When people are in love, they tend to make excuses. They want the good, lovey dovey feelings to continue. Sometimes that means ignoring red flags to keep the party going. But, you can only suppress the truth for so long. Even worse, ignoring serious red flags can lead to significant life consequences later on. One of the warning signs that should not be ignored is a controlling partner.
Do you ever get the sense that your significant other has you under their thumb? If you’re not entirely sure, take a look at some of the signs of an overly controlling partner, provided by licensed professional counselor and EMDR certified therapist Kheia Hilton.
Early signs of a controlling partner
Most people do a great job of putting their best foot forward in the early months of a relationship. But a person’s true character tends to shine through eventually. If someone is controlling, you’ll see it eventually. Hilton says one sign is ultimatums.
“People are naming what they would prefer but with the caveat that if you don’t do this thing, there’s a consequence to it,” she explains.
Another sign is a person’s desire to be the only decision maker in the relationship. Hilton says controlling partners not only make all of the decisions, they may attempt to insult you for even offering a possible solution.
“They don’t take input or insight from their partner or they’re dismissive of any input or insight that their partner has,” she says. “And there are times where people may belittle your contribution of thought or ideas.”
Reactions to authority challenges
If someone doesn’t want to consider your suggestions, they’re certainly going to have a problem if you defy them altogether. Hilton says controlling partners commonly react in one of two ways.
“Sometimes people may pull away as a tactic,” Hilton said.
And the other reaction is much more problematic, with a person becoming angry or aggressive. These reactions are often accompanied by manipulation or gaslighting as the controlling party tries to make their partner feel unsure of their decisions.
Commonly used language
There are patterns of control and Hilton says her clients often report these cliches.
“If you love me…’ or ‘If you really cared about me, you would…’
Hilton says these phrases are problematic.
“When we preface things with that, we can already tell that the manipulation might be starting,” she said.
In other instances, there is more forceful language like, ‘You need to…’ or ‘You better…’ or ‘You have to listen to me.’
The origins of the desire to control
Hilton says controlling behavior from a romantic partner can stem from the messages one partner has received from society.
“It might come through lens of structures of relationships. People have certain mentalities like, ‘If I identify as the man, then the man leads.’ What leadership looks like is ‘I get to make all the rules, I get everything I want and you don’t have a say.’”
Other times, a person’s control may be a trauma response.
“One thing I see often, especially with people who may not be aware of their controlling tendencies, is fear,” Hilton says. “A lot of times, people use control as a way to feel stable in life. People have been traumatized and have experienced things that they never want to experience again. So they find ways to control every aspect of things; and unfortunately, that includes the people in their lives.”
How you might feel being controlled
“For people who aren’t used to that type of behavior, they pick up on it, immediately,” Hilton said. “It’s the loss of control or agency or choice. When we feel like we have to think twice about what we can say or do or if we can we ask questions, or if we can show up fully as ourselves without being judged or treated poorly.”
Is being controlling a form of abuse?
Relationships can go from feeling airy and light to heavy and dark very quickly. Control is a part of that. But is a controlling partner an abusive one? Hilton says the answer is complex.
“I think that aspects of control can be abusive,” she explained. “If you trying to limit someone’s ability to show up, if you are disparaging them, if there’s verbal abuse, fear tactics, guilt and manipulation, that’s absolutely abusive. We could generalize it and say control itself is abusive but it’s generally looking at the behaviors people use to try to control, which is what constitutes the abuse.”
Can you change a controlling person?
Once you recognize that your partner is treating you more like a child than an equal, you have to decide how you’re going to handle it. Hilton says your course of action depends on the person’s past behavior. But remember we can’t change anyone.
“As a professional, I would say change someone? Absolutely not,” Hilton says. “But if it feels like there is room for the person to learn, grow or understand the impact of their behavior, through having a conversation about it, absolutely. That is if you can safely have a conversation about it.
If you are in an abusive relationship, where the person is threatening you physically, emotionally or psychologically, you should not engage further.
“Usually in those types of situations, we want to find the safest way to get out of it completely, without being harmed,” Hilton said.
Changing your own controlling behavior
If you feel you’re the controlling partner in the relationship, Hilton provided some prompts in order to recognize and change the behavior.
“I would check in to see what is coming up for me that is causing me to want to control certain aspects of situations,” she said. “The other thing is paying attention to how people respond or react to you. If they’re showing up closed off, walking on eggshells, or scared to speak, then it’s okay to take a step back and ask yourself is there a way that I’m showing up that has this person feeling like they don’t have as much agency or choice to be the way that feels best of more authentic to them.”