you try to contradict them. 

They want to be in charge of finances

If you’re married or living with a controlling person, they probably want to handle all of the money. They may claim that they’re better at it than you are or that you spend too much. They want to control access to money as a way of controlling what you do. 

They dictate where you can go

One of the most intrusive ways someone may try to control you is by controlling your movements. They may want to know where you are all the time. Whether it’s by threats, intimidation, or pouting, they try to isolate you from other, supportive people in your life. 

What Is Coercive Control?

It’s a pattern of abusive controlling behavior that can turn violent. Another name for it is intimate terrorism.

Coercive control is when someone -- usually an intimate partner like a date or a current or former spouse -- tries to dominate your life. They may intimidate you, keep you isolated, threaten you with violence, or terrorize you with actual violence.

The controlling person might limit your freedom and independence by:

  • Keeping you away from family, friends, and other supportive people -- or making you feel guilty when you spend time with loved ones
  • Putting financial, social, and emotional barriers in your way that make it hard to get out of the relationship
  • Making you fear for your safety, or the safety of loved ones or other people you know

They might also:

  • Deprive you of sleep and other basic needs
  • Stalk you and keep a close eye on where you go, who you see, and who you talk with
  • Question you a lot
  • Embarrass you
  • Gaslight you, or make you question your own beliefs

Coercive control can fill you with fear even if your partner isn’t physically violent with you -- and the terror and trauma could last after your relationship ends.

Causes of Controlling Behavior

Several things can drive controlling behavior.

The most common are anxiety disorders and personality disorders. People with anxiety disorders feel a need to control everything around them in order to feel at peace. They may not trust anyone else to handle things the way they will. 

Controlling behaviors can also be a symptom of several personality disorders, such as histrionic  p ersonalityborderline personality, and narcissistic personality. These disorders can only be diagnosed by a licensed health care professional. 

Dealing With Mild Controlling Behavior

Sometimes controlling behavior is simply an annoying trait, but it may cross the line into abusive behavior. Once you determine the severity of the behavior, you can decide how to handle it. 

If the controlling behavior is mild, it can help to discuss it with the offender. You can tell them how their behavior makes you feel, using “I” statements to avoid sounding like you're blaming them. A sentence that begins with, “I feel,” will likely be better received than one that starts with, “You always.” You will probably also need to set clear boundaries to see a change. 

If your partner is isolating you from family and friends and using different tactics to wear you down so that it’s easier to give in than to argue with them, you may be in an abusive relationship. If this is the case, the National Domestic Violence Hotline recommends creating a safety plan to improve your situation while maintaining your safety. 

Signs of Danger and How to Get Help

You may be in an abusive relationship if your partner isolates you from family and friends and uses different tactics to wear you down, so that it’s easier to give in than to argue with them.

Relationship violence can begin slowly, and it can be hard to spot. It can include physical or sexual violence, threats of either, emotional abuse, and stalking.

Some signs your relationship might become violent are:

  • Your partner makes you feel afraid or disrespected
  • Blames you for things that aren’t your fault, including how they treat you
  • Forces you to do things you don’t want to do
  • Keeps doing hurtful things to you after they’ve promised to change their ways

If someone forces or pressures you to be sexual with them when you don’t want to, that’s sexual violence.

Even if you’re not sure whether you’re in a violent controlling relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233). You can also chat online with someone who’s trained to help. The hotline and the chat are free, available around the clock, and you don’t have to share your name.

You can also set up a safety plan that helps you lower your chances of being hurt by your partner. To do this, you’ll answer some questions about yourself and your life. You can do it alone or ask a loved one or someone else you trust to help. The plan includes info about you and your life that could make you safer at home and other places you go each day.

If you’re in danger now, call 911 right away.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Health.gov: “Watch for Warning Signs of Relationship Violence.”

Psychology of Violence: “Coercive Control in Intimate Partner Violence: Relationship with Women’s Experience of Violence, Use of Violence, and Danger.”

DomesticShelters.org: “A Guide to Coercive Control.”

CDC: “Fast Facts: Preventing Intimate Partner Violence.”

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: “Anxiety Disorders.”

National Domestic Violence Hotline: “Create a Safety Plan.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Borderline Personality Disorder.”

Journal of Interpersonal Violence: “The prevalence and typologies of controlling behaviours in a general population sample.”

Physiology Today: “20 Signs Your Partner Is Controlling.”

Procedia-Social and Behavioral Science: “Socio-psychological Analysis of Controlling Personality.”

Sheldon, P., Rauschnabel, P., and Honeycutt, J., The Dark Side of Social Media: Psychological, Managerial, and Societal Perspectives, Academic Press, 2019.

Sociological Spectrum: “Emotional Abuse and Controlling Behaviors in Heterosexual Relationships: The Role of Employment and Alcohol Use for Women and Their Partners.”

StatPearls: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

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