Unhealthy and dangerous patterns aren’t always obvious.
- A controlling person isn’t always overtly threatening or aggressive. Sometimes they are emotionally manipulative and acting out of insecurity.
- People of any age, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status can be in controlling relationships, playing either role.
- Controlling tactics in a relationship include veiled threats, belittling or teasing, and using guilt as a tool for influence.
In my years as a therapist, I’ve long since learned that stereotypes don’t apply when it comes to controlling partners. Toxic relationships can sneak up on almost anyone. And controlling behavior on the part of a partner knows no boundaries—people of any age, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status can be in controlling relationships, playing either role.
Many of us visualize a controlling partner as one who openly berates everyone in their path, is physically aggressive, or constantly makes overt threats or ultimatums. We picture the grumpy bully who belittles every server he or she encounters or commands their partner how to dress from head to toe. While those signs are indeed troubling, there are many additional signs that might show up quite differently.
In fact, some controlling partners are acting out of a sense of emotional fragility and heightened vulnerability and may perhaps show traits of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. Controlling people use a whole arsenal of tools in order to dominate their partners—whether they or their partners realize what’s happening or not.
Sometimes, the emotional manipulation is complex enough that the person who is being controlled actually believes that they themselves are the villain, or that they are extremely lucky that their controlling partner “puts up” with them. Whether controlling behavior leads to more severe emotional or physical abuse or not, it is not a healthy situation.
If you notice more than a couple of these signs within your relationship or your partner, take it seriously. (If you are concerned for your safety or want to learn more about possibly abusive relationship patterns, visit thehotline.org.)
1. Isolating you from friends and family. It may start subtly, but this is often a first step for a controlling person. Maybe they complain about how often you talk to your brother on the phone or say they don’t like your best friend and don’t think you should hang out with her anymore. Or they try to turn you against anyone that you’re used to relying on for support besides them. Their goal is to strip you of your support network, and thus your strength—so that you will be less likely or able to stand up against them whenever they want to “win.”
2. Chronic criticism—even for small things. Criticism, like isolation, is also something that can start small. In fact, someone may try to convince themselves that their partner’s criticism of them is warranted, or that their partner is just trying to help them be a better person. Or they may try to rationalize it, saying that it’s not such a big deal that he or she doesn’t like the way they dress or speak or eat or decorate their house and that they shouldn’t take it personally. But ultimately, no matter how individually small a criticism seems, if it’s part of a constant dynamic within your relationship, it would be very tough to feel accepted, loved, or validated. If every little thing you do could use improvement in your partner’s eyes, then how are you being valued as a true equal, let alone loved unconditionally?
3. Veiled or overt threats, against you or them. Some people think that threats have to be physical in nature to be problematic. But threats of leaving, cutting off “privileges,” or even threats by the controlling person to harm herself or himself can be every bit as emotionally manipulative as the threat of physical violence. It is not unheard of for the partner being controlled to feel stuck in a relationship not out of fear that they themselves will be harmed, but that their partner may self-destruct or harm themselves if they were to leave. Other times, a person may be threatened with losing their home, access to their children, or financial support if they leave a controlling or abusive partner (or are left by them). Whether or not the threats are genuine, it is just another way for the controlling person to get what they want at the expense of their partner.
4. Making acceptance/caring/attraction conditional. “I love you so much more when you’re making those sales at work.” “I don’t feel like being intimate with you. But if you keep working out and lose a bit more weight, you’ll be more attractive to me.” “If you can’t even be bothered to make dinner, I don’t even know what I’m getting from this relationship.” “You’d be hot if only you spent more time on your hair.” “If you’d actually finished college, you’d have something to talk about with my friends and wouldn’t feel so left out.” Though some of these examples are more blatant than others, the message is the same: You, right now, are not good enough. It’s the common-denominator theme of many a controlling relationship.
5. An overactive scorecard. Healthy, stable relationships have a sense of reciprocity built into them. It’s inherent that you will look out for each other, and not bean-count every little time you do something to help the other out. If your partner always keeps a tally of every last interaction within your relationship—whether to hold a grudge, demand a favor in return, or be patted on the back—it could very well be their way of having the upper hand. And it can be downright exhausting.
6. Using guilt as a tool. Many controlling people are skilled manipulators at making their partner’s own emotions work in the controlling person’s favor. If they can manipulate their partners into feeling a steady stream of guilt about everyday goings-on, then a lot of the controlling person’s work is done for them—their partners will gradually try to do whatever they can to not have to feel guilty. Often this means relenting and giving up power and their own dissenting opinion within the relationship, which plays right into the controlling person’s hands.
7. Creating a debt you’re beholden to. Controlling people may come on very strongly in the beginning with seemingly romantic gestures. But upon closer inspection, many of those gestures—extravagant gifts, expectations of serious commitment early on, taking you for luxurious meals or on adventurous outings, letting you have full use of their car or home when they’re not there—can be used to control you. Specifically, they create an expectation of you giving something in return, or a sense that you feel beholden to that person because of all they’ve given you. This can make it more emotionally and logistically difficult to escape when further warning bells go off.
8. Spying, snooping, or requiring constant disclosure. A controlling partner typically feels that they have the right to know more than they actually do. Whether they keep their snooping secret or openly demand that you must share everything with them, it is a violation of boundaries from the get-go. Perhaps he or she checks your phone, logs into your email, or constantly tracks your Internet history, and then justifies this by saying they’ve been burned before, have trust issues, or the old standard: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, then you shouldn’t mind showing me.” It’s a violation of your privacy, hand-in-hand with the unsettling message that they have no interest in trusting you and instead want to take on a police-like presence within your relationship.
