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Excessively Controlling Behavior In Love Relationships:
What To Do When Only One Partner Sets All The Parameters
by Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW for

In 2005, shortly after I published a book about ways to reduce the various forms of "emotional drama" that can arise in love relationships, I felt deeply honored and privileged when a local reporter invited me to take part in a sort of "community round table discussion."

The subject was domestic violence and emotional abuse, and also participating was a counselor from a local youth organization and a representative from a local group that combats domestic violence.

If you'd like to read more about the highlights of that conversation, here is a link to the complete article about it.

This column will focus not so much on full-fledged domestic violence, but will instead address the related problem of excessive emotional control in love relationships. For instance, if one partner gets to set all of the terms, "rules" and parameters of an intimate relationship, then this would be a classic example of one person having too much emotional control over his or her partner.

Spotting the Signs of an Overly Controlling Partner

More specifically, let's say that in an exclusive dating relationship that has been going on for six months, one of the partners, Adam, never goes to his girlfriend Elizabeth's apartment.


When one partner seizes full emotional control in a love relationship, the other partner can start to feel very restricted and resentful.

Instead he insists on her always coming to his place, making the argument that his place is bigger and therefore more comfortable than hers. At the beginning of their relationship, this behavior would hurt her feelings. However, at this point, she has not exactly accepted it, but she has grown somewhat numb to it.

Let's say he also always insists not only on choosing which restaurants they dine at, but also on selecting and then ordering her dinner for her. At first, she viewed this behavior as somewhat gallant or chivalrous, and at a certain level she even enjoyed it, because she thought there was something charmingly old-fashioned about it.

However, one night, Adam ordered Elizabeth a dish that she knew she really would not like, and when she tried to chime in to tell the waiter to get her something else instead, Adam glared at her until she felt shamed into silence.

It was a terrible feeling. Never one to make a fuss in public, Elizabeth found herself fuming inside throughout the rest of the dinner, all the while trying her hardest to conceal her anger at Adam's having treated her like a child in front of their waiter. Through a sheer act of will, she managed to keep up a steady patter of superficial, meaningless small talk, but she barely touched her meal. (After all, it was something she did not like.)

She wanted to speak up afterward, when they were finally alone together in the car, but for some strange reason, she found that she was almost afraid to do so. It was a strange, unfamiliar feeling, being somewhat fearful and on guard around the person whom she believed she loved, and who, likewise, claimed to love her.

"Is He Always This Controlling?"

But of course there was no mistaking that "pit-in-her-stomach" feeling of fear and dread for anything else. Under most circumstances, she would feel no qualms about defending herself and her views, but today was somehow different. The whole experience was very confusing and upsetting.

So, rather than directly confronting Adam about how his actions had made her feel, the following day she called Marlene, her sister (and confidante), to talk about what had happened.

Elizabeth was initially embarrassed to tell Marlene what had transpired, and she wasn't even sure which aspect of the situation was the greatest source of her embarrassment: the fact that Adam had treated her like a child in front of that waiter, or the fact that she had felt afraid-genuinely afraid-of confronting him about how badly he had behaved.

Once Elizabeth finally forced herself to get the words out about exactly what had happened, and how awful she had felt about it afterward, Marlene asked (just as any concerned sister would): "Is he always this controlling?"

At first, Elizabeth felt dumbstruck. It was never something she had really thought about, at least not in those precise terms. She knew Adam was a bit of a "stickler" about certain things, but she figured that we all have our little foibles, and up until now, she had never really envisioned that this side of his personality could actually be emotionally destructive in any way.

But now she felt compelled to re-examine everything that had gone on during their relationship in a new light.

Learn To Trust Your Gut Instincts

And when she did start to think more deeply about his behavior, it slowly started to dawn on her that all of the little bossy, nit-picky things that he did, and all of the odd little "rules and regulations" that he had always insisted upon, might actually add up to an excessively controlling personality.

Now, we all have our various defense mechanisms for coping in a sometimes chaotic world, a world that can throw any of us an unexpected emotional "curveball" without a moment's notice.

But not all defense mechanisms are healthy and constructive. And when it comes to emotionally controlling individuals, their primary defense mechanism for trying to cope in an unpredictable world is to try to impose their wills, wishes and worldviews upon everyone and everything around them.

One way, then, to conceptualize a controlling person is as a fearful, anxious person, a person who is simply trying his absolute hardest to exercise some control over a world that is (quite obviously) out of his control.


Healthy intimate relationships are not based on a power struggle for control, but are grounded in a foundation of mutual love and respect.

This way of thinking about excessively controlling individuals allows us to feel some empathy and compassion toward them, because we can all understand (and at a certain level, even relate to), the all-too-human desire for control that so often drives their often outrageous behavior.

But feeling at least a certain level of empathy for an overly controlling person (who is obviously struggling with his or her own set of emotional issues), and opting to stay in an intimate relationship with such an individual are two very different things.

Remember, one of the cardinal rules of all love relationships is that we cannot change how other people think and behave, we can only change how we think and behave. So if a romantic partner is exhibiting behavior that is excessively controlling, it is not a good idea to go into "rescue mode," and think that you can change the way that person functions, either in the context of their intimate relationships, or in the world at large.

In such a situation, it is a far better idea to cut your losses by ending the relationship, no matter how emotionally attached you may have become. Otherwise this kind of controlling behavior is far more likely to escalate and intensify-rather than decline-as the relationship progresses.

Recommended Reading:

The Top Seven Signs That Someone Is Lying To You

How To Most Effectively Pick Your Battles

How Hugs Are Proven To Help Your Health


Abusive/Controlling Relationships

Invisible Scars: Verbal Abuse

Power Struggle In Relationships

The Community Advocate

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