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10 Early Signs of a Controlling Partner and 5 Tips to Deal with It

January 13, 2023

It can take some time to get to know each other’s quirks and habits when you begin a new relationship. The two (or more) of you are learning how to spend time with and support each other.

Learning each other’s boundaries can come with some conflict, which is healthy. You might find that the way you two handle situations differs pretty significantly. In that case, talking things out and finding a middle ground can be helpful.

It’s not unusual to display some controlling behavior in relationships. We all try to convince our partners to see our side. But healthy relationships allow both sides to feel heard and understood.

There may be early warning signs that he’s trying to take control instead of compromise. 

What Are Control Issues? 

Trying to assert control is a natural response to anxiety about the unknown. When there’s something important that we can’t predict, we try to create things we can predict. 

I can’t control traffic, but I can make sure my keys and purse are ready and leave 10 minutes early.

Control issues emerge when the need for things to go your way interferes with other aspects of life. People who need to feel in control can be hard to get along with. They can be overbearing, rigid in their thinking, and have difficulty not crossing others’ boundaries. 

(Control issues can indicate a personality disorder, but it’s not its own diagnosis.)

So Why Are Men Controlling?

I’ve written before about the fact that men often have difficulty understanding their emotions. For a lot of men, that lack of understanding can generate anxiety and a greater need for control. If he can control his environment (including you) he can control how he feels.

Detachment from emotions might come from past trauma. In order to avoid feeling the pain and uncertainty of those experiences, he turns to control to cope. He can criticize people to make them do what he wants. 

Unpleasant emotions can also come from insecurity in his masculinity. Control of women has long been how masculinity has been defined1. When a man feels he is not respected as a man, he might try to exert power over another person to feel more masculine.

Fear, humiliation, and sexual coercion are avenues of power in an abusive relationship. With education and support, more people are learning how to address issues without resorting to control and fear2. This does a lot to reduce the prevalence of relationship violence3.

Not every person who has issues with control is an abusive partner by default. In a lot of cases, knowing what to look for can help you make him aware so he can address things in a more healthy way.

10 Early Signs of a Controlling Man

1. There’s no wiggle room

One of the first things you’ll probably notice when dealing with a controlling partner is that they’re very rigid. Controlling guys are often the ones who think things must be a certain way. They are uncomfortable with challenges to their plans or worldview.

Someone who was a charmingly insistent conversation partner before can seem like an inflexible tyrant after a while.

This is one of the early signs of a controlling man that most people can recognize. But it can creep up on you if you’re not looking out for it. He will probably start with the small stuff - where you eat, the “best” products, and worries about your male friends.

It can be tempting to not stress over the small things. After all, if you can help him become more comfortable, maybe he’ll mellow out. Over time, however, controlling men tend to become more rigid, not less.

2. He doesn’t leave you alone

There’s nothing wrong with spending time together. Hopefully, if you’re dating, you enjoy being around each other. But there are limits. Not being able to have your own space in a relationship is one of the early signs of a controlling man. 

It’s important for couples to be able to spend time apart. Personal time lets you focus on your self-care and individuality. It’s hard to be yourself if he’s insisting that he be a part of everything.

Being in constant contact is a form of having control of information. If he’s around you all the time, he knows what you’re doing. He can avoid uncertainty about the relationship by not allowing either of you to have time to yourselves. 

(This often generates more anxiety in the relationship as you get on each other’s nerves. It can create an unfortunate cycle of pulling away and being pulled back in.)

3. He doesn’t want you to go out with friends

he doesn't want you to go out with friends

Spending time with others helps us decompress. But it’s anything but relaxing for a controlling boyfriend. Whether you’re planning to go out on your own or with him, he may resist your plans. 

As children, girls are encouraged to be more emotional with their friends. Studies show that this results in women’s relationships being fairly complex. Men, on the other hand, tend to have a narrower social life4.

Group activities can be a lot more difficult for a controlling person than managing a singular relationship. If it’s just you and him, he can know what’s coming. If he doesn’t like something, he only has to convince you to see things his way.

4. He’s jealous of… everyone

Jealousy comes from the fear of losing something, like your partner or your relationship. Jealousy is a natural emotion, like happiness, anger, love, and sadness. It’s unpleasant to experience, but not inherently bad.

Talking about jealousy can be healthy. It can allow both of you to be vulnerable and become more connected. Those discussions can help you come to a resolution together and build mutual trust. Eventually, instances of jealousy can taper off as you learn how to communicate your needs with one another.

Someone who is possessive will be jealous, constantly. He’ll push your male friends away, but he won’t just be worried about the opposite sex. He’ll try to get between you and your female friends, your work friends, and the neighbor you see at the dog park.

Constant jealousy indicates persistent insecurity and low self-esteem. Instead of seeing your support network, a controlling person just sees people who will take you away.

5. He goes through your things

Privacy is important for our mental and emotional health. In a healthy relationship, you set the terms about how and when someone accesses your space and your things. 

Dealing with a controlling man, you might find yourself anxious and frustrated. You might feel like you have to keep your purse in sight and make sure your phone is locked. You’ll probably start to dread spending time together.

