9 Signs to Identify a Controlling, Dominating Spouse

Marriages become distressed for a variety of reasons. In our turnaround weekend for crisis marriages, we see them all; infidelity, addiction, poor communication, lack of love, anger, and more. One of the most common difficulties leading couples to us is one spouse controlling or dominating the other.

Some controlled or dominated spouses finally had enough and decided not to take it any longer. They took a stand and made it clear that if things do not change the marriage will soon be over. Others fell into an emotional relationship with someone who treated them with dignity and respect. All have one thing in common: they demand a different life than the one they have been subjected to in their marriages.

Though in actuality the marriage has been in trouble for some time, the other spouse did not recognize the severity of the problem. From our workshops, we know that most controlling or dominating spouses have little comprehension of how their actions affect their spouses. As they become aware of their husband or wife’s negative reactions to them, they typically justify their behaviors by explaining their intentions. We often hear them say things such as:

  • I thought I was helping by pointing out things she could do better.
  • I admit that I can be a little harsh in the way I say things, but that’s just the way I am. He knew that when he married me. I never meant to make him feel bad about himself.
  • If I didn’t control the money, she’d send us into the poor house. If I let her do what she wanted, our kids would be wearing hand-me-downs.
  • Isn’t it fair for me to say what I think? I was only standing up for what I believe and I can’t help it if that offends him.
  • I think I have a right to have her take care of me and my needs rather than always running off to do any and everything her family wants from her. I wasn’t controlling; I was trying to make my marriage work.

From their viewpoint, they did nothing wrong. However, their spouses feel anger, resentment, and sometimes bitterness because of the way they have been treated.

Because this problem prevails in so many marriages, I placed a survey online for people who feel that their spouses control or dominate them. Though not exhaustive, the survey indicated at least nine areas in which people feel controlled or dominated by their spouses. Unfortunately, only females responded to the survey. Therefore, all quotes in the next section are from women. However, we know from our work with marriages that situations exist where the wife dominates or controls the husband.

Because so many controlling or dominating people tend to dismiss complaints from their spouses, I supply the quotes below with two goals. First, I wish to demonstrate to those who feel controlled that they are not alone and that they should not dismiss their frustrations as selfishness or misunderstanding. Second, I give examples of how several different people feel controlled in hopes of creating awareness of the dominating spouse of how his/her actions are perceived. Let's look at nine specific signs and unhealthy ways that a spouse controls. 

SPECIAL NOTE: If your spouse is physically violent, or if you have any fear for your safety, skip this article and call the Domestic Abuse Hotline for information about how to be safe. 1-888-7HELPLINE – US & Canada)

1. My Spouse Tries to Control What I Do Or Wear

Writing about her current husband, one respondent stated, “He makes choices for me including the food I eat.”

Referring to a former spouse, another respondent wrote, “I wasn't allowed to wear makeup or ‘revealing’ clothes. However, he required me to wear sexy lingerie weekly.” She went on to state, “He installed spyware on my personal laptop and tracked every website I visited for the entire eight years of our marriage without my knowledge and used that information to verbally attack and criticize me.”

Another person said of her former spouse, “He used religion to try to control me.”

In a similar vein, another wrote about her former spouse, “His control began primarily through religion and gradually grew to a complete totalitarian system including dress code, language, schedule, even private prayers.”

2. My Spouse Uses Anger

One spouse said of her current husband, “He gets angry if I make a mistake.”

Another said her spouse controls her through yelling at her.

Writing about her former husband, one person stated, “He would give me the silent treatment for days at a time when he got mad at me. He was verbally abusive and lectured me like a little child.”

A young wife said of her current spouse, “He had (and is still working on) anger issues and I quickly became afraid of his outbursts, though he never hit or hurt me physically.”

3. My Spouse Uses Criticism and Sarcasm

A respondent wrote of her current husband, “He is constantly sarcastic towards me.”

A woman said of her former husband, “He was very verbally critical and found a way to twist anything I valued into a weapon to control me. He tried to make me feel that I was bad or wrong or undeserving.”

4. My Spouse Acts Superior to Me 

One person responded about her current husband, “He expects me to do things and think the way he does. He believes his way is better.”

Another wrote of her current husband, “The verbal abuse comes in the form of questioning everything I do or say. Any opinion I have or knowledge I have of a subject is dismissed as stupid or incorrect. I can tell him what happened at a concert and he will look me right in the eye and tell me it didn't happen in that way. He comes across as the ultimate know-it-all and the rest of the world is inferior to him, yet I know his own self-esteem is in the toilet or he wouldn't feel the need to act this way. I can be cooking in the kitchen and he will come in and take over because his way is better. I can get ready to draw something, such as a triangle, and he will try to take the pencil out of my hand and draw it for me because he doesn't feel that I can do it. He comes across very charming and affable to the outside world, but at home, he is totally different. All of our friends would be shocked if they really knew what he was like.”

