Can A Controlling Person Change?

To answer the question "Can a controlling person change?" we need to make some distinctions about the group of controlling people because this group can contain many subgroups. The motivation or reason for the controlling behavior may influence whether the individual can change or not. Or even if the individual is willing or inclined to change.

There has been lots written about the reasons for controlling behavior, such as an abusive childhood, a lack of control over oneself, low self esteem, pride, ego, insecurity and so on. However, there is one important reason that is rarely mentioned in these writings.

Another significant factor is that it can be very difficult to figure out exactly why someone is controlling. It may be easy to look at someone and say that he or she is acting in a controlling matter because they are nervous or insecure, but then they also do things that a nervous or insecure person just would not do. We will come back to this idea later.

First, let us organize controlling behavior into some categories in order to figure out can a controlling person change.


Can a controlling person change? 4 categories

For the purposes of figuring out can a controlling person change, it's useful to consider 4 different categories.

  • Inflexible people
  • Past trauma
  • Mental health issues
  • Control for the sake of control

Category 1

Some people are just not very flexible, they like things done their way and it is upsetting for them to have to change their routines. Mostly these people live normal lives, their partners and acquaintances find a way to make things work and there is little reason for these people to have to change much. The chances are that the controlling person in your life is not in this category.


Category 2:

Some people have endured some kind of trauma or upsetting event in the past and because of this they exhibit controlling behaviors in relationships. For example, someone who was cheated on in the past may obviously be concerned about a repeat and they may insist on knowing where their partner is going, with whom, how long they expect to be away and so on. They are often nervous and anxious about being hurt again, understandably.

Some people (by no means all, or even most) who were abused as children, may exhibit controlling behavior later in life. Sometimes it's because they don't know any different, they think such behavior is the norm, sometimes they act this way out of frustration (the kid who is being abused at home bullies others in school) and sometimes because they simply don't know how to behave any other way.

It's important to note that many people who were abused as children often have low self esteem, feel insecure, have a poor sense of self and so on. However, most go out of their way to make sure that they don’t treat others badly themselves. The idea that all abused children abuse others later is a myth. More about this later.

If someone is genuinely in this category, dealing with the past trauma/upset is usually enough for them to stop whatever controlling behavior they were engaging in. The person who was cheated on, for example, can learn to trust their new partner over time. The person who was abused as a child comes to understand what abusive behavior is and learns alternatives. In effect, as adults they take responsibility for overcoming the adversity and learning how to treat people differently. In other words, they can and do change.


Category 3

Those with mental health issues may also be very controlling, needing things to be done a particular way not only by themselves but by others as well. A person suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder who has a fear of dirt and germs may not just wash a lot themselves but may insist that those around wash frequently, too. This kind of thing can disrupt daily living and cause severe stress for everyone involved.

People with autistic spectrum disorder often need a lot of consideration and consistency from others in order to maintain a comfortable level of certainty and control. This can spill over into dominating topics of conversation, insisting that people follow the autistic individual's agendas or outright using other people for their own personal needs.

Asperger syndrome (now part of the autistic spectrum disorder) is recognized as having inflexibility and a lot of controlling behavior as part of the syndrome.

Those with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, can also be very demanding. They suffer from hallucinations and delusions which are fixed, false beliefs, such as thinking that aliens are communicating with the person through an implant in the brain. It's obviously false but it's fixed, or real, for the sufferer. Schizophrenics may need people around them to act in very particular ways in order to cope.

With mental health issues, whether the person can change or not depends on the severity of the illness and whether there are any effective treatments for the illness.


Category 4

If you are asking the question can a controlling person change, then chances are that your controlling person is in this category.

These are the ones who control for the sake of controlling. However, recognizing this can be very tricky. And this is the group that is rarely mentioned in articles about why people are controlling.

There are a group of people whose relationships are based on coercion and exploitation and they use domination and intimidation to control others. The main motivator for them is control. Power, money and sex are important to these people in varying quantities, but typically money and sex are used as a means to increase their power.

Very many of this group are people with a personality disorder. They are psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissists. People usually have some idea of what a psychopath is, often derived from TV, movies or the media. A psychopath is actually someone without a conscience. Basically they do not have emotions and they also have a huge sense of entitlement. The idea that some humans don't have emotions is often very difficult for people to understand.

The image you have of a psychopath or narcissist may not fit with how you think of the controlling person in your life. This is the first difficulty in recognizing this group.

The lack of emotion and the huge ego has important implications:

  • These types never feel bad for anything they do
  • They are often great liars
  • They take no responsibility for anything that goes wrong and they take all the credit for anything that goes well within 30 yards of them
  • They can be cruel and callous and they don't care how it affects others
  • They can be great actors, putting on a great show (never any embarrassment)
  • They play the victim role very well
  • They expect special treatment because they are superior beings
  • They want the world to be the way they want it to be and to hell with everyone else
  • The end justifies the means for these types. Put another way, as long as they get what they want, they think it's ok to do anything they like to get it.


Nobody goes looking for a controlling, abusive relationship. Nobody sets out to date a sociopath. They are tricked into it. How? Well, the psychopath or narcissist will present themselves as the perfect partner at the start of the relationship. Then once they have the victim fooled, the behavior changes and the controlling, coercive behavior begins. Because the victim is so emotionally involved when this change occurs, the victim cannot easily leave. You can read more about the dynamics in these articles about narcissistic boyfriends and narcissistic husbands.

Over time the control of the abuser causes changes in the perceptions, the thinking, the beliefs, the emotions and the behaviors of the victim. In other words, the basically change the personality of the victim. I am not going to go into details in this article and you can read more here about the false personality, or pseudopersonality, that controllers impose on their victims. What is important to keep in mind right now is that the pseudopersonality is programmed to believe the abuser, to look after the abuser, to not question or challenge and to be dependent on the abuser.


