How to Leave a Controlling Relationship

At the beginning of your relationship, your partner was a dream come true. Never before had anyone treated you with so much attention and love. You felt so fortunate that you found someone who was so demonstrative and caring. 

But that quickly changed. Their “caring" became obsessive. Suddenly, they needed to know where you were and who you were with. They didn’t trust your friends and family. They critiqued your views. You had to be careful of everything you said or did because they denigrated it or took it the wrong way. 

What happened?

What is a “controlling relationship?”

Controlling behavior in a relationship can be blatantly obvious or fly under the radar. While more obvious controlling behavior can look aggressive and even abusive, other controllers can be far more subtle and covertly manipulative. Like the frog-in-boiling-water scenario, you may not have even recognized your controlling relationship until it was too late. 

What are some red flags that may signify a controlling partner?

  • Their love is conditional, and they withhold it whenever they want to keep you in line.  
  • They belittle your opinions and beliefs.
  • They criticize you in front of others.
  • They prevent you from spending time with friends and family.
  • They keep score of past grievances. 
  • They’re jealous of your personal relationships and accuse you or the people around you of flirting. 
  • They make unilateral decisions without your input.
  • They monitor where you are and who you’re with.
  • They argue until they wear you down.
  • They gaslight you and make you question yourself.
  • They have substance abuse problems that trigger their controlling behavior.
  • Their control may have even moved into intense anger, violence, and domestic abuse. 

Narcissism is just one personality disorder that may lead to an imbalanced relationship. Read: NPD: Divorcing a Covert Narcissist

Tips for taking care of yourself in a controlling relationship

If you’ve been involved with a controlling partner for a long time, you may not even recognize it as control. You may blame yourself. You question your decisions and even how you feel. But if you’re constantly walking on eggshells and are afraid to express your own needs and opinions, it may be time to recognize that your relationship isn’t healthy or balanced and take back control over your life and well-being.

Talk to your partner

Knowing how to deal with a controlling partner can be difficult. Their controlling behaviors may stem from overwhelming insecurities or even a personality disorder. They may see your attempts toward balance as an act of betrayal. 

If you think honest communication might be effective, tell your partner how you feel, and set some boundaries. Share what you are and aren’t willing to put up with. But keep in mind that a controlling partner may not even be aware of what they’re doing, give you validation, or share your views of a healthy relationship. 

How safe are you? 

When a controlling partner feels they’re losing that control, it can set off their skewed sense of balance and power. They may react with anger or other threatening behavior, especially if they think you might be leaving them.

While they may not have had violent tendencies in the past, this could change if they feel desperate. Assess how safe you truly feel in this relationship and how that could change if you begin to assert yourself.

Get support 

You may have become isolated from many of your friends and family during your relationship. But you shouldn’t have to navigate this alone. Reach out to others, even if you’re embarrassed. Let them know what’s been going on in your life so they can be there for you. Then, reach out when you need them.

Be kind to yourself

Your self-esteem is suffering if you’ve been in a controlling relationship for a long time. You may have absorbed all those messages that you were stupid or crazy. You are neither. 

Take care of yourself so you have the physical and emotional strength to break free from the control of your partner. Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself that you deserve to be happy and in control of your own life. 

You may have mixed feelings

Pulling away from a controlling relationship can be scary, and second-guessing yourself is a common reaction. But while there may have been happiness in your relationship in the past, it’s no longer there now. Focus on the future. 

In the meantime, your partner may sense that something is changing and become attentive and loving temporarily. They may even threaten self-harm if they think you’re leaving. Remember that you are dealing with a masterful manipulator. Stay strong and focused. You deserve better. 

How to leave

It’s difficult to turn around a controlling relationship, especially if your partner doesn’t recognize a problem or isn’t on board. 

If you decide that your best alternative is to leave, it’s critical that you are well-prepared.

  • Keep a list of contacts and phone numbers of people in your support system. These can be friends, family, co-workers, clergy, or a trusted doctor or therapist. Let them know what has transpired and how they can help you. 
  • Consider what you’ll need financially, and put the wheels in motion. This may take time if your partner has had control over your finances.
  • Leave when they least expect it. This gives you time to get away without more drama and manipulation tactics.
  • Take important documents, credit cards, checkbook, and proof of residence. You may need these to get new housing.
  • Keep cash for immediate expenses. If you share accounts, your credit card purchases can be tracked. In the meantime, set up accounts in your name only.
  • Have a place to stay in the short term. Then, make plans for the long term. 

If you are experiencing domestic violence, your safety is your first priority. Contact the Domestic Abuse Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) to understand your options. You may even want to contact local law enforcement.

Document any of your partner's behavior, including photos of injuries, torn clothing, broken household items or anything else that might be helpful evidence. Ask for a protective order from the court, and get immediate legal advice concerning your next actions. Getting away from an abusive partner can be a matter of life or death. Reach out and get help to ensure your safety. 

Emotional and physical control in a relationship is unhealthy and, at its worst, dangerous. You deserve better.

If you are considering leaving a controlling partner or spouse, we have resources and professional services that can help you. At Hello Divorce, we are on your side whether yours is a high-conflict divorce, an amicable one, or somewhere in between. Contact us for a free 15-minute phone meeting to learn more.


Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.