Characteristics of a Controlling Personality

       The Controlling PersonalityGenerally, 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. 

  1. 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).
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.  
  6. 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). 
  7. 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).
  8. 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). 
  9. 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). 
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

Related Articles:

  1. A Primer on the Doctrine of Separation  
  2. Dealing with Fools  
  3. Choosing Righteous Friends  
  4. Choose a Christian Spouse  
  5. Love you Enemies  

About Steven R. Cook, M.Div.

Steven is a Christian educator. His webpages communicate evangelical Christian doctrines and topics. Steven earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2006 and pursued doctoral work in Expository Preaching and Systematic Theology. His articles are theological, devotional, and promote a biblical worldview. Studies in the original languages of Scripture, ancient history, and systematic theology have been the foundation for Steven’s teaching and writing ministry. He has written several Christian books, dozens of articles on Christian theology, and recorded more than three hundred hours of audio and video sermons. Steven worked in jail ministry for over twelve years, taught in Bible churches, and currently leads a Bible study each week at his home in Arlington, Texas.
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16 Responses to Characteristics of a Controlling Personality

  1. Jaionne says:

    The information you shared was very informative but why would your solution, as a christian, be to leave the relationship as if the Lord is not able to deliver a person. As Christians aren’t we to live by faith, give them over to the Lord and pray. Ultimately, is that what the Lord would have us do? Giving up on the relationship would be admitting that this making a change in the individual would be too hard for Him.

    • Thank you for your reply. I agree that there may be times that we can stay in a relationship with a person and that the Lord can change them. Biblical wisdom and humility are necessary for discernment. However, some people never change, and if the person is abusive, separation may be necessary. There are biblical passages that teach we should avoid some people, and these can be found in my article on Christian Separation: http://wp.me/p3bc4W-2V

  2. Gina says:

    Steven: Your article hit to the heart. We have a daughter-in-law who is controlling to the extreme. She has just about destroyed our relationship with our son, who is very passive, and only does what she says due to fear as she tends to go into rages. We are very worried particularly for our two grand children. We feel this will only develop into a dangerous situation for our son, and our grand babies. Our son can’t speak to us on his own or else she’ll hound him, so giving advise at this stage is difficult because we have done this in the past and she turns any advise we have given our son as talking behind her back. We continue to display God’s love to her, however, it’s futile. She spent time in prison a few months ago for committing a felony prior to her ever meeting our son. Our son did not find out until the police showed up at their door. My husband and I saw red flags from the very start of her relationship with our son. Sorry to go on and on, but ask that you pray for our situation, for God’s wisdom and discernment, and particularly for our son and grand children’s safety and protection. G.

    • Gina: I’m praying for you and the situation with your son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Healthy Christian relationships are always the product of good choices and never the product of chance (Choosing a Christian Spouse). Most controlling personalities I’ve met are just verbal tyrants, manipulating others with abusive language in order to get their way; however, some may resort to physical abuse. You, or someone you know, may need to intervene for your son and grandchildren if you ever feel their physical safety is in danger (i.e. call authorities). Praying and sharing God’s Word with your son and daughter-in-law is the only thing that will effect true and lasting change. I’m not passive toward controllers, but I don’t argue with them either. I try to live by Scripture which teaches, “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26). Steven

  3. S Coker says:

    I have a very difficult situation with a controlling person and they mainly control with talking all the time and constantly questioning even the words I use and the prayers I pray. (“We shouldn’t pray for that!”) They ridicule some things I say even when their information is just flat wrong. They lead a weekly Bible study and they’re involved in prison ministries, which both are good, but I’m just feeling so overwhelmed and overshadowed by her temperament, being told my her that my temperament is unbiblical. This is so demoralizing, and I’d like to lovingly confront her, but I can never get a word in edgewise. I’d hate to leave the prison ministry–although I’m aware that there are several good ones out there, so I could get involved in a different one. I’m thankful that you’ve written this piece to give me some perspective on it. I wish my friend would read it; but, even if she did, she’d selectively quote certain Scriptures that find fault with it. And yes, I do know that there are Biblical principles and Scriptures that speak against someone who lords it over another, and that we’re supposed to accept one another as God in Christ has accepted us. Such a hard challenge.

    • Greetings, and thank you for your post. There is certainly a place for constructive criticism which should lead to loving correction; but this is different than the controlling criticism that only seeks to tear another person down for personal advantage. When Scripture is abused, and there is no love, then the criticism is not beneficial. It has been my experience over the years that arrogant people rarely see their own faults, but are constantly aware of the faults of others, and seek to use those faults against them. In the past I’ve tried to speak to the controlling person, but I rarely have I seen any change, as that requires humility. In the end I wind up leaving the relationship. I still love and pray for that person, but I also realize that a close relationship is not possible. I pray God gives you wisdom and courage.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hello Steven, I found your help while desperately looking for some answers. I am a newly wed (2years) with a baby. My father in law is a local pastor. My husband and I remain in an ongoing battle of marital interference (I know the heart of this is our marriage) by his parents. They want to be involved with just about every decision we make- and when we make decisions together, they are constantly trying to debate them or express their disapproval via passive aggression (these are generally personal preferences). They try to dictate how much time we see them (we already see them every week and every holiday) and act as if we are being ‘unloving’ if we don’t invite them over more often. I feel completely suffocated from all of this. We have zero privacy as a new family. We have tried to lovingly talk to them about our needs. We have told them how much we love them but would really love their help in supporting us, our marriage, and our new little family by encouraging us to make decisions together. We’ve discussed that we love them but we also have a very busy life outside of them, but that we still make them a priority over anyone else (even my parents). I am constantly texted, called, and reminded how badly they miss my daughter (1 or 2 days after seeing her at times!!!) they disrespect and undermine our wishes for our child and our marriage and almost discourage my husband when he asks my opinion ex: “you need to do what YOU want to do ‘son’ (always ridiculously emphasizing the YOU as in him, not me). My husband has recognized this as a real problem- we have created boundaries for ourselves and our child to orotect our marriage and her from this…. It seems to still be a source of awful anxiety in our home…, advice???

