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Controlling Husband: The Signs, Reasons, and Tips to Handle It

February 9, 2024

Do you feel like you don’t have enough control, autonomy, and independence in your marriage? Being in a relationship with a controlling husband is bad for your mental and emotional well-being.[1] In this article, I’m going to show you how you can tell that your husband is controlling and what you can do about it.

Key Takeaways

  • A controlling spouse often does similar things to loving ones, but they take it to an extreme
  • Controlling your spouse isn’t a sign of love. It’s a sign of abuse
  • Dealing with a controlling spouse means setting and enforcing boundaries
  • The more support you have, the better equipped you are to deal with a controlling husband
  • If your controlling husband refuses to change, you might need to leave him

Controlling Husband in a Relationship: Why Does He Act This Way?

There are so many different reasons that a man might become a controlling husband. He might have low self-esteem himself or he might not know how a healthy, balanced relationship is supposed to work. He might have narcissistic tendencies or struggle with his mental health.

He might also feel powerless at work or had an abusive childhood and use his control at home to make himself feel strong and powerful.

In all honesty, the reasons behind his controlling behavior are something for him to work through with his therapist (and he almost certainly needs one). When we focus on why he acts the way he does, we risk making excuses and ignoring the important aspect of this problem.[2]

His controlling behavior is harming you. Why he’s doing it is something for him to work through. If you have a controlling husband, you need to be your own top priority because, sadly, you’re not going to be his.

11 Signs of a Controlling Husband

You might think that controlling behavior is easy to identify, but that’s not always the case. Lots of controlling or abusive partners do an incredible job of hiding what they’re doing, providing harmless explanations or making you think that it’s normal.

Here are some of the signs that your husband is controlling rather than caring or supportive.

1. He always has to know where you are

One sign of a controlling husband is that he always wants to know where you are and what you are doing. One of the things that can sometimes make it difficult to see this as a sign of control is that it exists on a spectrum.

At the most natural and harmless end of the spectrum, your husband might ask you what your plans are for the day. He’s interested in your life and showing that he cares.That’s usually fine.

At the other end of the spectrum, he might demand that you tell him every time you leave the house and let him know where you are going, who you are with, and when you’ll be home. He might insist on always having this information, even when it can’t possibly affect him, for example while he’s at work.

At the bad end of the spectrum, he might also claim that any changes to your plans are you “lying” to him.

No matter where on the spectrum your husband’s behavior lies, the chances are that he’ll act as if he’s firmly at the healthy end, and he’ll expect you to respond to his behavior as if it’s loving as well.

A simple (though not foolproof) test is to see what happens if you don’t give him the information he’s asking for. If he asks where you’re going today, you could just say “I haven’t decided yet.” If he accepts that, it’s probably healthy. If there’s a big conflict or row, he might be controlling.

This really isn’t foolproof, though. Guys who are perfectly respectful and loving can become concerned if you suddenly start being vague rather than talking openly about how you spend your time. In those cases, he’d be more likely to ask you calmly and directly, rather than becoming angry or aggressive.

Paparazzi taking a photo

2. He doesn’t want you to have any privacy

As well as wanting to know where you are, a controlling husband wants access to every part of your life.[3] Especially anything that really isn’t his business.

He might walk in on you when you are in the shower. He will probably want all of your online passwords and access to your social media. He might demand that you install tracking software on your phone.

In some cases, he will invade your privacy without your permission. For example, he might put a tracking device in your car, install software on your computer, or place cameras in your home.

Man peeking over his wife's cellphone

3. He doesn’t offer you the same kind of transparency that he demands

A controlling husband will often demand access to every part of your life, as I just explained. A clear sign that he knows this isn’t ok is that he won’t offer you the same kind of access to his life that he wants to yours.

Controlling husbands won’t give you their passwords or allow you to install tracking software on their phones. Often, they will explain away this imbalance by saying that they’re trying to “take care of you” or “protect you.” Fundamentally, it’s him putting himself in a position of power and control over you.

4. He keeps you isolated

Many controlling and abusive husbands start out by creating a divide between their partner and their support network.[4] They don’t want their partner to be able to turn to family, friends, or professionals for an outside opinion or help.

