Toxic relationships can happen to almost anyone. Controlling people have a way of dominating their partners—whether they or their partners realize what’s happening or not.
So we asked experts to reveal some of the most prominent warning signs of a controlling partner.
Do you notice more than a couple of these signs within your relationship?
Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, MFT, ATR
Licensed Psychotherapist | Marriage and Family Therapist | Owner, Create Your Life Studio
Emotionally dominance and over-control in relationships occur when one person overwhelms the other’s emotional boundaries and begins to control what the other is allowed to show that they think and feel, and/or how they may outwardly behave.
The person who is emotionally dominating may have a deep need for control and even though this person may appear strong, they are actually moving through the world in a fearful manner. They attempt to control another’s feelings as a way to decrease their own anxiety.
The person being emotionally controlled is often vulnerable due to their fear of confrontation, fear of tension, and fear of disapproval or the possibility of not be liked. Most physical and sexual abuse happens after one person establishes emotional dominance over the other.
Three powerful signs that your partner may be trying to emotionally dominate and control you are:
You are not allowed to state your opinion if it differs from the other person’s
For example, if you are consistently told to shut up or be quiet, or given repeated instructions or warnings not to talk about certain things, these could be signs of someone attempting to emotionally dominate and control you.
You are emotionally invalidated on the regular
There is a pattern of emotional invalidation. You are told that you don’t feel the way you feel. For example, the person trying to emotionally dominate you is dismissive and minimizes your experience. “You aren’t hurt, toughen up. I barely touched you.” or “You are too sensitive. Get over it, drama queen.”
A serious sign that your partner may be overly controlling, is when your partner frequently suggests, states, or makes you feel as though your feelings and reactions are overdramatic, out of proportion, or unnecessary.
If you share your hurt feelings with your partner, and he or she minimizes and invalidates them, you may be dealing with a gaslighter. If your partner makes statements alleging that you should not be reacting in such a manner and that the cause is unjustified, they may be gaslighting you.
If your feelings are hurt and you are seeking to communicate this clearly and directly, but your partner’s response is minimization and deflection every time, they may be gaslighting you with a method called “Downplaying.”
If you share a feeling with your partner and find that you are getting consistently downplayed, your partner may be gaslighting you. Run the scenario by a trusted friend and trust your own gut. If every time you say “ouch”, you are made to feel like you are overreacting, trust your own body.
Partners who downplay to gaslight are attempting to minimize your feelings as a way to minimize their culpability. If your partner downplays you consistently, and you begin to question if you are overreacting, you need to run this by a third party who is neutral and sensible.
Get some professional feedback from a therapist or a wise elder. Keep a journal of these incidents. Your own body and intuition are your barometer here.
You are constantly walking on eggshells to avoid an upset
There are clear non-verbal cues to keep you quiet that you understand within the relationship. You are made to feel that you can not say how you really feel, or there will be a big blow-up.
You receive these non-verbal cues, such as glare, to minimize, shush, and contain your emotions to appease the other, even when keeping your feelings in feels painful and unhealthy.
Related: How to Deal with Controlling People?
Tonisha M. Pinckney, Ph.D., MSCJ, MAFF, CFE, CBE, CSCD, CCII
Criminologist | Forensic Accountant | Owner, Chief Executive Officer, Revelatus Consulting
Here are a few signs I commonly find when working with victims or mentoring offenders:
- Using the phone as an electronic tether to know the movements of the partner throughout the day.
- Checking in and requiring facetime (or another video chatting) when texting or calling would suffice. This is done to ensure (1) the people in the vicinity know the non-controlling partner is in a relationship, (2) to confirm the partner is where they claim to be, and (3) to maintain a constant visual connection.
- The controlling partner will create or initiate a schedule conflict. He or she may schedule a personal appointment, have emergencies, or other crisis when the other partner is planning to go out with family or friends. This could include not getting back with the car in time (if the car is shared or borrowed) or not arriving in time to go to the event. It may even include a minor argument.
