Controlling people try to control others or situations. They may do so out of anxiety because they worry that if they do not maintain control, things will go wrong. Others adopt controlling behaviors to assert dominance, and this is a form of abuse.
To an extent, everyone tries to control what happens in their lives. However, when a person tries to control elements of someone else’s life, it can be damaging.
In this article, we describe signs that a person is controlling and how control relates to abuse. We also look at the causes of controlling behavior and how to deal with it.
Someone who is “controlling” tries to control situations to an extent that is unhealthy or tries to control other people.
A person may try to control a situation by placing themselves in charge and doing everything themselves. A person may try to control others through manipulation, coercion, or threats and intimidation.
Someone who is controlling may want to control people close to them, such as their partner or family members. Or, they may want to gain power and control over large groups of people.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a person is abusive if they use behaviors force someone into doing what they want. These behaviors can include:
- physical abuse, such as hitting or burning with cigarettes
- financial abuse, which involves taking control of someone else’s money
- sexual coercion or assault
- emotional abuse, which may involve insults, intimidation, or gaslighting
Emotional abuse or psychological aggression can also involve behaviors that undermine a person’s self-worth and independence, such as isolating them from their family and friends.
In an intimate relationship, a controlling partner may:
- demand to know what a person is doing at all times
- monitor devices, social media, or email accounts
- act in a jealous manner and frequently accuse partners of cheating
- dictate when someone can go to school or work
- tell someone what to eat, drink, or wear
- stop someone from seeing their friends or family
- control someone’s finances, so that they lose access to their money
- prevent someone from getting medical care or mental health support
- use insults to break down a person’s confidence
- intentionally humiliate someone in public or online
- threaten to hurt themselves or others in order to get what they want
These abusive behaviors may appear slowly, making them difficult to detect, or they may escalate suddenly after the couple has created a strong bond.
Some of these behaviors may occur, for example, in friendships, family relationships, and workplace relationships.
For some people, attempting to control situations or events is a way of coping with anxiety.
For example, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, may need to have control over their environment or routine due to intense fears of contamination or crime. Treating the underlying anxiety may improve a person’s symptoms.
Some personality disorders can make a person more likely to use controlling behavior. Some examples include:
- Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD): NPD is a mental health condition that causes an intense need for admiration, a sense of superiority, and a lack of empathy.
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD): People with BPD are hypersensitive to rejection and abandonment and may use controlling behaviors to avoid it. Around 1.6% of the general population has BPD.
Personality disorders are long-term mental health conditions. Some people with BPD make significant improvements with psychotherapy, but they may need 10 years or more of treatment before they function well in a range of relationships and at work, for example.
Abusive partners have often learned controlling behavior, and other forms of abuse, from other people. They may have grown up in an abusive household or learned from caregivers that it is their right to exert power over their partner.
In these cases, it is possible for the person to change their behaviors and attitudes. But for this to happen, the person must truly want to change and take steps to achieve it.
It is crucial to note that while mental health conditions and past trauma can contribute to controlling behavior, these issues do not justify or excuse abuse.
The first step is to figure out whether or not the controlling behavior is abusive. If it is not, it may be a good idea to talk to the person about their behavior.
A person can try:
- using “I” statements, such as “I feel unhappy,” to avoid sounding accusatory
- discussing ways to share control or responsibility
- setting clear boundaries about what is acceptable
A person cannot make someone want to change their behavior. If a person attempts to talk calmly and openly with someone, and they do not listen, the person may need to distance themselves or end the relationship.
In other cases, when a person demonstrates abusive behavior, such as coercive control, it may be dangerous to confront them.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline recommend creating a safety plan. It may involve:
- identifying trusted friends or family members to call for help
- practicing self-care that benefits mental health
- designating safe places and escape points
- identifying other factors that will help the person safely leave the situation
Emotional abuse in an intimate relationship often predicts physical abuse.
Signs that a relationship has become dangerous include:
- physically intimidating behavior, such as throwing or breaking objects or punching walls
- bringing weapons into the house and using them to intimidate
- harming, or threatening to harm, pets or children
- using threats of violence, self-harm, or death
Anyone who may be experiencing any type of abuse should consider seeking help.
Helplines, support groups, therapists, counselors, and a range of other resources are available to ensure that a person can leave a situation safely and recover.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:
- phone, at 800-799-7233
- live chat, at thehotline.org
- text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522
Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for people of color, here:
To a degree, everyone wants to control what happens to them. In some cases, a person’s need to control their routine, situation, or environment may be a sign of anxiety or a mental health disorder.
When a person tries to control or manipulate others, it can be damaging and a form of abuse.
If a relationship is unhealthy but not abusive, it may be possible for a controlling person to work on changing their behavior. However, coercive control can escalate to physical violence.
It is important for people who live with a controlling or abusive person to have a plan to protect themselves so that they can leave the situation safely and recover.