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Codependent’s Guide to Letting Go of Controlling and Criticizing

Codependent's Guide to Letting Go of Controlling Behaviors

Perhaps your partner complains that you are critical and controlling. Or maybe you recognize these behaviors in yourself. Either way, you can learn how to let go of criticizing and trying to control your partner.

Criticizing and trying to control your partner are part of a codependent relationship dynamic. It looks something like this: You spend much of your time taking care of your partner. You desperately want him/her to change. You try reasoning, making suggestions, printing out lists of recovery meetings (or doctors or job openings or whatever resource you think your partner needs). You try hiding the car keys, throwing out the booze (or food, or clothes, or drugs), cutting off the money. You move on to demanding, shaming and blaming. You and your partner are both so wrapped up in his/her problems that your needs don’t get met in this relationship. You become frustrated and resentful because you’re not appreciated and nothing changes.  You don’t know how to speak up and ask for what you want. It’s not safe to say or do anything that might upset your partner. So you suppress your anger and sadness….until you can’t suppress it anymore. Then criticizing, blaming, controlling, and passive-aggressive behaviors show up.


What does criticizing and controlling look like?

  • Nagging
  • Yelling
  • Name calling
  • Unreasonable demands
  • Excessive or hurtful sarcasm
  • Lying or minimizing
  • Invading privacy (opening mail, checking phone logs or reading email/texts, tracking location)
  • Blaming
  • Manipulating
  • Silent treatment
  • Guilt trips
  • Throwing away alcohol/drugs
  • Ultimatums


The problems with criticizing and controlling:

  • It doesn’t change your partner’s behavior.

The problem with trying to control your partner is you can’t. No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot control anyone except yourself (or a very small child). Your partner has free will and will make his or her own choices. You may have some influence, but this is not the same as control. Often, efforts to control are met with resistance and may actually push your partner further toward the behavior you are trying to change.

  • The more you criticize and control, the more unhappy you get.

We’ve already established that criticizing and trying to control someone isn’t going to get your partner to change. But your frustration will grow with each failed attempt to control him or her.

There’s also an interesting phenomenon called the negativity bias. It essentially means that we all tend to look for and focus on the negatives and problems more than the positives. This means that I’m biased towards finding my husband’s faults and misdeeds. He is likely doing just as many, if not more, things that please me, but I am prone to over emphasize his faults. And the more I criticize and try to control, the more I reinforce this negative thinking.

  • It’s hurtful.

Nagging, criticizing, and focusing on what your partner’s doing wrong cause real damage to your relationship. They erode connection and communication.

  • You start to feel confused.

You may actually start to feel “crazy” as a result of trying to control the uncontrollable. The frustration and confusion of expecting things to change when they don’t, can muddy your thinking.

  • Your anger, frustration, and pain aren’t really about whatever you’re arguing about.

Those repeated arguments about not taking the garbage out or drinking too much aren’t really about chores and drinking. I’m not minimizing them; Those things are problems and need to be resolved, but they’re symptoms of deeper problems. They will never be resolved with criticism and controlling. Criticism and controlling are about your unhappiness and feelings of helplessness. They become ways to manage your anxiety about what feels out of control or upsetting.


Why are you criticizing and controlling?

Criticizing and controlling are ineffective ways of expressing anger and also ineffective ways of coping with anxious, out of control feelings.

  • Anxiety.

Codependents often have high levels of fear and anxiety. Your partner and home life may be unpredictable, chaotic, and scary. Control tactics become a way  to manage your anxiety. In the short term, you may feel a bit of relief because you think you are in control.

  • Lack of trust.

Efforts to control or change your partner also result from a lack of trust in the relationship. When trust has deteriorated, a relationship can feel unsafe. And trying to control your partner may temporarily make your feel safer.

  • You think you know best.

Or you may be unhappy with your partner’s choices and feel you know what choices are best. You take on the role of parent or an air of superiority.

  • You don’t know how or it’s not safe to talk about the real issues.

You’re frustrated at the lack of change.  You don’t know how to address the real issues with your partner so you pick it the surface issues like dirty dishes in the sink or overspending.

How to let go of criticism and controlling

  • Focus on changing yourself.

Unless you’ve got a magic wand, you’re simply not going to be able to change your partner. So, even if you think s/he’s 99% of the problem, focus on changing the 1% that you contribute to the relationship problems.

  • Find healthy outlets for your anger.

Experiment until you find an outlet that works for you. Maybe it’s a kick boxing class or therapy or rocking out on your guitar. When you’re criticizing, blaming, or yelling, your message isn’t going to be heard. You’ll probably be met with anger, blame, and defensiveness from your partner. It important to be calm so that you can thoughtfully look for solutions and decide what to say and how to say it.

  • Manage your anxiety.

Anxiety can be activated when you’re living in an unpredictable situation and you’re feeling helpless. Your anxiety can also increase as you begin to make changes. You can also try a variety of strategies such as meditation, therapy, medication, or exercise to see what works for you.

  • Go slowly.

Trying to change too much, too quickly can create too much resistance from your partner or from you. Again, trying to change everything at once may spike your anxiety and ultimately cause you to shut down and revert to the status quo.

  • Find ways to bring joy into your life.

Dwelling on your problems is discouraging. Do things you enjoy. Take up a hobby, see your friends, or go to a concert. By taking care of some of your own needs, you’re less emotionally dependent on your partner. It’s empowering to realize you can find joy. And it can also motivate you to change so that you can experience more enjoyment in your life.

  • Figure out what the real issues are and start doing things differently.

Real change and moving out of anger, criticism, and controlling, means figuring out what the underlying issues are. This can be a challenging process. A therapist or other spiritual or emotional guide can be helpful. If it’s safe, commit yourself to start making small changes. Changing your behavior is how you can actually change the dynamics in your relationship. Relationships are a system so when you change your part of the dynamic it will eventually change how other members of the system respond to you.



You might also like:

Is Codependency Blaming the Victim?

3 Codependent Traits That Breed Anger and Resentment



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Codependent’s Guide to Letting Go of Controlling and Criticizing

Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is a licensed psychotherapist and codependency expert practicing in San Jose, CA. She is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.  

To learn more, visit Sharon's website. And please sign-up for free access to her resource library HERE (worksheets, tips, meditations, and resources for healing codependency, perfectionism, anxiety and more).

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APA Reference
Martin, S. (2018). Codependent’s Guide to Letting Go of Controlling and Criticizing. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Jan 2018
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