    • Greetings. It sounds like you’re already making good choices. Working with your husband is the right way to handle the matter; together as a team. Establishing boundaries is good, maintaining them is always the challenge. You’ll just need to stay the course and keep reminding them about your wishes, while at the same time not pushing them out of your life altogether. Some people we can distance ourselves from, while others we cannot. I have family and co-workers that I have to deal with from day to day, and it’s an ongoing challenge for me to learn and apply biblical commands and principles to the situation. God sometimes allows us to face difficulties to develop our Christian character. I know I’ve prayed many times for God to take away a certain problem in my life, and He says, “no” (see 2 Cor. 12:7-10). When this happens, we must do our best to live by faith and trust God. Here’s a short article (http://wp.me/p3bc4W-K4) and video that may prove helpful (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktvceeV39AA).

      I pray you find some help in your situation.

      Steven

  5. Beth J. says:

    What would you do about a controlling pastor who micro-manages his staff? I recently started working with a pastor who has taken on all of my duties as a secretary. I do the work as I always have (for the last ten years) and he changes everything after I leave for the day. It isn’t that my work is bad. He just wants control.

    • Hello Beth. Thank you for your comment. Lord knows there are many controlling pastors in the world. I’ve worked for a few of them myself. I’ve learned to view them, and others, as an opportunity to grow spiritually. To live by grace, to apply biblical wisdom, to show love to the undeserving, and to model the virtue of humility. The following links may prove helpful to you:

      https://thinkingonscripture.com/2016/10/17/living-by-grace/
      https://thinkingonscripture.com/2013/08/10/biblical-wisdom/
      https://thinkingonscripture.com/2013/02/23/love-your-enemies/
      https://thinkingonscripture.com/2014/06/12/the-virtue-of-humility/

      God knows your struggle, and He has the answer for your difficulty in His word. Perhaps the following Scripture reference will be helpful:

      See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5:15-18)

      And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

      Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jam. 1:2-4)

      Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

      For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. (2 Cor. 10:3-5)

      “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt. 5:43-45)

      “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Luke 6:27-28)

      Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 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. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “but if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:14-21)

      Steven

  6. Doug says:

    Leave the relationship? As horrible as a controlling personality is, it is not biblical grounds for divorce. Godly counseling is needed, not encouragement to leave a relationship. Two wrongs don’t make a right. We’re all a work in progress. If troubled souls take your misguided advice, then you are accountable for that advice. The article is a very important one, but you need to go back PLEASE and change your unbiblical advice.

    • Thank you for your comment Doug. I appreciate your concern for biblical correctness. I agree that Godly counseling is best, assuming both parties want to be counseled. For non-marital relationships (i.e. friends, co-workers, siblings, etc.), leaving is often the best option, if the other person refuses to change his/her harmful behavior. Scripture clearly states, “Do not associate with a man given to anger” (Pro 22:24). Marriage (for believers) 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. 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, she is under no obligation to submit to his violent tyranny.

      I hope this addresses your concern.

  7. Chad says:

    I need help man!
    My dad is exactly this and I think his tendencies have rubbed off on me!
    I am a newly wed of 3 months and need advice
    What do you suggest that I do in order to save our marriage!

  8. Deborah Babbit says:

    Thank you for taking a stand for godliness. I have a pastor who has done so as well. He refers to this behavior as demonic. It destroys churches over stupid issues over choosing pews over chairs and red versus brown carpet. It brings close relationships down to pieces because one can’t do everything to perfectly match their wishes. One can’t try something new because it will cause a major offense.

    I’ve known people who beg me to get them away from the controlling, belittling individual. Eventually they blow up and take a stand, or become suicidal.

    I agree with you and my pastor. When God guides us to modify our behavior, does he belittle or hover over us with constant nit picking over irrelevant details? He often let’s us learn from our own mistakes rather than badgering.

    Are we the Holy Spirit? No. It is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit to convince and convict us. We can’t follow people around telling them what to do at every hand. Especially when it all has to do with a matter of trying grapes in the salad or buying anything.

    I was also guilty in part of this domineering way of life and had to take to heart and had to be confronted with my inability to be Holy Spirit for co-workers, friends or family. Having it turned around upon me was the best way for God to teach me. I work for a hovering, belittling, gossiping nit picker. I’ve seen the turmoil each family member goes through over the years until they find their way to get away from it.

    God loves to see us bloom, try new things, improve our game, communicate better.

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