Important points about can a controlling person change

The psychopaths are great liars. They will often tell stories about their pasts that are half truths, exaggerations and/or distortions. It is very common that their past includes a difficult or abusive childhood. They are often happy to reveal this very early in the relationship and the first thing it does is to elicit pity. The listener feels sorry for them and the natural human caring instinct fires up and the listener feels that they want to care for this poor injured creature. It happens so often it even has a name. This is called the pity play. And the sociopaths and narcissists are very good at playing the victim. Remember the idea that they are great actors? They can twist and distort information and stories so that they end up as the victims whenever it suits them. Have you ever had the experience of going to them to complain about something that they are doing and you walk away from the situation feeling sorry for them and even apologizing to them for your behavior? Or even for your doing the behavior that you went to them to complain about?

The second effect of this sad history is that later on, the manipulator will say that their past explains why they are the way they are. "I was abused as a child, that's why I treat people badly today", "I was abandoned by my parents, that's why I am jealous when you go out now" and "my ex cheated on me, that's why I get anxious when you don't tell me everything". What's unsaid but implied is the idea that "I can't change the past and you have to put up with me."

In reality, such past events should never be accepted as an excuse for abusing people later. Let the person sort out their issues and take responsibility for their behavior in the present. But, of course, the psychopaths have no interest in doing this. What they are doing works perfectly for them. The excuse of the abusive past just provides cover for them to continue.

In the same vein, the psychopaths and narcissists often claim that they have Asperger syndrome, autism, bipolar disorder, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, multiple personality disorder and so on. They will apply the same rules as above: "I have this diagnosis, I can't help myself, you have to accept me the way I am." The whole thing is based on a lie. Remember these types are professional liars.

Some manipulators may have already been to a therapist who has made a formal diagnosis (keep in mind that sometimes even this is a lie!). In these cases, it's common that the person making the diagnosis is not an expert in psychopathy or narcissism but the symptoms that were presented seemed to fit into something that the therapist did understand. The psychopath is thus mislabeled as bipolar or Aspergers etc. The misdiagnosis is then capitalized upon by the manipulator as described.

In these situations the manipulator often has multiple diagnoses because one diagnosis does not cover all the symptoms. That's because these diagnoses are wrong and the real diagnosis is a personality disorder.

A victim may suffer years of abuse thinking that the controlling person has bipolar disorder, for example, but they have a nagging feeling that something is not quite right. Or the victim believes that the spouse is controlling because they are insecure and anxious, but they see the spouse being the life and soul of a party lying with confidence to outsiders and the spouse has an important high level job, none of which fit with someone who is actually insecure. (The thinking of the pseudopersonality can be so distorted by the manipulator that the individual cannot recognize these glaring contradictions for a long time.)

Once the victim recognizes the real diagnosis, then all the symptoms begin to fit and things finally make sense.

I mentioned above that it can be hard to know which category a controlling person goes in. Bare faced liars, the pseudopersonality programmed to believe the manipulators and the manipulators knowing exactly how to deliberately take advantage of human nature make it difficult for the victim, while in the midst of the chaos, to recognize exactly what is going on. If you have believed for years that your loved one has had a harsh childhood and can't help themselves but really loves you back, it can be very difficult to get your head around the fact that you were living in a delusion created by the manipulator to take advantage of you in every aspect of your life.


Can a controlling person change if they are a psychopath or narcissist?

So the big question is can a controlling person change if they are a psychopath or narcissist? Let me answer that with another question!

If you thought you were superior to everyone around you, that you were always right and any problems you had were because of the stupidity of someone else, and you had your life going the way you wanted it, would you think that you needed to change?


Well, neither does the psychopath. They have no motivation to change whatsoever.

Do they ever go to therapy? Sure they do. They will go to couples therapy for example, and what they do is to get the therapist on their side against the victim as a way to further increase their control. If they can't win the therapist over quickly, they typically stop going (and blame the therapist!).

When forced to go to therapy (court ordered), what usually happens is that the manipulator simply learns more about the human condition and comes away with more tools with which to manipulate others.

A third thing to keep in mind is that the problem is that this is a personality disorder. It's not considered a mental health illness and it's not illegal to be a psychopath. Personality disorders are considered to be a 'hardware' problem in that there are defects in particular parts of the brain. If your computer has no modem, it doesn't matter what software you install, it's not going to connect to the internet. The psychopath does not have the brain parts to feel emotions. So it does not matter what software you install (therapy), the hardware is not present for the person to have emotions.

It's jokingly suggested that the shortest chapter in the books on psychopaths is the one on therapy. It's a blank page.

Some specialists are doing work with young psychopaths in institutions and seem to be getting some promising results offering rewards for good behavior. How this translates into behavior changes in the outside world is not fully known yet.

So the real world answer to the question can a controlling person change if the person is a psychopath or narcissist is no.

Many people in abusive relationships stay because they have hope that if they give their partner enough love or time or energy that the person will change. If the abuser is a psychopath or a narcissist, that hope is dangerous. The only change the psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissists undergo over time is an improvement in their manipulative skills.

The best advice, if you are in an abusive relationship with someone of this nature, is to get out.

That's why it is so important to first recognize which group your controlling person is in because if you are dealing with a psychopath, then the rules you have to go by are different.


Can a controlling person change? - More reading

If you are in a relationship where you are asking yourself 'Can a controlling person change?' then you really need to learn about mind control, emotional abuse signs, how to recognize a psychopath, signs of a controlling relationship, staying in an abusive relationship, and how to leave an abusive relationship,

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