They will often do this subtly. They will tell you that your family doesn’t have your best interests at heart or play on your feelings of being isolated or different. They might also start arguments to create an “us vs them” mindset for you as a couple.

5. He plays on your feelings of guilt

One effective tool many controlling husbands use is your own feelings of guilt. If you feel guilty for standing up for yourself or insisting that you be treated as an equal partner, he will play on those feelings to control you.

Talking about your own feelings or wanting to be happy aren’t signs that you’re selfish. They’re completely normal and healthy. If you feel guilty for expressing yourself or wanting something different from him, he’s probably controlling.

6. He’s critical of you

Controlling men criticize their partner as a way to lower their self-esteem. If your husband belittles you, talks down to you, or makes you feel worthless, this is probably a sign that he’s also controlling.

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Often, you might find yourself doing things his way, just to avoid being criticized. He makes being independent so uncomfortable that you do what he wants. The more he criticizes you, the lower your self-esteem becomes and the harder it is to stand up for yourself.

This criticism often comes in around your clothing and appearance.[5] He might want to dictate what you wear and how you look. He’ll criticize anything that doesn’t fit with how he thinks you should dress.

He might say that concealing clothes make you look “old” but that revealing ones look “slutty.” Some men will even throw out clothes that they don’t approve of or demand that you wear specific outfits for an event. 

Again, this is often framed as trying to “help you look your best.” It’s not. It’s an attempt to control you.

7. He’s jealous 

This one is a little bit complicated because jealousy isn’t always a cause for concern. Jealousy is a perfectly normal emotion, but it’s not a healthy behavior. What I mean by that is that it’s completely ok for him to feel jealous sometimes but it’s not ok for him to use that jealousy to justify poor behavior.

Specifically, your husband shouldn’t expect you to avoid specific people, situations, or events because of his jealousy. He can talk to you about feeling jealous and ask for reassurance, but demanding that you avoid any situation that makes him jealous isn’t about his feelings. It’s about controlling your behavior.

8. He wants to control your finances

Man keeping money on his wallet

You have the right to know the status of your finances, even if you have shared accounts. If your husband insists on having full control of your financial information or makes it difficult for you to access money, this is a form of abusive control.[6]

The same is true if he is critical of your spending or tries to limit how much money you spend. Many couples have to work together to keep spending under control, but that’s a balanced discussion between equals. If he sets the financial rules and you have to obey them, that’s not healthy.

9. He gaslights you

Most of us have heard about gaslighting by now. If you haven’t, it’s when someone lies and manipulates your reality to make you question your own judgment and reality.[7] They might also use it to try to make others doubt you.

For example, he might deny ever having conversations that you remember having or make up conversations or events that you know didn’t happen. He’ll be so convincing when he talks about this that you’ll start to question your own memory.

Gaslighting isn’t the same as just having a different interpretation of events or remembering things slightly differently. It’s a deliberate effort to make you doubt your own sanity to make you easier to control. It’s a clear sign of abuse.

10. He knows your weak spots… and uses them

He knows what you’re most worried about, and he uses that against you. He doesn’t need physical threats to control you (though he might use those as well). 

He might threaten your reputation, your job, or even say that he’ll find a way to block your access to your children.[8] Whatever you care about most will become his target for attack. In some cases, he might even use your love for him as a weapon, threatening to harm himself if you leave.

This is absolutely a sign of abuse and there’s never any excuse for him behaving in this way.

11. You feel pressured into sex

Controlling men will often extend their control into the bedroom. Sex is supposed to be something that you share, not something you give to him to keep him happy.

If you feel pressured into sex, or specific sexual activities, this is a sign that he doesn’t care about you or your needs. He just wants to control you to meet his needs.

9 Tips to Deal with a Controlling Husband

1. Understand that this isn’t normal

The very first step in trying to deal with a controlling husband is to understand that this really isn’t normal or healthy in a relationship. Hopefully, everything you’ve read in this article so far has helped you to see that his behavior isn’t ok and that it’s harmful to you and your relationship.

