Healthy friendships are based on mutual respect. Unfortunately, some people find it difficult to have balanced relationships. They may try to tell everyone else what to do and always assume that they know best. It’s hard to have a controlling friend; you might feel annoyed, suffocated, or even bullied.
In this article, you’ll learn how to spot controlling behaviors, how to handle them, and how to know when it’s time to step back from the friendship.
Controlling people often try using multiple strategies to influence you or cross your boundaries. Some are blatant, but some are more subtle.
Here are some signs to look out for:
- Direct demands and requests with no consideration for your needs or feelings
- Ultimatums: For example, “You can either be friends with me or friends with X.”
- Emotional blackmail: For example, “If you really cared about me, you’d always pick up the phone.”
- Disrespect for privacy: For example, reading your text messages without your permission.
- Passive aggression: For example, they might say, “Oh, it’s fine,” but use a sarcastic tone of voice or roll their eyes to show they are unhappy.
- An inability to respect the word “No”
- An inability to take responsibility for their actions or say “sorry”
- Doing unwanted favors and then expecting you to reciprocate: For example, they might ask to borrow your car and imply that you should say “Yes” because they bought you lunch last week (even if you didn’t ask them to).
- Giving advice and then being upset if you don’t follow it
- Telling you how you should feel: For example, they might tell you that you “shouldn’t be offended” by their mean remarks or offensive jokes.
- Possessive behavior, for example, trying to sabotage your other friendships
- Trying to change your opinions or beliefs: It’s normal for friends to talk about opinions or beliefs, but if your friend belittles your views or spends a lot of time trying to convince you that you’re “wrong,” this may be a sign of controlling behavior.
You may be confused by your friend’s behavior. It might seem strange that they would claim to like you or even be your best friend while making your life more difficult. It may help to learn why some people feel a need to control others.
One common cause of these behaviors is anxiety. Anxious people sometimes try to control their environment, including other peoples’ actions.
Other possible causes include:
- Personality disorders, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
- Being raised in a home with parents or carers who often behaved in a controlling way. Some people grow up assuming that control and manipulation are normal in relationships because it’s what they saw as a child.
However, it’s important to remember that a difficult childhood, anxiety, or other psychological problems are not an excuse for controlling behaviors. As adults, we are all responsible for our actions.
If your friend is making an unreasonable request or demand, try saying “No” directly without giving a lengthy explanation. You do not have to justify your reason for refusing.
- “No, that doesn’t work for me.”
- “No, that isn’t possible.”
- “No, I can’t do that.”
You may need to repeat your answer. Use the same words and the same tone of voice. Most people will stop trying to make a demand if they hear an identical negative response each several times.
When you have become more comfortable saying “No,” you can move on to the next step: asking your friend to change their controlling behavior.
Use this formula:
- What you are feeling
- When you feel that way
- What you would like to happen in future
- “When you try to tell me what food I should order when we go out, I feel patronized. From now on, I’d like you to stop commenting on my meals.”
- “When you text me several times in one evening asking me who I’m with and what I’m doing, I feel suffocated. In the future, I’d like you to stop texting me if you don’t get a reply.”
If your friend insists that your feelings are wrong or that you are unreasonable, remember that no one has the right to tell you how to think or feel. Tell them, “But that is how I feel” or “I know how I feel, and I’m letting you know.”
If your friend keeps on dismissing your feelings, it may be time to reevaluate the friendship. True friends try to understand your point of view instead of demanding that you agree with them.
Controlling people often disrespect your boundaries. It can help to spell out exactly what you will and will not do or tolerate.
Here are some examples of boundaries:
- “I don’t reply to texts after 10 p.m. on weeknights unless it’s an emergency.”
- “I don’t talk to people who insult me.”
- “I don’t lend people money.”
- “I only hug my relatives and my partner.”
The first time a friend crosses a boundary, spell it out for them. If they cross it again, ask them to change their behavior. If that doesn’t work, decide what the consequences will be if they keep ignoring your boundary.
Only spell out consequences if you are prepared to follow through.
- “If you insult me in front of your friends again, I’ll leave this party.”
- “If you try to tell me what clothes I should and shouldn’t buy, I won’t go shopping with you again.”
Our guide on what to do if you’re being treated like a doormat has more advice on setting and maintaining boundaries.
Your friend may be more likely to respect what you are saying if you use assertive body language when you speak.
- Make eye contact; it makes you come across as more confident.
- Sit or stand upright. Good posture can make you appear more assertive. If you have poor posture, see this posture exercise video.
- Do not fidget, as this can make you look nervous.
- Do not hide behind objects. For example, do not use your bag as a shield.
Some people aren’t aware that they are overbearing, pushy, and controlling. If your friend fits into this category, an honest conversation about boundaries, perhaps with a few gentle reminders, might be enough to solve the problem.
But if your friend doesn’t or can’t accept that their behavior isn’t appropriate, they probably won’t change. You will have to decide whether your friend’s better qualities are enough to compensate for their controlling behavior.
If you feel that your friend’s positive qualities outweigh their controlling traits or their behavior is improving, you may want to keep the friendship. But not every friendship can or should continue.
In general, it might be time to distance yourself from your friend if:
- You’ve tried to set boundaries, but your friend doesn’t listen to you, or they don’t understand what you need.
- You feel physically or emotionally unsafe.
- On balance, the friendship makes your life more difficult, not more enjoyable.
- Your friend says or does things that make you question your intelligence or sanity; this is a sign of a serious form of abuse known as gaslighting. Healthline has a useful online guide to gaslighting and how to handle it.
You can read more about signs of unhealthy friendships in our article on signs of a toxic friendship.
If you can’t avoid your controlling friend altogether, for example, if you go to school together or work in the same place, remain polite and civil but don’t engage with them unless it’s absolutely necessary. Stick to light topics and excuse yourself as soon as possible if you have to make small talk and do not agree to hang out with them.
Controlling people might be attracted to you because they can see you have weak boundaries and can be manipulated. For example, if you usually go along with what everyone else wants, even if you don’t really want to, a controlling person may see that you don’t stand up for yourself. They might think you won’t challenge their unreasonable behaviors.
But sometimes, the answer is a little more complicated. The problem might not be that you attract controlling people but that you ignore the warning signs that they are toxic. Instead of distancing yourself, you may choose to overlook their controlling behaviors or keep giving them a chance to change.
You may fall into this trap if you don’t trust your own judgment. For example, you may think, “She/he seems a bit critical, but perhaps I’m just too sensitive. I should give her/him a chance.”
Read our guide on how to tell fake friends from real friends and give yourself permission to back away from the friendship or distance yourself from a new acquaintance if you recognize red flags. It may also be a good idea to build your self-esteem so that you aren’t too eager to befriend anyone who takes an interest in you.
Yes, but only if they want to. You can communicate openly about someone’s behavior and ask them to act differently, but you cannot control how they respond. If they do not change, it may be best to distance yourself from them if possible.
When you are getting to know a new friend, watch out for any signs of controlling behavior, such as demanding favors or repeatedly checking up on your location. Be prepared to withdraw from the friendship if they make you uncomfortable instead of staying and hoping that they will change.