It is only natural that we humans try to assert control. Chaos is disconcerting; control, or just the illusion of it, is comforting. But it’s important to understand that being too controlling in situations — relationships in particular — can be damaging at best, and abusive at worst. Chances are, we’ve all seen someone exhibiting the stereotypical control issues in real life and on a screen. They may bark orders, deny their partner friendships, decide whether their significant other can or cannot do something. Often, they use intimidation and ignore boundaries.
But a person with control issues isn’t always as easy to spot. And the behavior — intentional or not — can be more subtle. Defensiveness, self-deprecation, and the silent treatment, are just a few signs of controlling behavior. And over time they can be quite damaging. You may be asking yourself “Am I too controlling?” It’s a good question to ask, as it helps keep you in check. As is the case with all unhealthy behaviors, the urge to control someone else usually stems from a deeper issue — and if you don’t address it, it has the potential to sabotage your well-being, and the well-being of your relationship. Here’s what to know.
What Are Control Issues?
Often, control issues stem from someone’s deep-ridden anxiety. People who are controlling “feel the need to have power over their partner in order to feel secure that the person cares, listens, and won’t leave,” says Massachusetts-based psychologist Isabelle Morley.
Controlling might work in the short-term, but it doesn’t accomplish what you want it to – and it definitely doesn’t contribute to a healthy relationship. According to dating relationship expert and psychotherapist Erica Cramer, controlling relationships are usually unsustainable, because the more controlling party usually isn’t willing to work on themselves.
That said, control doesn’t always look like forcing your opinions on a partner or controlling how they behave. According to Morley, many controlling partners think they’re doing the right thing, which can make their controlling behavior difficult to see at first.
Here are some subtle signs you might be too controlling in your relationship.
Intimacy is part of a solid relationship. Forced closeness, however, is the opposite. According to Morley, seeking and demanding an unhealthy amount of closeness with your partner may be a subtle sign you’re trying to be in control. If your partner is backed into a corner, you may feel more secure they won’t leave you or hurt you; plus, if they feel a sense of obligation to the relationship, you might influence their decisions and behaviors.
If you’ve ever found yourself giving your partner the silent treatment, you might be guilty of trying to control them with your behavior. California-based couples psychologist Nicole Prause says stonewalling, or withdrawing from a discussion, is one more subtle method of exerting control. “While commonly regarded as avoidant, it also is a method of exerting control over a problem, by refusing to negotiate,” she says. In case you need further proof to understand and take actions to prevent stonewalling, relationship guru Dr. John Gottman lists it as one of his “Four Horsemen” — a quartet of behaviors that, if not rooted out, can doom a marriage.
You may not explicitly tell your partner what to do or what not to do, but you subtly try to control their behaviors by giving them the silent treatment, acting moody, or expressing signs of hurt and pain when they do something you don’t like. “For instance, when your significant other leaves to see friends, you don’t respond to his or her texts or calls because you feel abandoned,” says psychotherapist Priscilla Chin. “Or, when they come back, you show that you’re sad and hurt by sitting alone in the dark.” Whether or not you consciously intend this, your actions lead your partner to feel guilty for going out.
4. Prying for details
Even if you don’t try to micromanage your partner’s every move, you may find yourself finding other in-roads to convince them to do what you want. For example, Chin says, you might ask for details of their decision-making process so you can offer input –– even when your partner shows they’re not interested or don’t want your feedback –– or relentlessly persuade them until they finally agree to do things your way. “You think you’re doing this because you care for them and want them to make the ‘right’ decision, but if you really reflect on it, the decisions you are fixating on are more so a matter of different values and preferences,” she says.
5. Playing the martyr
Relationships are a two-way street –– but if you’re a controlling person, you might see yourself as a more valuable contributor than your partner, even if that’s not the case. According to Chin, controlling individuals constantly remind their partners of the “sacrifices” they’ve made for the relationship to create a sense of obligation. Over time, your partner will begin to make decisions based on guilt for not prioritizing you.
It’s normal to put your guard up in a heated discussion –– but if you commonly become defensive at even the smallest sign of criticism or conflict, you could be more controlling than you think. For controlling (read: insecure) people, Prause says it’s difficult to slow the pace of the conversation to really hear what the other person is saying. Because you’re focused on controlling how the conversation goes –– and, more importantly, protecting yourself ––you might respond only with justifications of your own behavior.
Another way to exhibit defensiveness, Chin says, is by responding to kind and constructive feedback with self-deprecation and extreme self-criticism without truly hearing your partner out or trying to figure out what’s upsetting them. “Over time, this behavior deters them from openly expressing their feelings because they’re afraid to upset you or hurt you,” Chin says.
8. Sweeping criticisms
The occasional critique can certainly help keep a relationship growing. While a healthy person focuses on criticism that actually leads to growth, controlling people typically denigrate their partners needlessly by calling attention to something that can’t be changed. For example, you might be controlling if you consistently point out what you don’t like about your partner’s personality, appearance, family, or culture. You may also have an issue with control, Prause says, if you call attention to what you dislike about your partner’s behavior without intending to request a change.
If you’ve found yourself nodding along to any of these questions, Cramer says it’s likely that you’re the controlling partner in your relationship. If you’re reading this and think your partner reflects many of these statements, it’s likely you’re being controlled. Understanding this is important.
“On a deeper level, it’s time to evaluate what you’re bringing to the relationship and what you’re giving up and decide if this is a manageable life for you, or it’s time to even out the power dynamic or walk away,” she says. “In any case, knowing the signs early is always the best way to protect yourself and be a better partner — or be ready to receive the best partner for you.”
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