Q: “What Are the Signs of a Controlling Relationship?”

People with ADHD may be more susceptible to toxic relationships. Learn the differences between a supportive and controlling relationship.

Image showing hands controlling relationship. People with ADHD may be more susceptible to toxic relationships. Learn the differences between a supportive and controlling relationship.
05/08/2024 - Q: “What Are the Signs of a Controlling Relationship?”

Q: My young adult daughter has ADHD. Her new boyfriend seems controlling to me, but she says he’s supportive. How can we recognize the difference?

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell when a relationship has crossed a line from supportive to controlling. Let’s examine the differences between these two types of relationships, including how they relate to ADHD.

Signs of a Supportive Relationship

In a supportive relationship, partners emphasize individual autonomy (the ability to make your own decisions) and independence, encouraging each other to pursue personal interests, goals, and friendships outside the relationship. Both partners respect each other’s space and neither seeks to dominate or control the other. When decisions are made together, they consider the needs of both partners. For example, partners may discuss treatment for ADHD together, but the ultimate decision is entrusted to the partner with ADHD.

Respect is fundamental and communication is open, honest, and non-judgmental. Partners feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns without fear. Partners strive to understand each other’s perspectives and seek mutually beneficial solutions. ADHD may be seen as an issue, but it is never “weaponized” against a partner.

Supportive relationships encourage mutual emotional growth and development. Partners encourage and celebrate each other’s achievements and milestones. Each partner actively supports the other in their personal and professional activities, including involvement in ADHD-related groups or communities.

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Signs of a Controlling Relationship

In a controlling relationship, there is often a significant power imbalance. One partner seeks to control the other, dictating decisions and actions. A partner who attempts to address a power imbalance often gets belittled or ignored. The controlling partner may also use manipulation or coercion to maintain control.

A controlling partner may isolate the other from friends, family, or other sources of support in an effort to create dependency, making that person reliant on them for validation and decision-making. A controlling partner may tell the person with ADHD that they don’t need treatment and were easier before getting help.

Trust and transparency are often lacking in controlling relationships. The controlling partner may show jealousy, monitor the other person’s activities, or demand constant reassurance. The controlled partner may need to hide aspects of their life to avoid conflict.

Controlling relationships discourage emotional growth or interests that threaten the power imbalance in the relationship. The dominant partner may actively discourage the other person from pursuing personal interests, goals, or treatment for ADHD. A controlled partner who has a healthy support system and who is receiving effective treatment is more likely to leave a controlling relationship.

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A supportive relationship improves the wellbeing of both partners, whereas the power imbalance in a controlling relationship is damaging. Recognizing these differences is crucial for creating healthy, fulfilling connections with others.

Controlling Relationships and ADHD: Next Steps

Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., is a clinical specialist in child and adolescent counseling.

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