9. Overactive jealousy, accusations, or paranoia. A partner’s jealousy can be flattering in the beginning; it can arguably be viewed as endearing, or a sign of how much they care or how attached they are. When it becomes more intense, however, it can be scary and possessive. A partner who views every interaction you have as being flirtatious, is suspicious or threatened by multiple people you come in contact with, or faults you for innocent interactions because they may be “leading someone on” may be insecure, anxious, competitive or even paranoid. Additionally, when this perspective becomes ingrained within your relationship, they very likely are attempting to be controlling as well.
10. Not respecting your need for time alone. It’s another way of sapping your strength: making you feel guilty for time you need on your own to recharge, or making you feel like you don’t love them enough when you perhaps need less time with them than they need with you. It is natural that two partners may not automatically have the exact same needs in terms of alone time, even if they are both extroverts (or introverts). In healthy relationships, communication about those needs leads to a workable compromise. In controlling ones, the person needing the alone time is made out to be a villain or denied the time altogether, taking away yet another way they can strengthen themselves.
11. Making you “earn” trust or other good treatment. Of course, you will trust someone you’ve dated for five years more than you trust the person you’ve been seeing for a month. But some amount of trust should be assumed or inherent within the relationship. For instance, as mentioned, you shouldn’t always have to detail your whereabouts for every moment of every day, nor should your partner automatically have the right to access your email or texts or Internet search history. If trust or even civil treatment is viewed as something you need to work up to rather than the default setting of the relationship, the power dynamic in your relationship is off-kilter.
12. Presuming you’re guilty until proven innocent. Again, a controlling person is often very skilled at making you feel that you’ve done something wrong even before you realize what you did. You may walk in the door to find them already angry about something that they found, thought about, or decided in your absence. And they may keep “evidence” of your wrongdoing to a point that you may feel they’ve got a whole case against you—even if you don’t quite understand it. From where you put their favorite coffee mug to whether you had lunch with a coworker without them knowing, you will always be assumed to have had criminal motives. Why do they do this? To use it as justification for punishing you in some way, or preemptively trying to keep you from making that “error” again—to keep you acting in ways they want you to.
13. Getting you so tired of arguing that you’ll relent. While some controlling people like to exert their influence under the radar, many others are openly and chronically argumentative and embrace conflict when they can get it. This can be especially true when their partner is more passive and the controlling person is likely to triumph in every disagreement that comes up, just because the partner being controlled is more conflict-avoidant in nature or simply exhausted from the fighting that they’ve done.
14. Making you feel belittled for long-held beliefs. Maybe it’s your faith or your politics. Maybe it’s cultural traditions or your view of human nature. It’s great when our partners can challenge us in interesting discussions and give us new ways of looking at the world. It is not great when they make you feel small, silly, or stupid, or they consistently try to change your mind about something important to you that you believe in. Openness to new experience is wonderful—but a controlling partner doesn’t see it as a two-way street, and only wants you to be and think more like they do.
15. Making you feel you don’t “measure up” or are unworthy of them. Whether by subtly making you feel less attractive than they are, constantly reinforcing their professional accomplishments as compared to yours, or even comparing you unfavorably to their exes, controlling people often want you to feel grateful that you are in a relationship with them. This creates a dynamic where you will be more willing to work harder and harder to keep them and make them happy—a dream for someone who wants to dominate a relationship.
16. Teasing or ridicule that has an uncomfortable undercurrent. Humor and even teasing can be a fundamental mode of interacting within many long-term relationships. The key aspect is whether it feels comfortable and loving to both parties. In many controlling relationships, emotional abuse can be thinly veiled as “I was just playing with you; you shouldn’t take it personally.” And in one fell swoop, not only does the original criticism stand, but now an additional criticism of you having the “wrong” reaction has been levied. And you’re basically being told that you don’t have a right to your own feelings—a classic move by controlling people everywhere.
17. Sexual interactions that feel upsetting afterwards. An abusive or controlling dynamic within a relationship can often make its way into the bedroom. Sometimes things feel wrong even in the moment, but other times it’s a pattern of feeling uncomfortable after the interaction. Either way, when you feel consistently unsettled about goings-on within your sexual relationship, it’s a sign that something is wrong.
18. Inability or unwillingness to ever hear your point of view. You may notice that you are constantly interrupted, or that opinions you express are quickly dismissed or were never acknowledged in the first place. Perhaps the conversation is always so overwhelmingly dominated by your partner that you can’t remember the last time they asked you a meaningful question about how you were doing and actually listened to the answer. Think, too, of whether you’ve ever tried to give them feedback about how their behavior makes you feel—and whether they’ve actually been able to take it in, or whether they’ve dismissed it out of hand (or perhaps even blamed you for having an invalid opinion.)
19. Pressuring you toward unhealthy behaviors, like substance abuse. Undermining your fitness goals, constantly tempting you with cigarettes when you’ve quit, not respecting your decision to only have one drink rather than three—these are all ways that controlling people can try to thwart your attempts to be a healthier (and stronger) person. Since controlling people thrive on weakening their partners, it’s a natural tool for them to use.
20. Thwarting your professional or educational goals by making you doubt yourself. Maybe you always assumed you would go to law school, but now your partner is making you feel your grades weren’t good enough to get in. Maybe you used to have a lot of drive to own your own business, but your partner tends to think of your ideas as silly and you find you’ve lost confidence to pursue them further. Often a controlling partner has a way of using you as a weapon against yourself, by planting seeds of doubt about whether you’re talented or smart or hard-working enough to make good things happen in your life. This is another way they can take away your autonomy, making you more beholden to them—and serving their purposes quite nicely.