A controlling partner tends to believe it’s his right to have information about you. He’ll question and challenge your right to have private information. He might argue that you don’t need to keep anything from him if you’re being honest. 

6. He panics when things aren’t certain

Another sign of a controlling personality might look like the opposite of having a handle on things. For a lot of people with high anxiety, losing control can result in uncontrollable anxiety.

You may notice that your controlling boyfriend is overly sensitive to change. When things don’t go according to plan, he has difficulty adjusting. The more things deviate, the harder it can become for him to remain calm.

Of course, as he tries to assert control, he’s likely to feel even more out of control. He may lash out, make nasty comments, or just be generally unhelpful. In more extreme cases, he might even prevent things from being fixed at all.

7. He’s manipulative

Someone who is controlling and displays narcissistic traits has to have all the power by any means necessary. This person will say and do whatever they feel they need to to drive you toward their goals.

Manipulation is a red flag in any relationship because it’s a sign of emotional abuse. A partner who respects you won’t trick you into doing what he wants.

Manipulation can be hard to identify without an outside perspective. Some red flags to look for include persistent feelings of anxiety and constantly questioning yourself. A controlling man who is being manipulative will often attack your self-esteem.

Manipulation can take many forms. It can look like out and out lying or withholding important information. It can also take the form of gaslighting or making you question reality

A controlling man who has experience manipulating people can be hard to spot. But if you’re paying attention to what he says and how you feel, you might spot signs of manipulation.

8. He always argues until you back down

Controlling guys can sometimes maintain control by being argumentative. You’re not going to completely avoid conflict just because you’re in a romantic relationship. At the same time, you shouldn’t feel bad every time there’s a disagreement.

This is one of the early signs of a controlling man that might seem silly. Especially if the arguments are about little things. You don’t want to spend your free time pouring energy into things that don’t matter to you, so you just let him do what he wants.

Arguing is mentally exhausting. When he wears you down, you don’t have the energy to assert yourself in other areas. He’s in charge by default.

9. He withholds affection

We need affection and connection in all of our relationships. When we feel disconnected, it can cause significant distress, anxiety, and depression. This is mentally and emotionally damaging. Deliberately withholding affection to make someone do what you want is emotional abuse.

This is one of the hardest abusive behaviors to identify. You might even feel guilty thinking of it as “abuse.” After all, he’s not hurting you, or making mean jokes at your expense. He’s not trying to ruin your personal life. He’s just… distant.

It’s important to recognize when his distance is deliberate. 

Controlling men know when they are deliberately holding back from you. They will often threaten to withdraw if you don’t give them what they want. They may even give you the cold shoulder without a reason to increase the anxiety and drive you to concede to their demands.

10. He takes no responsibility

he takes no responsibility

There are other subtle signs of a controlling guy. Someone who sees themselves as a victim doesn’t see themselves as having any power in their life. While this doesn’t lead directly to micromanaging, it’s still disruptive.

This kind of person blames everyone else for their behavior. If they are unhappy, only you have the responsibility of fixing things. Their unreasonable behavior becomes something you have to prevent. In that way, you’re back under their control.

What to Do If You See Controlling Behavior Patterns

Not addressing the issues with a controlling man? Definition of a bad time. But not every couple with a controlling person turns into a toxic relationship.

The most important thing to remember in this situation is that you can’t become the controlling one. Women involved with a controlling man might reflect his behavior back. But that’s not going to be helpful for you.

1. Remain calm

You can only control your own behavior, so don’t try to force him to think, feel, or do anything.

A person with narcissistic tendencies will probably lash out when you aren’t doing what they want when they want it.

If you’re with a controlling man, you’ll probably notice that you often feel anxious and frustrated. Let yourself feel those feelings, without responding to them. (Try deep breathing, or a brief mindfulness exercise to help you practice.)

Try to keep your body language relaxed. This might signal to him that you’re unruffled. But more importantly, staying relaxed will keep you from reacting to him.

2. Pick your battles

You don’t need to spend your free time arguing about every little thing with him. Decide what is really important to you, and hold your ground about those. In other areas, be willing to seek out a compromise.

Setting and maintaining these kinds of boundaries can be difficult if you’re not used to them. If you’ve dealt with controlling men in the past, you might be in the habit of fighting. But you’re just as likely to feel too burned out to fight if you try to win every argument.

If you’re going to make a compromise, make sure you’re not working away from your own goals. For example, if you have to be somewhere in the afternoon, don’t agree to run errands with him. Instead, suggest a different time or offer to take care of one or two things while you’re out.

3. Validate the valid

Validation is the act of acknowledging how and why a person thinks, feels, and acts the way that they do. It doesn’t mean you agree or approve of their behavior. It just means you understand what’s going on in their head. 

Someone with control issues is usually dealing with a lot of anxiety. They don’t feel that way for no reason. They might exaggerate, but they’re probably not imagining things 100% of the time, either.

Practice finding the source of their controlling behavior, the thing that they’re anxious about. From there, try to find the underlying emotions and beliefs that contribute to the anxiety. 

