Every relationship has its quirks, but if you feel like you are losing parts of yourself to please someone else’s constant demands, you could be in what’s known as a controlling relationship.
Experts call this type of controlling behavior coercive control. “It’s more than just being bossy,” says Lisa A. Fontes, Ph.D., a lecturer in psychology at UMass-Amherst and author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. “It’s really dominating another person, taking over their life, and no one should be subjected to that.”
Living in a controlling relationship can damage your emotional health and even your physical health by increasing your blood pressure, triggering headaches, and leading to chronic back and neck pain, she says. Watch for these common signs of trouble.
Your partner tries to keep you away from other important people in your life.
Denise Hines, Ph.D., a research associate professor in psychology at Clark University, studies male victims of domestic violence, and one of the first things she asks them is: Is your partner controlling how often you see your friends and family? Sometimes the tactics are subtle. Does your partner start an argument or make a scene around your friends and family? Does it seem burdensome to attend social events because of this behavior? If your partner checks your phone, email, and social media to see who you’re talking to, that’s also problematic.
Isolation is a huge red flag “because when a person is deprived of contact with others, they lose a certain amount of power and resources,” says Fontes. The controlling partner then makes all the rules about what love is. Another particularly damaging example: using your children as leverage by saying something like: “‘You’ll never have access to the children again if you don’t do X or stay with me or put up with this thing that I want,’” says Fontes.
Your partner’s jealousy stops you from doing normal stuff.
If you can’t enjoy a night out without being accused of flirtation, that’s a problem. “We hear from men who say they’re out at a restaurant or party and their wife or girlfriend won’t let them talk to other women,” says Hines. Maybe your partner doesn’t explicitly tell you not to converse with other ladies, but she gets incredibly upset if you do. “Some men describe ‘keeping their head down’ when out to avoid giving the impression of interest,” says Hines.
Keep in mind that while all people feel pangs of jealousy sometimes, no one should use jealousy as a weapon to control you. “We have these cultural myths that jealousy is a sign of love, that spending all of one’s time is required in a loving relationship, that romance is giving up everything for love, and these ideas are kind of traps,” says Fontes.
Your partner controls the money.
It’s normal for couples to work together on budgeting and financial planning, but it’s a problem if one partner controls all the money and only lets the other use a certain amount that is unreasonable given their financial situation, says Hines. Giving out punishments and rewards is also form of control. “That should not happen in a healthy relationship,” says Fontes.
Your partner criticizes you all the time.
Experts call this perspecticide. “Perspecticide is a form of breaking down another person within a relationship so that they lose their perspective, and that can include incessant or very harsh criticism,” says Fontes. “If it’s back and forth, then it’s probably not a controlling relationship, but if the criticism is all in one direction from one person to another, then it may be.” If your partner tries to humiliate you in front of other people, that’s also a sign that he or she is trying to control you.
You feel like you go along with things because you just need to keep the peace.
“If constantly throughout your days or weeks, you’re doing things because it’s just easier than having to put up with the other person’s angry outburst, you’re feeling controlled,” says Fontes. Do you always feel on edge around your partner? “If a person feels anxious in the presence of their partner, worried, feels like they have to always be performing, or afraid that they’re going to be in trouble, those are signs of control,” says Fontes. If a weekend away from your partner makes you feel relieved, take note.
This is obvious, but bears repeating: If your partner hits you, throws things at you, or does anything else to physically harm you, this is an attempt to control you. No one should live in fear and feel intimidated or threatened by their partner.
What to Do if You Think Your Partner Might Be Controlling
Counseling might be helpful, Hines says. (The American Psychological Association maintains a directory of psychologists online.) In her research, Hines finds that male victims of controlling behavior tend to find individual counseling more helpful than couples counseling. The support of family and friends can also be helpful sometimes, says Hines.
“If a person begins to suspect, think about the control that they’re experiencing, an important first step is being less isolated,” says Fontes.
If, and only if, you feel safe in your relationship, you may be able to address some of the controlling behaviors through conversation. You might try saying something like: I really don’t want you to open my mail anymore. “And see what happens,” says Fontes. “Is it a relationship that can change and evolve or not?” You have to figure out where your limits are and what you’re willing to put up with. “I think it involves some self-assessment and figuring out how one wants to live one’s life,” says Hines.
For some men, leaving the relationship is the best solution, but that’s a highly personal decision and can be complicated depending on your circumstances, especially if you have children with your partner, says Hines.
What to Do if You Think You’re the Controlling Partner
If the signs in this article look familiar because you are the controlling partner, seek counseling. “In a relationship with a woman, a man is much more likely to be controlling than controlled, and one way he could tell if he is controlling his partner is whether his partner is living in fear and whether his partner is becoming increasingly isolated,” says Fontes.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has resources to help both victims and perpetrators of abusive behavior.
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