Sometimes people try to assert power over others and control situations. They may do this out of anxiety because they worry that things will go wrong if they do not maintain control. In other cases, it may be to assert dominance. In this case, it is a form of abuse.
Everyone tries to control what happens in their life to a certain extent. However, when a person tries to control elements of someone else’s life, this can be damaging.
In this article, we describe the signs that a person is controlling and explain how control relates to abuse. We also look at the causes of controlling behavior and how to deal with it.
If someone tries to control situations or other people to an unhealthy extent, others may describe them as a controlling person.
They may try to control a situation by taking charge and doing everything themselves or control others through manipulation, coercion, threats, and intimidation.
People may come into contact with controlling individuals in many areas of life. These individuals can be:
These people may wish to control those close to them, such as their partner or family, or gain power and control over larger groups of people.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline defines abuse as behaviors that a person uses to maintain power and control over another individual. These behaviors may arise in intimate relationships but also appear in the workplace, family relationships, and friendships.
Controlling behaviors may occur in several forms of abuse, including:
- Physical abuse: Any unwanted contact from someone who has the intention of causing another person injury is physical abuse.
- Emotional and verbal abuse: This comes in the form of nonphysical behavior, such as insulting or threatening someone, constantly monitoring them, or trying to humiliate them.
- Sexual abuse: Behaviors constitute sexual abuse if they pressure or force people into a sexual activity in which they do not want to engage.
- Financial abuse: This occurs when someone attempts to control a person’s financial situation.
- Digital abuse: This form of abuse uses technology, such as texting and social media, to harass or intimidate someone.
- Stalking: Stalking happens when someone watches or follows a person constantly, making them feel unsafe.
Abusive behaviors that someone may use to exert control over an individual may include:
- slapping, punching, kicking, biting, choking, scratching, or trying to smother a person, throwing objects at them, or pulling their hair
- threatening to use weapons against them, such as knives, bats, or firearms
- forcing them to use alcohol or drugs
- preventing them from leaving the home or forcing them to go somewhere
- calling them names, yelling or screaming at them, and criticizing them to break down their confidence
- humiliating them in front of other people or using online communities to intimidate or embarrass them
- acting in a possessive manner with a partner, not trusting them, and frequently accusing them of cheating
- demanding to know how they spend their time, where they go, and who they have contact with
- isolating them from seeing family and friends
- blaming them for their abusive behaviors or telling them everything is their fault
- manipulating or forcing them into having sex or performing sexual acts
- giving them an allowance and monitoring their purchases
- depositing paychecks to a bank account they cannot access
- stopping them from going to work by taking away their mode of transport
- stating who they can or cannot follow or speak with on social media
- using social media or GPS technology to track their activities
- pressuring them to send compromising or explicit messages, photos, or videos
- constantly messaging them and making them feel as though they cannot be away from their phone
- sending them unwanted messages, emails, texts, voicemails, and letters
- showing up at their home or workplace uninvited
Abuse can manifest in many ways, and more than one type of abusive behavior often occurs in an abusive relationship.
Several underlying factors may drive controlling behavior, such as:
- Anxiety: For some people, attempting to control certain situations is a way of coping with anxiety. Treating anxiety or the underlying condition causing it may improve their controlling behavior.
- Personality disorders: Some personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), may increase the chances of someone using controlling behavior.
- Learned behavior: A person
may havelearned controlling behavior and other forms of abuse from other people. For example, they may have grown up in a family with domestic violence or intimate partner violence or learned from caregivers to try to exert power over their partner.
It is crucial to note that although mental health conditions and past trauma can contribute to controlling behavior, they can never justify abuse.
Strategies for dealing with controlling people depend on whether the behavior is abusive and whether it occurs at home or in the workplace.
If the behavior is not abusive, it may be best to begin by discussing it with the person. However, confronting a person with abusive behavior may flare up the situation and potentially be dangerous.
A person can try communicating with a controlling person by:
- using “I” statements, such as “I feel hurt,” to speak in a way that reduces feelings of blame
- discussing ways to divide responsibilities or share control
- offering alternative courses of action to replace the behavior, such as making plans together rather than the person making plans for them
If, after speaking calmly and openly with someone, they do not listen and continue the controlling behavior, a person may need to consider distancing themselves from the individual.
It is impossible to influence how someone else behaves completely, but people can be clear about the treatment they expect and how they will respond if someone crosses the line.
A person needs to set boundaries, assertively share what they want with another individual, and say “no” when they are unwilling to do something. By setting boundaries, a person regains control and clarifies what they will and will not tolerate.
Choose a response
When someone is controlling, a person can respond in various ways to diffuse the situation. These include:
- Ignoring them and walking away: If a person is trying to humiliate someone, quietly walking away will draw attention to their dysfunctional behavior rather than indulging them.
- Creating a distraction or changing the subject: If a controlling person uses long, rehearsed speeches to wear a person down, interrupting them will make it more difficult for them to return to where they left off.
- Asking them a question: If someone views a situation as only being able to go the way they want or the complete opposite, it can help to ask a question. A question can reinforce that there are more than two options available.
- Counteracting with reason: If a parent uses the fact that they gave birth to someone as a way to control them, the person could ignore the attempt at guilt tripping and counteract with logic rather than emotion. They could remind the parent that people never have to do anything and have the right to choose.
- Acknowledging their fear: If a controlling person is jealous about someone’s relationship with another friend, it may be helpful to respond directly to their fear of abandonment. Acknowledging their fear that the person will leave them for someone else and discussing the topic may prevent them from making envious comments in the future.
Create a safety plan
If someone feels unsafe due to a person’s controlling, abusive behavior, they should consider developing a safety plan. A safety plan can help them safely leave the situation and lower their risk of being hurt.
According to the
- identifying friends and family members to contact for help
- identifying exit points and safe places to go
- keeping an alternative prepaid cellphone nearby
- memorizing the phone numbers of trusted family members, friends, or shelters
- making a list of items or documents to take when leaving quickly
- checking with a doctor about how to gain access to extra, medically necessary items for themselves or their children
- getting information on the local family court in case they require a restraining order
- collecting evidence of abuse or violence, if it is safe to do so
Emotional and verbal abuse can sometimes escalate to physical abuse, so a person must know the warning signs that a situation could become threatening.
Signs that a relationship has become dangerous include the person:
- displaying physically intimidating behaviors, such as punching walls, throwing objects, or breaking a person’s belongings
- using weapons to intimidate
- harming or threatening to harm pets or children
- threatening self-harm, violence, or death to get what they want
Everyone has the right to feel safe. Anyone experiencing abuse should seek help to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
Various helplines, support groups, counselors, therapists, and other resources are available to ensure that people can find safety 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. However, if a person needs to control every part of their routine, situation, or environment, they may have anxiety or a mental health condition.
When someone tries to control or manipulate others, this can be a form of abuse.
It may be possible for a controlling person to change their behavior over time with psychotherapy if a relationship is unhealthy and not abusive. However, if a relationship involves abuse, a person’s behavior could escalate to physical violence.
It is important for people living with a controlling or abusive person to create a safety plan to protect themselves. A safety plan can help them leave a threatening situation safely and be more independent once they have left.