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What is a controlling relationship?

Frequently a controlling relationship is when an individual begins to dominate their partner within their relationship/marriage. However, a controlling relationship can also develop within any relationship: straight or gay, parent-to-child, child-to-parent, between friends, between ex-partners and work colleagues. There are no hard and fast rules.

It often starts in an insidious way with something small and in most cases it is all about taking control. Creating dependence and thereby taking away or reducing the other person’s independence.

Who are controlling people?

A controlling person can be male, female, a young person, a child or an elderly person.

They are often perfectionists and extreme cases frequently exhibit symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).   These people often claim to know what is best for people.   Family and friends have to do things their way and have little or no freedom to manage their own lives. Frequently, a controlling person tries to keep control by making others feel ashamed or guilty.

Controllers are often people who are worried about feeling out of control themselves. They are afraid that if they are not in control, their world will fall apart. They try to make themselves indispensable to those around them.

They are often surrounded by two types of people, those who depend on them and could not function without their support and those who resent them, feeling the controller needs to mind their own business and leave them to manage their own lives.

Why do people try to control others?

This could be for one of the following reasons:

Lack of control in their own lives. They need people to need them; this validates them and in turn helps them to feel in control of their own life.

Fear and/or anxiety.    Anxiety about what might happen if those around them have too much control of their own destinies. Fear that they, the controller, will be abandoned by their friends and family, they will no longer be needed.

Poor self esteem. This is a very common reason for trying to control a partner in a marriage or relationship. The controller may think their partner is too attractive either in personality or looks and if they are not controlled they would have the opportunity of straying or making a new life and/or friends thus leaving the controller abandoned.

How does a person become controlling?

It is frequently a method they develop to cope with anxiety in their early life. This can manifest itself in only children who are the centre of attention and can often feel in control their parents. Alternatively, the first born boy or girl in a family feels proud of themselves for ‘helping’ and being in control of their siblings. Again they can feel in control of their family group.

All feel the need to be in control and needed by their parents and or siblings.   If this should change at any time, they feel unsafe and ‘out of control’ and anxiety steps in.

Ways to deal with controlling people

Never try to control a controller! Don’t tell them what to do, but be assertive and refuse to be their pawn, or even in extreme cases, their victim.

If they try to tell you what to do, tell them that you appreciate and value their advice but you want to run your life your way. If necessary agree to disagree but don’t give in.

Tell the controller that you cannot be at their beck and call; that you have your own life and can only be there for them as long as the constraints of your life allows.

Many controlling people are really shocked to learn that their family and/or a friend feel that they are being controlling. They simply see it as showing their love and attention, sadly they are unable to have true empathy for those under their control.

When the controlled start to try to take back their lives, the controller feels abandoned and hurt.

How can ‘controllers’ help themselves?

They can start to make changes. Telling themselves “If my actions are not helping I will stop”.

They can acknowledge that they may be preventing their friend/partner/family for realising their full potential, being true to their own values.

They can learn all they can about anxiety and about low self esteem, there are many self-help books available and, of course, there is also counselling and other therapies available.

By reminding themselves that the best way to love their family and friends is give them independence, to let them be themselves and lead their own lives, making their own mistakes and learning from them.

I believe it may help both the controller and the controlled in a relationship to seek counselling/coaching as this will provide a safe place to talk openly and confidentially. Feelings can be explored and empowerment skills development enabling both parties to move forward independently, possibly alongside each other, but without either being in control of the other.