Are you in a controlling relationship?

8 signs of a controlling partner

The control freak will go to great lengths to get their own way; they can be manipulative, often intimidating, highly critical, and usually skilled at debate to the point of distorting the truth and, by their very nature, disrespectful.


If it’s not clear who the boss is in your relationship, it’s highly likely you don’t have a controller in your relationship. Or, more precisely, you both control the relationship equally.

But there are plenty of relationships that are more one sided. A controlling man may be overprotective – even to the point of unreasonable jealously – keep a tight reign on finances and be constantly telling his partner the right way to do things without ever really listening to their suggestions. It is just as common for the woman to be the controller.

“When couples first get together, there is usually a fairly even balance of power – both are working, and when they start living together the chores seem to be evenly split,” says Jo Lamble, psychologist and author of Answers to everyday questions about relationships.

“The turning point often comes with the arrival of the first child. This is because it’s a time when a woman feels very much out of control because it’s all so new. As the months pass, her confidence rises and so does the desire to stick to what works.”

The partner, in the process, is shoved into the background. “Mothers tell me that if they drop the ball, everything will fall apart, so they need to remain in control. The trouble is that women can start feeling resentful that they are carrying a greater load, and men can start to feel useless – especially if they are being told they are useless.”

There are eight aversive strategies used by the controller to get what they want, according to Dr Matthew McKay, clinical psychologist and co-author of Couple Skills.

1. The first is discounting. “The message to your partner is that his or her needs are invalid. They don’t have the importance, the magnitude, or the legitimacy of your needs. The idea is to shame him or her into acquiescence,” he says.

2. The second is a withdrawal or abandonment. “The message here is ‘Do what I want, or I’m leaving’. The threat of abandonment is so frightening that a partner may be willing to give up a great deal to avoid it,” says Dr McKay.

3. Number three is most serious as it involves threatening behaviour. “With this strategy, a partner commits to actively hurting the other as a means of control,” says Dr McKay, who cites a common example involving the sexual wishes of one not being reciprocated by the other: ‘Ok, I won’t ask you to do it again. Maybe I’ll ask somebody else.’ The basic message here is ‘Give me what I want sexually, or I’ll no longer be monogamous,’ he says.

4. The fourth method involves blaming. “The method here is to make your need into the other person’s fault,” says Dr McKay.

5&6. The fifth and sixth strategies involve belittling and guilt-tripping. The latter conveying the sentiment that their partner is unfair or inconsiderate for having a conflicting desire, such as ‘I’ve been cleaning the house all day and you haven’t lifted a finger.’

7. Number seven is derailing. This involves responding to the needs of your partner by changing the focus of the conversation, says Dr McKay. For example, ‘I know, I know, you want more time off from the kids. We’re both going crazy. Listen, I’ve only got two nights to prepare that lecture… Got some heavy work ahead in the library. Did you get my suit from the dry cleaners?’

“The covert message, is his or her desires aren’t worth talking about.”

The final strategy commonly used by controllers the world over is taking away. This involves withdrawing support or pleasure from the other person. “You take away something your partner finds nurturing,” explains Dr McKay, pointing out a good example: ‘I’m not really in the mood; hiking’s getting boring for me,’ said coldly after the partner was reluctant to spend money on a new PC.” The message: ‘No PC, no fun with me.’

Next: Find out how to deal with a controlling partner or browse more relationship advice.

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