- Insisting that the non-controlling partner modify their attire preferences that suit the security level of the controlling partner. They may even use religion or social status to justify their reasons.
- Religion may be used as a way to keep the non-controlling partner in line. Undesired behaviors may be directly linked to the “salvation,” dedication, or true commitment to the religion and their God, god, or gods.
- Constantly reminding the non-controlling partner of how bad past relationships were and how lucky he/she is to have them as a partner
- Using weight or physical attributes to belittle the individual – insisting on gym or surgery
- I am seeing financial control as an increasing method of control. This can be anywhere from insisting on paying for minor bills and meals to sabotaging career selections, new jobs, interviews, and client relationships. Financial dependence can elongate an otherwise waning relationship
- Use of the children as a means of control. Questioning parenting decisions and fitness to be a parent. Using the children as pawns.
- Reminding the non-controlling partner of prior poor life decisions. Causing the non-controlling partner to put increasing trust in the controlling partner due to decreasing self-esteem and trust of his/herself
- Limiting the alone time – potentially going with the non-controlling partner to the hair/nail salon or barbershop, requesting intimacy when they see the non-controlling partner is preparing to do something alone.
- Accusing friends and family of being jealous of their relationship.
- Insisting on knowing (personally) all friends and acquaintances.
- Starting arguments so that they can apologize in a grand gesture.
- Positioning themselves as a savior and then reminding the non-controlling partner that “they would be nowhere and nothing without them.”
Author | Psychotherapist
Warning signs of a controlling partner include the following—someone who:
- Needs to be the one to decide where the two of you are going — what movie you’ll see, where you’ll eat or vacation.
- Easily becomes defensive and has difficulty admitting being wrong, making mistakes or letting you be right.
- Won’t let you choose your friends or activities, but insists you must do what they think is right for you.
- Needs to know where you’re going 24/7/365 and insists you call them to check in whenever you’re not in their company.
- Insists on legal documents like buying a joint car, boat, house or condo be in their name only.
- Is extremely jealous of you being with friends or family members and wants you to themselves.
- Pushes you in directions you don’t want to go in regarding your work or career.
- Generally tries to undermine your decisions, independence, or self-esteem (gaslighting) to increase your dependence on them.
Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality | Relationship Expert, Maple Holistics
Someone who is trying to control you often wears down your self-worth so that you end up relying solely on them for approval. No matter how small the criticism may seem, if it becomes the dynamic of your relationship it’s a warning sign of a controlling partner.
Your partner is supposed to be the person that makes you feel like your best self; not make you doubt your every move.
Controlling partners are skilled manipulators. This means that they’ll use guilt as a technique to get their way. you’ll eventually find that you start doing whatever you have to do to avoid those feelings of guilt, which means they’ve got you right where they want you.
Lack of respect
If your partner can’t stand when you have time alone or make plans with friends, it’s a sign that they’re controlling. Not respecting your needs, whatever they may be, is a way to control you.
Couples don’t always have the same needs in terms of being introverted or extroverted but if your partner makes you out to be the villain when you want to do your own thing, it’s a sign of a controlling partner.
Hiding things from them
The biggest warning sign of a controlling partner is not being able to make your own decisions and feeling like you need to hide things. If you feel like you need to hide things, then your partner is probably trying to either control who you are spending time with or control other aspects of your life.
If your partner is looking through your phone and then berating you about what they find, you are probably in a controlling relationship.
Keeping tabs on you all-day
here is a difference between your partner casually asking you what you are up to and demanding to know where you are and who you are with every moment of the day.
You should have the freedom to not have your phone on you for a few hours and your partner not lose their mind over it. If you can’t, it may be a sing you are in a controlling relationship.
Flipping things on you when they are in the wrong
This is a common tactic for a manipulative controlling person. Not being able to admit when they are wrong and making everything your fault is a sign they are emotionally controlling you and not being an equal partner in the relationship.