5. My Spouse Controls the Money

Referring to her former husband, a respondent stated, “He controlled all money including my paycheck. He gave me an allowance of $100 per week for anything I or my daughter needed.”

About her former spouse, one woman wrote, “He spent money with no regard to our ability to earn money, including running up a home equity loan.”

Another said of her former husband, “He made it clear that HE made all the money and was angry if I spent any (he made more than $700,000 per year). To stop his accusations about my spending, I would cut coupons, shop sales, etc., and then write the check for the full amount. I kept the savings as 'cookie jar' money so I could buy him a Christmas or birthday present without him seeing the credit card bill. When he discovered what I did, he blew up and said I was stealing from him.”

She continued, “I caught him having an affair. I got a nice settlement.” 

6. My Spouse Tried to Control or Dominate Me By Embarrassing Me

Writing about her former husband, a respondent said, “Drinking made him mean, usually only to me. He drank a lot and I had to create diversions to get him home before he launched into me and eliminated any chance of a social life.”

She continued, “He forgot Christmas for me. We were at my parents and after all the gifts were handed out, I didn't have one. He said, ‘Oh, I forgot you.’”

Another said of her former spouse, “He lied about me to people in our church which isolated me.”

7. My Spouse Tries to Control Whom I Spend Time With or Talk To

A woman wrote about her current spouse, “He gets angry when I visit and spend time with my family.”

A respondent said of her current spouse, “He is just overbearing and does not like me to do anything without him and does not want me to spend time with friends or family.”

8. My Spouse Justifies His/Her Negative Behavior OR Blames Me for His/Her Behavior

A woman said, “He refuses to help with any major decisions. If he doesn't like my decision that I'm forced to make without him, then he throws a tantrum like a 2-year-old.”

Another said of her current spouse, “He does things like ask me if we can go out to eat when he knows we are low on money. Because I can’t say no without risking an outburst, we go. A week or two later when we don't have the money to pay bills he gets angry anyway and blames me for not managing our money well. He dominates while giving the illusion that I am totally in control.”

9. My Spouse Controls or Dominates In Sexual Ways

A frustrated woman wrote about her current spouse, “He pouts if I refuse sex, even for legitimate reasons such as a bad headache or an illness. He then blames me for the lack of sex in our relationship. The pressure to have sex is immense and yet he is very distant emotionally when it comes to sex. I could be anyone; he just needs a body to satisfy his need. There's always the lingering threat that he will get back into porn if I don't satisfy his need.”

A respondent said about her former husband, “He withdrew all emotional support. He withdrew all sexual relations, including simple things such as sitting near, kissing, etc., not just intercourse.”

Another wrote of her former spouse, “Sex was his way or not at all.” 

Now that we've looked at the ways to identify unhealthy control, let's discuss how your spouse's domination or control affects you. The following is based on answers respondents gave to specific questions about control and domination. Their responses fell into the following categories.

Sense of Worthlessness

The quote that began this article identified this effect eloquently. However, several more spoke about how her spouse’s control destroyed her belief in herself.

One respondent said, "As a result of his controlling me, I have low self-esteem. I feel worthless. I have no value."

Another wrote, "It’s as if I no longer exist. Therefore, I cannot do anything other than sacrifice my needs for what others want."

Loss of Confidence

One woman said of her former spouse who had controlled her, "I had lost my self-confidence, my dignity, and my self-respect."

Another wrote, "I now have an inability to make decisions. I live in fear of failure and being inadequate."

Yet another said, "He completely squelched any individuality or autonomy I had. He crushed me as a person and as a Christian."

Depression and Anxiety

One woman wrote about her former spouse’s controlling behavior, "I suffered severe depression. I even contemplated suicide. I became another person, very different from who I was before. I would feel nauseated when he called because of anxiety of knowing he would be yelling about something."

Another confessed, "I internalized the stress. I think it would have killed me if I hadn’t gotten out. If I had died, my children (one is special needs) would've been stuck with him to raise them. I couldn’t let that happen, so I had to leave him before the tension destroyed me."

Yet another said, "I am always feeling overwhelmed and depressed. I cry a lot."