Allow yourself to feel hurt, angry, and uncomfortable with what’s going on. If you find yourself thinking “Yes but…,” you’re probably making excuses for him and minimizing your experiences. Try saying to yourself “No buts. I matter and this isn’t right for me.”

2. Seek support

Dealing with a controlling husband or partner is objectively difficult. I’m as tough as a herd of rhinos and write about relationships for a living but I still needed help and support when I found myself in a controlling relationship. Asking for support doesn’t make you weak and other people won’t look down on you for it.

Reach out for as much support and help as you have available to you. Friends and family can be a huge source of support. In my experience, lots of friends and family are really pleased when you reach out. They’ve often noticed that someone’s wrong but they’re not sure how to help.

When you reach out, they feel able to actually do something to help rather than worrying silently. This gives you the support you need and makes life easier for them as well.

There are also loads of professional and charitable organizations you can turn to. These range from couples therapists and relationship coaches to helplines, women’s refuges, and even the police.

If you have the opportunity, it’s important to have individual therapy to help you deal with your experiences of having been controlled. It can be difficult to find yourself again and rebuild your self-esteem and confidence. A great therapist is an important person to help you achieve that. 

3. Talk about the problem

Talking to other people who can support you is important, but they won’t be able to fix the problems in your relationship. If you want to stay with your husband, you’re going to need to talk to him honestly about his behavior to get him to change.

These conversations are going to be difficult and upsetting. He’s most likely going to be angry that you’re criticizing his behavior. He’ll usually use all of his control to try to get you to stop complaining and go back to how things were.

Use I statements and try to make it clear that this is absolutely a make-or-break situation for your marriage. His behavior is dangerous and things cannot continue as they are.

4. Set (and enforce) boundaries

Every piece of relationship advice involves telling you to set and enforce healthy boundaries as if that’s an easy thing to do. It isn’t, especially if you’ve been in a controlling relationship. Be kind to yourself as you start to set more boundaries.

When you set boundaries, make sure that they are things that you can completely control.[9] For example, don’t tell him not to yell at you, because only he decides whether he raises his voice. Instead say “If you yell at me, I will walk away from this conversation.” Make sure you follow through.

Again, this is hard. Don’t expect miracles from yourself and talk to people who will encourage and support you. Celebrate your progress.

5. Learn about healthy relationships 

This tip is really important, especially if you’ve been in your controlling relationship for a long time. It can be hard to understand how a healthy relationship based on mutual respect and care would work. 

Take some time to read as much as you can about healthy relationships and really try to imagine what that would feel like. Read lots of articles about healthy relationships (I’m producing them as fast as I can for you).

Remember that these articles aren’t about some hypothetical or fantasy relationship where everything is perfect. Healthy relationships based on communication, consent, and care do exist, and you deserve that.

6. Start to think about your own wants and needs

Another task that other people might not realize is difficult for someone who has been in a controlling relationship is just knowing what you want at any given moment. When someone has controlled us for a long time, making even quite simple decisions can feel overwhelming.

Spend some time thinking about what you want. This can be the big questions, such as “What do I want out of life” as well as the smaller, easier ones, such as “What do I fancy for dinner?” 

In fact, getting used to answering the smaller questions can be helpful training for working up to the bigger ones.

This is going to be a process. Learning to recognize your own wants isn’t easy, especially after control or abuse. It can take an emotional toll on you as well. 

7. Take control of your finances

If your partner has been controlling your finances, that’s a big red flag and something that you need to deal with as soon as possible. There’s nothing normal about not knowing the details of your family’s finances or having access to money of your own.

If your controlling husband has been controlling your access to money, that’s a sign of financial abuse. Look for a local women’s refuge, support network, or lawyer offering pro bono help for women being financially abused. They can help you understand what’s going on and what you can do.

It’s not just finances you need to think about. Do you know where your passport and other important documents are? These need to be easily accessible for you. If you don’t know where they are or can’t get to them, it can be a sign of coercive control.

How you get control of these documents is something only you can decide. You might be able to just ask him for them or you might need to find them if asking doesn’t feel safe.

