Have you ever been accused of being too controlling by your partner? Are you certain you know the best way to do things? Do you think you are usually “right” in the relationship?
If you can answer yes to these three questions, you may be too controlling.
But take heart! There is a way to leverage your strengths in a way that does not infringe upon your partner or damage the relationship.
But in order to do this, you need to know what controlling behaviors really are (and what they are not) as well as how they show up.
What is control?
Control is essentially the power to influence or direct a person’s behavior or the course of events. This is a strength. But it becomes problematic if our agenda chronically subverts the wishes and dignity of those around us.
At the root of all relationship control issues is fear: fear of abandonment, fear of vulnerability, fear of things going wrong. For example, some hyper-vigilant controlling people are only trying to make sure nothing bad happens (as it likely did in their past).
Controlling behaviors get people to act and behave the way that you want. They work because they play on the feelings (fears, desire for connection, sensitivities) of your partner.
What controlling behavior is not:
There are two common dynamics that often get confused with controlling behavior: holding boundaries and making requests.
1) Holding Boundaries
Controlling behavior is not to be confused with holding boundaries. Holding boundaries just means we have agency about what kinds of dynamics we will, or will not, engage in.
For example, if you have expressed a boundary and shared what you will do if it’s crossed, you are only sharing information and maintaining control over yourself. The other person is free to make decisions based on that information, and you do not interfere with their choices.
Let’s say Elizabeth is in recovery and she can’t have alcohol in the house. She has told her husband John that the sight of beer in the fridge is not safe for her recovery. She lets him know that if she continues to see beer, she will need to live alone to ensure this doesn’t happen.
John may think she is controlling him. But she is only saying what she will do to create the environment she needs.
Boundary issues almost always are related to issues of health and identity. They include how we dress, what we put into our bodies, when and by whom we are touched, and what we believe in (religion or politics).
If you are telling your partner what to do in areas that affect their health or identity, you are being controlling. If you are refusing to let people tell you what to do in areas that affect your health or identity, then you are holding your boundaries.
2) Making Requests
Another thing we often confuse with controlling behavior is making requests. Making a request is simply asking for something. Once we ask, we release control over the outcome. Our partner can either oblige or not.
On the other hand, if our partner does not oblige and we make them pay for it later through lost connection (silent treatment, anger, other negative consequences), then that becomes controlling.
See the difference?
Relationship Control Issues: Most Common Controlling Behaviors
The most common controlling behaviors fall under two broad types of controlling people: The overt controller (bullying, in charge persona, larger than life, domineering, abusive), and the co-dependent controller.
Overt controllers tend to be on the “bossy” side. They are direct and potentially domineering. Here are some common tactics employed by the overt controller. Have a look and see if this is you.
Speaking frequently and at length about what “should” be done. You assume you know best. You are not open to a shared vision or plan. You would rather decide moment to moment what and when is best, and give directions based on mood.
Hijacking the conversation. This includes asking rhetorical questions to make a point, changing the subject, turning the tables, constantly correcting, and deciding what the topic is. Dismissing or redefining the concerns your partner raises is particularly harmful. If they bring something up, you deflect by accusing them of something else, and they defend themselves. But their original point never gets addressed.
Excessive talking. This means not allowing responses and making many points in a row. This keeps your partner unable to process their own thoughts and makes them feel held hostage.
Pretending not to understand. Often, instead of plainly disagreeing, you will say you just don’t understand. This is a refusal to own your position, which creates confusion and makes your partner work hard to be understood. This puts you in control.
Toxic delegation. This means you ask your partner to do something for you, but it needs to be done exactly the way you would do it. You criticize them when it’s not done right.
Projective identification. This is really hard to spot in yourself. This means that you subconsciously trigger the sensitivities in your partner so they behave in a way that reflects your own denied feelings. For example, if you are feeling vulnerable in the relationship, you may behave in ways that bring out your partner’s needy side, so that you can point to their neediness and feel stronger.
Mood swings. These are persistent, not occasional. Your partner never knows what your mood is going to be, so they are kept on their toes. This is a great fit for co-dependent partners. Mood swings control your partner unless they are highly skilled at not reacting.
Needing to be right or to “win.” You don’t like hearing “no” – not one bit. If your partner feels like they must agree with you or there will be trouble, it is not safe environment for them emotionally.
In addition to the overtly controlling behaviors, there is a whole host of other behaviors that are harder to spot. These are carried out by the co-dependent controller.
This is the type of person who needs other people to behave or feel a certain way in order to feel okay.
If you are a co-dependent controller, you may be the people-pleasing and care-taking type. Here are the ways control is achieved:
Martyrdom. This is when you do so much for your partner that you create a sense of indebtedness in them. They will never be as good or giving as you.
Re-activity. You react to your partner’s every thought and feeling. If they say something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You have a stake in what they think, so you try hard to convince them of your point of view.
Care-taking. You put other people ahead of yourself. You need to help, and you feel rejected if your partner doesn’t want your help. Care-taking is another way of controlling the situation.
Guilt-tripping. You feel hurt and make your partner feel guilty. You do this not just sometimes but rather guilt becomes part of the fabric of your relationship. Your partner does things for you to avoid feeling guilty.
Expectation of mind reading. You are so good at reading and meeting your partner’s needs, and you expect them to do the same. You may act unhappy until they guess what you want. You get what you want without having to ask for it, because asking leaves it up to them (ie loss of control for you).
Insisting your partner do things you could do yourself. You need your partner to create for you the life you want or exhibit the qualities you wish you had. You focus on mobilizing them towards your goals, rather than doing it yourself.
Silent treatment or withdrawal. Silent treatment functions to keep your partner anxious about where you stand and what will happen. It renders them unable to fix the problem, and yet at the same time pulls their focus off their own lives. Unless your partner is really strong, they may cater to you just to get things ‘back to normal.’
Relationship Control Issues: 4 Ways to Stop Being So Controlling
If you see these behaviors in yourself, don’t beat yourself up. It’s a learned behavior, and you have likely done what has worked for you as a survival skill in the past.
If you want to evolve and get stronger, there are ways to release these bad habits!
If you do these 4 things every day, you will be certain to release control over others but gain empowerment for yourself.
1) Identify your triggers. When are you most likely to engage in these behaviors? Is it when you feel threatened? What happens just before you feel the need to control the situation?
2) Tune into your fears and desires. Turn inward, not outward. Next time you are engaging in controlling behaviors, ask yourself “What do I fear right now?” and “What do I need?” It could be that you only want acknowledgment. Work on asking for what you need.
3) Take yourself out of the equation. There is a bigger picture. Look at things from the “Us Place,” not in terms of only what you want at that moment.
4) Trust yourself. Ask and let go. You have more resiliency, depth, strength and flexibility than you give yourself credit for. Risk bearing the disappointment. Find out what happens when you don’t control things. Do things fall apart? Then maybe you are not in the right relationship. Trust the process as a way of gathering information.
Letting go of controlling behaviors requires a leap of faith and a deep shift in our old ways of relating. But you can do it!
Remember, if you let go of control and don’t like what you find, then be glad you allowed things to take shape as they really are. Because now you at least have the information you need to hold good boundaries for yourself.
What do you think? Do you resonate with any of these controlling techniques? Let me know in the comments below…