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Signs of Controlling Behavior

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 23, 2020

What is Controlling Behavior?

Chances are good that, at some point in your life, you will run into controlling people. While everyone wants a measure of control over their own lives, controlling people also want to have a say in other people’s lives. At some point, wanting control over minute details of other people’s lives can cross the line into abusiveness. 

Whether dealing with a controlling boss or romantic partner, it’s important to recognize the signs of controlling behavior and learn the best way to deal with it. Many people try to control others out of a sense of anxiety. They may feel that if they aren’t in charge, things won’t turn out the way they want. For some, it’s not a sense of anxiety driving their control issues but a personality disorder.

No matter the reason you find yourself on the receiving end of someone’s controlling behavior, it can leave you feeling embarrassed, angry, and inferior. Recognizing the signs and understanding the cause can help you understand the best way to deal with it. 

Signs of Controlling Behavior

The following are signs of controlling behavior:

They insist on Having Things Their Way

Controlling people often insist everyone do things their way, even 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 will 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. 

Causes of Controlling Behavior

There are several underlying drivers of 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 ersonality, borderline personality, and narcissistic personality. These disorders can only be diagnosed by a licensed practitioner. 

Dealing With 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. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

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

National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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 [Internet}: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

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