Disengaged from Friends and Family

A woman wrote, "It was a very scary, very sad, very dark time for me. I pulled away from family and friends who criticized my husband because I was just tired of trying to defend him all the time. I did not see what was happening or at least did not want to accept it."

A wife stated, "I hid my real life and emotions from everyone outside our home. It looked like everything was great, but I was falling apart inside."

Another said, "I don't have friends; I rarely do anything with my family."

Fear

A woman whose marriage has since improved wrote about what it was like when her husband dominated her, “During that time, I had an early miscarriage though I did not know that I had been pregnant. It was the worst pain of my life and I thought that I was going to die. Literally. But my husband was asleep and I was too scared to wake him up, so I laid in the hallway so that if I died our roommate would discover me when she got home from work late that night. It was his control over me that made me believe I was not to wake him for any reason ever. I was extremely depressed and constantly scared during that time in our marriage.”

Another wrote, "I lived on eggshells, which is a terrible and horrible way to exist. I considered suicide. I almost left the church."

Another stated her fear succinctly, "I retreated."

Susceptibility to Manipulation

A respondent spoke to how her husband's control of her continued even as she divorced him, “I left him thinking I could handle anything. Was I ever wrong! I allowed him to manipulate the divorce still thinking things might change and we could reconcile. We were well off and very comfortable in our lifestyle, but he managed to get most everything we had materially. My financial situation has been difficult, but the blessing is that I am learning who I am and whose I am.”

Rebellion

Some who felt controlled or dominated rebelled by doing things against their own beliefs and values. As one woman wrote, “No one deserves to be mistreated. However, I know that I reacted badly to what was going on in my marriage. I had to get out because I was dying inside. I turned to other people, which was not right, but felt so unloved by my ex. Learning to love myself was what I needed most.”

If You Feel Abused: The Lesson to Be Learned

If you relate to some or all of the quotes above, consider the possibility that you are being controlled or dominated. Control or domination does not gradually fade away. Instead, they are more likely to increase with time. If you feel that your spouse behaves in dominating and controlling ways, the best time to address the issue is now. The longer you wait, the worse the effects on you.

If you feel it safe, suggest marriage counseling or other therapy if needed. If you wish a faster route to changing your spouse’s behavior, consider an intensive marriage workshop such as our three-day Marriage Help ER 911 for marriages facing difficulties.

SPECIAL NOTE: If your spouse is physically violent, or if you have any fear for your safety, rather than suggesting counseling or a workshop, call the Domestic Abuse Hotline for information about how to be safe. 1-888-7HELPLINE – US & Canada)

If you feel that you may be dominated or controlled but are not sure, take a free assessment. Reach it by clicking this link.

Are You Controlling or Dominating?

Most people who control or dominate their spouses do not believe that they do so. They offer reasons for their behaviors and see them as justified. If as you read the above quotes from the survey respondents, you recognized emotions or comments that you spouse has made, consider carefully whether you are controlling or dominating, no matter your intentions. If you think you may be, give this article to your spouse and ask if he or she feels any of the things identified in the quotes above. (NOTE: do not expect a controlled or dominated spouse to answer honestly unless you give total immunity for his or her response.)

If you control your spouse, you very likely control and dominate your children as well, even if you do not intend to do so. As one woman wrote, “I was willing to live with it because of the kids, but when he started talking to my 10-year-old like he did to me (she looks just like me) I snapped. I called an attorney, got a backbone, and kicked him out.”

We realize that a person demonstrating one or more of the above actions occasionally does not mean that he or she is controlling or dominating. None of us is perfect and each of us can display less than ideal behavior at times. Therefore, if you feel that you may be dominated or controlled but are not sure, take a free assessment. Reach it by clicking this link.

Dr. Joe Beam is an internationally-known inspirational speaker and best-selling author. He founded Marriage Helper, INC and serves as its chairman. He has spoken to millions of people worldwide in personal appearances as well as appearances on television and radio, including ABC’s Good Morning America, Focus on the Family, the Montel Williams Show, NBC’s Today Show, The Dave Ramsey Show, The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet and magazines such as People and Better Homes and Gardens. Dr. Joe Beam is an internationally-known inspirational speaker and best-selling author. He founded Marriage Helper, INC and serves as its chairman. 

Joe Beam after earning his bachelor’s degree (Magna Cum Laude) from Southern Christian University, Dr. Beam did graduate studies in Clinical Psychology at the University of Evansville. He earned his Ph.D in health science from the University of Sydney, consistently rated one of the top fifty universities in the world. The emphasis of his research was in sexual satisfaction. Dr. Beam has authored many magazine articles, corporate training programs, and is the author of several books.


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