(If they’re getting really controlling about cleanliness, for example, check to see if they’re struggling at work or with friends. It can be easy to seek out productive activities that let them see their progress. This might be tied to underlying beliefs surrounding cleanliness and morality.)

Practice validating their feelings with “It seems to me that you’re feeling (emotion) because of (situation or belief). Is that right? If so, do you want to do something that can help you feel calmer?”

4. Be assertive

be assertive

There are four major categories of communication: 

  • Passive, 
  • Aggressive, 
  • Passive-aggressive, and 
  • Assertive.

Assertive communication is not focused on making the other person do what you want them to. The other three might resort to threats, the cold shoulder, and making you guess what the right answer is to control your behavior. This can lead to anxiety and self-doubt.

The point of assertive communication is to convey your message without exaggeration or going against your own values. It invites you to pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling, while also paying attention to your environment.

When communicating this way, you want to make sure you’re focused on natural consequences. These are the direct impacts of the actions we take. If you don’t eat, a natural consequence is that you’ll be hungry. If a person tries to make you do things you don’t like, you’ll not want to spend time with them.

It can take a lot of practice to get comfortable communicating assertively. Be warned: a lot of people get defensive when someone is assertive with them. That doesn’t mean you’re doing the wrong thing. It just means you’ve changed the script, and they are uncomfortable.

There are some practical skills that help with assertive communication. Practice keeping your voice level. Don’t raise it to make him hear you. Tell him you don’t appreciate being controlled or manipulated. Let him know how you would like to address issues in the future. 

Don’t just focus on the bad! Let him know how being less rigid can help your romantic relationship.

5. Lean on your people

Don’t try to deal with a controlling man all on your own. Even if you’re aware of his patterns, he can have a bad influence on your self-esteem and communication patterns.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to close friends and family for support. Your support network can be a great source of empowering advice and experienced guidance. They can also be a gauge of what’s reasonable to help you feel less crazy.

Turning to your support network isn’t just about figuring out how to deal with him. It’s also to help you decompress. Don’t spend all of your time with friends focusing on him. Your social life is about your needs, so let yourself have fun at least once a week.

Consider getting professional support to help you deal with a controlling man in your life. They can help you build your skills and confidence in using them. They can also validate your feelings and experiences to support you emotionally.

6. Encourage him to seek support

You might be frustrated with him, but a controlling guy is often having a difficult time. Due to anxiety, he probably constantly criticizes and puts himself down. That kind of negative self-talk does nothing to make a person less rigid.

You cannot be the person to help him overcome this.

It might be tempting to try to teach him skills you’ve picked up. He might even ask you to help if he knows he’s pushing you away by trying to run things all of the time. But you’re his girlfriend, not his therapist. 

You need to make sure that you’re focused on what is best for you. 

FAQs

What causes a person to be controlling?

Generally, controlling behavior is a response to anxiety. The anxiety can come from a history of trauma, a past unhealthy relationship, or a general lack of confidence. Someone who is controlling is trying to avoid the discomfort of not knowing what is going on around them.

How does a controlling person act in a relationship?

Controlling people tend to push boundaries and micromanage. They treat intimate relationships as something to manage, instead of a give-and-take between two people. Because of this, they can sometimes be unkind and pushy.

How do you outsmart someone who is controlling?

The best way to outsmart someone with controlling personality traits is to not do anything complicated. Be straightforward and assertive in your communication and stick to your guns. Remember: it’s up to you to enforce your boundaries.

Conclusion

There might be subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs that you’re in a relationship with a controlling guy. Learning how to deal with controlling people can be difficult, but with support and practice, you’ll be able to take control of your life back.

4 Sources:
    Citations
  1. McCarthy, Katharine J., et al. "Gender, power, and violence: A systematic review of measures and their association with male perpetration of IPV." PLoS ONE, vol. 13, no. 11, 29 Nov. 2018, p. e0207091. Gale Academic OneFile Select, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A563792369/EAIM?u=21667_hbplc&sid=bookmark-EAIM&xid=26da6db7. Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.
  2. Rogers, Michaela, et al. "The Change Up Project: Using Social Norming Theory with Young People to Address Domestic Abuse and Promote Healthy Relationships." Journal of Family Violence, vol. 34, no. 6, Aug. 2019, pp. 507+. Gale OneFile: Health and Medicine, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A592081899/HRCA?u=21667_hbplc&sid=bookmark-HRCA&xid=83f3d1d1. Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.
  3. Øverlien, Carolina, et al. "Young Women's Experiences of Intimate Partner Violence - Narratives of Control, Terror, and Resistance." Journal of Family Violence, vol. 35, no. 8, Nov. 2020, pp. 803+. Gale OneFile: Health and Medicine, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A638776361/HRCA?u=21667_hbplc&sid=bookmark-HRCA&xid=a3e0c495. Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.
  4. Pearce, Eiluned, et al. "Exploring the links between dispositions, romantic relationships, support networks and community inclusion in men and women." PLoS ONE, vol. 14, no. 5, 7 May 2019, p. e0216210. Gale Academic OneFile Select, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A584682408/EAIM?u=21667_hbplc&sid=bookmark-EAIM&xid=f95f8599. Accessed 20 Nov. 2023.
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