10 Signs Someone Is Being Controlling

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Controlling people want to have control or assert power over another person. They can be intimidating, overbearing, and domineering in their efforts to get their way by manipulating others. Controlling people can include partners, family members, friends, and colleagues.

Controlling behavior can and does become abusive, especially when it causes a person to feel afraid or intimidated. Read on to learn signs of controlling behavior, why it happens, when the behavior becomes abusive, and how to cope.

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What Is Controlling Behavior?

Coercive (threatening) control is controlling behavior that includes ongoing degradation and threats that can lead to domestic violence. Multiple studies have shown that controlling behavior is associated with a higher likelihood of physical aggression or abuse.

Insecurity and anxiety can lead to controlling behavior. Instead of using healthy coping skills, controlling people want to control the world around them in an attempt to feel better. While this desire for control is unhealthy, unhelpful, and may create relationship conflicts, it's not necessarily abusive.

10 Signs of Controlling Behavior

Though there are many signs of controlling behavior, here are 10 common ones:

  1. Their way or the highway: Controlling people are often inflexible and insist that everything needs to be their way. They often won't adapt and may not be open to others' suggestions or points of view.
  2. Center of attention: They have a strong need to be the center of attention and have the focus on them. Often, when controlling people ask about your life, they will quickly redirect the conversation back to themselves. For example, if you don't feel well or are having a bad day, they may say they feel worse or their day was more difficult than yours.
  3. Highly critical: They may be highly critical of your actions and feel there is a "right" or better way to do things. In their mind, this can be a way of helping you improve. It may include subtle remarks or interrupting you to point out small criticisms of your words, actions, or appearance. For example, if you have an accomplishment, they may comment on how you could have done things better, or they may congratulate you but then make a dig or joke at your expense.
  4. Blame others: Controlling people feel that nothing is their fault. They will use a technique known as projection to shift the blame back to you. They may even accuse you of things they have done themselves so they can't be blamed.
  5. Manipulative: They are highly manipulative. Manipulation is one of the key components of controlling people, because manipulating others gives them a sense of power and control.
  6. Avoid boundaries: Controlling people typically do not respect another person's boundaries. In healthy relationships, boundaries between two people are respected and valued. For the controlling person, a boundary is a hindrance to their need for control.
  7. Guilt trips: Controlling people may guilt you into doing what they want. For example, they may cause you to feel guilty for how you spend your time, such as with friends instead of with them.
  8. Unpredictable: They are often unpredictable. They can go from being happy to quickly getting irritated, moody, and sulking, especially if they can't get their way.
  9. Just joking: They may subtly make fun of you or put you down, and when you question the comment, they say they are "just joking," or they will accuse you of not being able to take a joke. This is different from playful banter, as it has an edge to it and makes the other person feel ridiculed and uncomfortable.
  10. Keeping score: They typically keep a mental scorecard. If they have done something for you, you'll be reminded and they may use guilt to get what they want from you. This scorecard generally stays in their favor, and they will get more than they give.

When Controlling Behavior Becomes Abusive

Relationship abuse is about gaining power and control over another person. But just because someone is controlling doesn't mean they are abusive. Controlling behavior crosses the line into abuse when it results in the other person feeling afraid and intimidated.

If you have experienced threats, intimidation, isolation, or ridicule from your partner, you may be experiencing abuse. You can contact the following places for help, resources, and information:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: Available 24/7. Call 800-799-SAFE (7233), text "START" to 88788, or chat live online at thehotline.org.
  • Love Is Respect: Advocates for young adult relationships. Available 24/7 by phoning 866-331-9474, by texting “LOVEIS” to 22522, or by live chatting online at loveisrespect.org.

Why Are Some People Controlling?

Control is a basic social need. It provides a sense of predictability, stability, and order.

There are a few reasons that people become controlling. These include personality disorders, anxiety, or a sense of over-responsibility for others.

Controlling Behavior and Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are often a cause of controlling behavior. They are typically formed from early childhood trauma, genetic factors, or brain chemistry.

Here are a few personality disorders that typically exhibit controlling behaviors:

  • Histrionic personality disorder (HPD): A person with HPD may be demanding of attention, which leads to manipulation and control-seeking behavior.
  • Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): A person with NPD exhibits controlling behaviors due to needing excessive admiration and lacking empathy for others.
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD): A person with BPD may be manipulative. Their efforts to control their environment may cause those around them to walk on eggshells.
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD): This is different from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is an anxiety disorder. People with OCPD can have perfectionistic characteristics and have a strong desire to be in control of other people, tasks, and situations.

How to Cope With a Controlling Person

People with controlling behaviors can be challenging to deal with. It may be exhausting and at times overwhelming. In these cases, self-care and support are vital to your well-being.

Here are some ways to cope with the controlling people in your life:

  • Support and connection: Reach out more frequently to those in your support network. It's important to have supportive relationships in which others can affirm and validate your reality, feelings, and perceptions.
  • Therapy: Working with a mental health professional can help you gain healthy coping skills to handle the people with controlling behaviors in your life.
  • Yoga and exercise: Stress often gets stored in the body as tension. Yoga and exercise can help release the tension in your body, which can reduce your stress levels.
  • Progressive relaxation: Another way to calm your nervous system and reduce tension in the body is to try progressive muscle relaxation. There are guided meditations for this online that will walk you through consciously relaxing your muscles.
  • Strengthen your boundaries: Learn ways to confidently say no and set firm boundaries.