If you do ask him for them, he might push back and ask why you need access to them. Don’t get drawn into his way of thinking. The question isn’t why you need them. They’re yours and you don’t need any explanation. The real question is why he doesn’t want you to have them.

8. Consider leaving your relationship

I really don’t want to join the chorus of online voices that seem to always leap straight for the ‘walk away from the relationship’ side, but it is important to know that leaving is an option for you. Some controlling relationships can be fixed but others can’t. If yours can’t, leaving may be your only safe option.

Staying in a relationship with someone who is controlling you isn’t healthy; mentally, emotionally, or physically. If his behavior doesn’t change, you may have to leave.

Controlling and abusive men will often make big changes when they think that you’re about to leave, especially if it’s the first time. Once you’re back, they’ll regularly go back to their old ways. A few weeks or months isn’t enough to count as them having changed. Stay vigilant and remember that you deserve respect.

9. Put your own safety first

Men who feel entitled to control their wives, and especially those who refuse to change, aren’t always safe to be around. For some, the control they’ve wielded so far is as far as they will go but others can escalate their abuse even further when you start to assert yourself.

When you’re dealing with a controlling or abusive spouse, your safety and the safety of any children involved are all that matters. I’m not suggesting that the other problems aren’t real or important. They are, but they’re not more important than your safety.

Do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe, even if this includes behaviors that are normally frowned upon. If you need to lie about where you’re going or hide things from your partner to keep yourself safe, that’s completely ok. Look after yourself above everything else.

FAQs

Is a controlling husband showing his love?

Controlling husbands will often frame their behavior as trying to protect you, look after you, or show their love. This isn’t true. Someone who loves you wants you to be free to grow and develop. Love means supporting without controlling. Control is about making you less than your potential.

Is a controlling husband dangerous?

Being in a relationship with a controlling husband or spouse is bad for your mental well-being, which has a knock-on effect on your physical health as well. Controlling behavior is also a warning sign for other abusive behavior, so the way he treats you might escalate into physical abuse.

Can a controlling husband change?

A controlling husband is making a decision to control his spouse, even if he doesn’t realize it. This means that he can change and start behaving in a different way. Just because he can change doesn't mean that he will, however. Not all controlling husbands want to change.

Conclusion

I really hope this article has helped shed some light on the issue of controlling relationships, and how you can tell if you are in one. If you are struggling, ask for help. You deserve to be respected and happy in your relationship.
Did you like this article? If you did, let me know in the comments. And please do share this with anyone you know who’s struggling with a controlling or abusive husband.

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9 Sources:
  1. Kelly, V., Warner, K., Trahan, C., & Miscavage, K. (2009). The Relationship Among Self-Report and Measured Report of Psychological Abuse, and Depression for a Sample of Women Involved in Intimate Relationships With Male Partners. The Family Journal, 17(1), 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480708328476
  2. Stark, E. (2007). Coercive control : the entrapment of women in personal life. Oxford University Press.
  3. Crossman, K. A., & Hardesty, J. L. (2018). Placing coercive control at the center: What are the processes of coercive control and what makes control coercive? Psychology of Violence, 8(2), 196–206. https://doi.org/10.1037/vio0000094
  4. Stark, E. (2009). Rethinking Coercive Control. Violence against Women, 15(12), 1509–1525. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801209347452
  5. Anderson, K. L. (2009). Gendering Coercive Control. Violence against Women, 15(12), 1444–1457. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801209346837
  6. Callahan, C., Jodi Jacobson Frey, & Imboden, R. (2019). The Routledge Handbook on Financial Social Work. Routledge.
  7. Stark, C. A. (2019). Gaslighting, Misogyny, and Psychological Oppression. The Monist, 102(2), 221–235. https://doi.org/10.1093/monist/onz007
  8. Fitz-Gibbon, K., Walklate, S., & McCulloch, J. (2018). Intimate partner violence, risk and security : securing women’s lives in a global world. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
  9. Whitfield, C. L. (2010). Boundaries and relationships : knowing, protecting, and enjoying the self. Health Communications, Inc.
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