Generally, a controlling person is self-absorbed, insensitive towards others, pushes to get his own way and manipulates circumstances and people to achieve his own agenda. When feeling threatened, he may resort to unethical behavior to destroy his opponent. He does not understand freedom or grace. Controlling others involves breaking them down, destroying their self-worth, degrading them psychologically and emotionally, even resorting to social and physical abuse in some cases. The controlling person lacks the capacity to enjoy a mature loving relationship, because he is consumed with self and does not know how to love sacrificially for the benefit of others. He does not know how to love graciously, freely, with an open hand, expecting nothing in return. He gives only to get. He may use the word “love”, but only as a means to an end, to serve his own selfish program and not the wellbeing of the other person. People are seen as objects to be manipulated, not individuals to be loved.
These are my observations as I’ve dealt with controlling people over the years. I have no one person in mind. A controlling person can be male or female, religious or irreligious, old or young, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, and belong to any ethnic group. A controlling person may fit some or all of the characteristics below. I’ve modified the list a few times and may make corrections in the future.
- A controlling person often likes a position of authority (supervisor, politician, professor, doctor, pastor). Being in control of others makes him feel important, powerful and secure (authority is legitimate, but arrogant people abuse their authority and hurt the innocent). The problem with arrogant people is that they rarely see their own faults, but only the faults of others. Their hubris prevents them from being open to genuine discussion about change. A humble person does not abuse their position of authority, but sees themselves as a servant-leader, open to discussion, correction, and willing to makes sacrifices for others (Phil. 2:3-4).
- A controlling person tries to kill your confidence through criticisms that keep you on the defensive, making you feel self-conscious all the time and walking on eggshells. The gradual chipping away at your self-esteem leaves you deflated, feeling insignificant, and eventually makes you feel like you have no value at all (criticism can be valid, if it is rooted in Scripture and followed with loving correction that builds you up). Scripture teaches we are to encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11, 14; Heb. 3:13), and build each other up (Rom. 14:19), but the controlling person prefers only destructive criticism.
- A controlling person will sometimes recruit others to help coerce or control you. Sometimes the other people are unsuspecting participants and may not know they are being used to cause harm. Many years ago I was pastoring in a Southern Baptist Church and the head deacon was disturbed that I did not perform traditional altar calls at the end of my church service (they are not biblical). He recruited several church members and argued with me for hours to try to force me to do what he wanted (it was a very unpleasant experience). When I politely refused, he quickly and quietly spread lies within the congregation and engaged in character assassination and within a few days I was unjustly and forcefully voted out of the church. The control-freak won and the church lost its pastor. A third of the members walked out of the morning service and never returned (upset over the coup d’etat). I was deeply hurt by the matter and still bear scars. Over the years I’ve had other—less traumatic—experiences with controlling church leaders.
- A controlling person will use your past, or even your weaknesses against you. This is unfortunate, because in any relationship there must be trust, and this means sharing things about your past and perhaps areas where you may struggle. The controlling person will exploit these areas to his own advantage, either to keep you in his grip, or to assassinate your character to others.
- A controlling person will refuse to allow you to leave the relationship, demanding you conform to his way of doing things. There’s often no grace or freedom to think or act on your own. His personality leaves little room for your personality.
- A controlling person will seek to cut off your friends (isolate you), or try to discredit or destroy your reputation in order to keep you under his controlling influence. What he cannot control, he’ll seek to destroy (psychologically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and in some cases physically).
- A controlling person is often concerned with his own appearance and with the appearance of those within his grip. This helps him to control the perception others have of him (it’s good to be well dressed, but a loving character should be more important than appearance).
- A controlling person sometimes wants to associate with important people because this adds to his own image of importance. Relationships are merely a means of self advancement (sometimes we will know socially important people, but it’s wrong to flaunt our relationship with them for personal gain).
- A controlling person will rarely admit he is wrong, even when evidence is provided. Arguing becomes an exercise in frustration (a humble man will readily admit his faults and be open to loving correction).
- A controlling person rarely changes (since this requires humility), so it’s better to leave the relationship if possible (especially if you’re in danger of harm). When leaving a controlling relationship, don’t worry about explaining yourself, as he will most likely not understand your words or actions. He will not be happy with your choice, but he’s not happy anyway, so you might as well be free from the controlling influence and seek more mature relationships.
- Lastly, for those in a marital relationship, separating from an abusive partner is not the same as divorce. Marriage is a binding contract before God, and Scripture teaches that divorce is permissible only when a spouse offends through sexual infidelity (Matt. 5: 31-32), or when an unbelieving spouse abandons their Christian partner (1 Cor. 7:12-16). Even in such cases, divorce is not mandated, and is discouraged if any hope of saving the marriage can be found. Forgiveness and love is expected in the Christian toward the offending spouse, assuming they are repentant. However, when a spouse (most often a male) physically or sexually abuses his wife, the abused person has every right to separate (not divorce) from that person who is causing harm. Hopefully the separation will lead the abuser to see his harmful ways and seek counsel, but if he does not, the abused spouse is under no obligation to submit to his violent tyranny.
In conclusion, it is okay, and sometimes best, to avoid the controlling person altogether. However, don’t be rude if/when you see him. The Apostle Paul says, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:17-18).
Steven R. Cook, M.Div.