LA’s #1 Keep it Real Therapist
Controlling partners will often mask their control under the guise of protection and safety
Beware of the partners that want you to call when you have arrived home after a date or outing with your friends, partners that insist on picking you up from outings they did not attend or follow you home from dates or outings together.
These gestures may seem harmless or even considerate, but this could be a sign that you have someone that is extremely insecure and feels the need to ensure that you are at home and alone!
They make chronic criticisms about your appearance and behaviors
These will be given the guise of constructive feedback to make you better or to challenge you, but if you end up feeling defeated instead of inspired, fatigued instead of energized, these are signs of a partner that is trying to ensure your attention and energy is solely on them!
They will exhaust you trying to make them happy
These partners will make caring, acceptance, and love conditional, and you will exhaust yourself trying to make them happy in order for you to feel loved and accepted in the relationship.
Remember a partner should want to be with you based on who you are now, not your potential, or some future version of you they created in their head.
They are your “everything”
If a partner believes that he or she should be your best friend, your confidant, your shopping partner, running partner, your everything, the one person to meet all of your needs this is a BIG sign.
These behaviors can easily turn into he/she finding some problem with each of your friends and close family members. He/she will listen intently when you have conflicts with friends/family and instigate negative feelings ensuring that he/she is the only one you need.
Isolating you from family and friends is a common tactic of abusive partners. When you only have interaction with your partner and you rely solely on them for your needs, you become more easily manipulated, controlled, and abused.
Domestic Violence Speaker & Survivor | Educator
The ultimate goal of a controlling partner is to maintain power over the person they are having a relationship with.
Dictating what can be worn such as clothing, makeup
The first sign that a partner is controlling can be recognized through their influence of what clothing the person is wearing and when they are allowed to wear certain clothing items.
For instance, the partner may not want their wife or girlfriend to wear a dress, skirt, or low-cut blouse when they aren’t around because other men will look at them and possibly be attracted to them.
This behavior can be an immediate red flag especially if the person’s appearance, clothing preferences, and style have changed since the relationship with the partner started.
Isolation from your inner circle
Additionally, a change in the person’s behavior in regards to whom they are spending time with, where they go, and when they go can also be an indication they are with a controlling partner.
This type of behavior occurs because the partner wants to isolate the person from their inner circle to create a sense of dependence upon the partner and what the partner provides. Also, the partner needs to have a feeling of power over the person as they maintain their feeling of control.
Influence on spending habits
Also, a controlling partner can influence the person’s spending habits because this maintains control while making the person believe they are not capable of managing their finances and shouldn’t trust their own decisions.
This is a tactic that a partner will use as a means of control because it allows them to dominate their significant other while continuing to foster a false sense of dependence.
This is can indicate there are controlling tendencies because the partner needs to continually monitor the significant other. For instance, the partner may tell them they need to text when they are leaving work and at their arrival of each errand they might have to run on their way home.
If the partner isn’t going to be home when the significant other arrives, then another text or phone call is expected.
Human Behavior Specialist | Author, How to Spot a Liar
What one person perceives as “protection,” another person perceives as “controlling.”
What one person intends as “protection,” another person intends as “controlling.”
A sense that your personal space is being violated
Proxemics is the study of how much space we need in different situations. It is not the same for everyone. If you are what is commonly known as a “hugger”, your need for personal space is not the same as someone who prefers a handshake or no touching at all.
The person requiring more distance can feel threatened and controlled by a hugger. We shouldn’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about huggers; their behavior can be very controlling.
Verbal lashing—at least that’s what I call it
Vocalics is the study of how we say things, not what we say, and it’s part of body language. Some people manifest controlling behavior by using a tone of voice, cadence, and pitch that feels like a whip to the other person.
It doesn’t matter what words are coming out of their mouth, they are using vocalics to attempt to control the behavior of the other person.