Partners With Controlling Behaviors

A partner with controlling behaviors may say things that negate you or dismiss your reality and perceptions. If you point out something they have done, they may project it back on to you.

It can be hard not to lose yourself and your sense of reality in these types of relationships, when control is your partner's goal and they are not concerned with what is in your best interest.

A few things a controlling partner might say include:

  • "I was just joking. You're too sensitive. Can't you take a joke?"
  • "I didn't mean it. I don't know why you have to start a fight when everything is fine."
  • “Why did you turn and go that way? I told you to go the other way."

Ways to respond: Regardless of how the controlling partner is behaving, you may need to find ways to respectfully push back. Here are a few tips:

  • Keep calm: The less reactive you are, the better. It's their choice to yell, stomp, and sulk. You can choose to stay cool.
  • Use "I" statements: "I" statements involve speaking from your point of view only. Starting sentences with "You did" or "When you" will only put the other person on the defensive.
  • Take your time: Protect yourself by asking for more time. You can say something like, “I need to think about that. I'll get back to you later."

Parents With Controlling Behaviors

Studies show that over-parenting or controlling behavior in parents can increase anxiety in young adults and restrict the development of independent adulthood.

Some ways controlling behavior from a parent may present include:

  • "What were you thinking? Why did you do that?"
  •  "After all I've done for you!"
  • "A good child would never treat a parent like you're treating me."

Ways to respond: Parents may be controlling for several reasons. It may be due to anxiety, difficulty seeing their child transition into adulthood, or a personality disorder.

  • Be mature: If you act like a mature adult, it may shift their behavior. Be calm and keep your composure on the outside.
  • Be respectful: Even if your parents are not being respectful, you can choose to behave at a higher standard.
  • Set some boundaries: You can say things like, "I understand your concern and I will give it some thought, but this is ultimately a decision I have to make." Or, "If this is too upsetting for you right now, I think we should discuss it later."

Friends With Controlling Behaviors

Friends can also present controlling behaviors. There can be many reasons for this, including their own anxiety, how they were raised, and even cultural differences.

Here are a few things controlling friends might say:

  • “If you really cared about me, you would do as I ask."
  • "I keep asking you to hang out, but you are so busy all the time. I guess you are too busy for me."
  • "Can you help me with the rent payment? Remember, I got you lunch last week."

Ways to respond: It's possible your friend doesn't know they are behaving this way. Here are some ways to respond to controlling friends:

  • Seek first to understand: Approaching your friend with empathy and trying to understand their point of view may give you some insight on handling their controlling behavior.
  • Start with boundaries: Say things like, "No, I'm not comfortable with that." Or tell them you aren't able to do a certain activity with them or hang out with them.
  • Be clear: Be direct in your responses. You can say, "I’ve got a lot going on at the moment and won’t be able to do that for a few weeks."

What If You're the Controlling Person?

If you are a controlling person, awareness is the first step. We can't change what we don't even see. Here are some suggestions on how to improve:

  • Healthy coping skills: You may have learned growing up that you couldn't count on anyone but yourself, so you learned to cope the best you knew how. Those coping skills that once worked can negatively impact your adult relationships. Working with a mental health professional can help you learn healthy coping methods.
  • Soften your tone: You may be used to being blunt and giving commands. Think of ways to soften your tone to make others more comfortable.
  • Seek first to understand: Practice truly listening to what others are saying. You may be operating with assumptions about what is best for them, but that may not include their viewpoint or perspective. Try listening and repeating what you heard back to the person to make sure you both understand.
  • Give a sincere apology: No one is perfect, and we all have areas of growth we need to work on. Sincerely acknowledging your mistakes can go a long way toward repairing and healing your relationships. Prove you're sorry by doing the work to change your behavior.

Summary

Controlling people attempt to assert power and control over others through manipulative tactics such as blaming, being critical, and shutting others down. They may not be aware they are exhibiting this behavior, which often stems from their own anxiety.

You can cope with controlling people by setting boundaries, being clear, and using "I" statements. If you are a controlling person, you can develop a healthy set of coping skills by working with a mental health professional.

A Word From Verywell

Relationships with controlling people can be challenging. Improving your personal boundaries and keeping supportive people close by can help. Make sure to watch for signs that a person's controlling behavior has transitioned into abuse. If you need to end a relationship, lean on a group of trusted people to help you end things in a healthy and safe way.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why can parents be so controlling?

    Parents can be controlling for many reasons, but it is often driven by fear and anxiety. If you are a teen or young adult, it may be that your parents are having difficulty accepting that you're growing up and need space. They may not know how to step back. They may also think that their life experience means they know best.

  • How do you get out of a controlling relationship?

    If you are trying to get out of a controlling relationship with an intimate partner, it's important to first assess your safety. If the controlling behavior comes to a point in which you feel fearful, threatened, or intimidated, you may be dealing with abuse. If so, it's important that you carefully plan your departure with support from others. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help. They are available 24/7 at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or live online at thehotline.org.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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