When it comes to love, our society romanticizes intense, controlling relationships so much that it can be hard to recognize them for what they are. We have centuries of romantic literature and other art — from Wuthering Heights to Twilight — telling us that real relationships are all about obsession, that real love is all-consuming, and that people who are truly in love have no boundaries or separate lives. But while all that obsession may make for an absorbing romance novel plot, in real life, control, manipulation and obsession aren’t signs of true, passionate love — they are signs that your partner is controlling and manipulative.
Many of us have been educated about the signs of a potentially abusive partner, and while escalation from control into outright abuse is something to be concerned about, the facts are that being in a controlling and manipulative relationship that never escalates into abuse can be hurtful and damaging, too. As therapists Iris McCann, Rachel Winwood, and Dr. Petra Boynton note in an article in the Telegraph, “Being in a controlling relationship can begin in many ways, with many forms of abuse starting off as insidious and underhand … In most cases, it’s all about control and taking away your independence.” Being controlled or belittled by a partner can do lasting damage to our self-esteem, make us fearful about entering future relationships, and leave us with a wide variety of other emotional wounds that we shouldn’t have to deal with.
So while you may be more familiar with the most common signs of an abusive relationship, like a partner who forces you to dress in a certain way or forbids you from interacting with family or friends, there are other signs that your relationship is controlling, manipulative, or unhealthily obsessive. Read on, and remember: trust your own gut, and don’t let anyone talk you into a version of “love” that doesn’t feel right to you. Love is supposed to feel good — not overwhelming, scary, or stressful — and having a partner is supposed to make you happier, not sadder.
1. You Feel Guilty When You Spend Time With Your Friends
When we imagine someone trying to cut their partner off from their support system, we usually picture something dramatic, like the villainous husband in a made-for-TV movie telling his wife that she’ll never talk to her best friend again. But in real life, controlling partners usually isolate you from your community in a much more subtle way.
Rather than violently forbidding you from contacting your friends or family, a controlling partner may just gently nudge you away from them. As Eden Strong writes on YourTango, “Manipulation always starts with guilt. If he can convince you to feel guilty for your actions (even when you’ve done nothing wrong), then he knows you’ll be more willing to do what he says.” Maybe your partner pouts every time you go out with your friends, until you start dodging their dinner invitations just to spare yourself the stress. Maybe your partner makes negative comments about your friends until you start to believe that the criticisms are true. Maybe your social life revolves around a hobby, but your new partner thinks your hobby is “dumb” and makes fun of you for it until you give it up. This behavior can take many different forms, but it always has the same goal: straining or ending your relationships with the other people you’re close to, until you feel that your partner is the only person you have in the world.
How To Tell It Apart From Healthy Behavior: Though many of us have experienced the obsessive period early on in a new relationship where all you want to do is spend time with your new partner (and often neglect your friends in the process), this is very different. A few weeks or months of fixating on your new love can be normal and fun. But if your partner actively encourages you to break away from your friends, that’s unhealthy.
2. They Criticize Lots Of Small Things That You Do
A controlling partner’s criticism may not even sound like criticism — it might be couched in “supportive” language that implies that your partner is just trying to assist you. As Marni Feuerman notes in Psych Central, “Abusers can convince you that … they are treating you this way to ‘help’ you.”
They may consistently critique your decisions at work (“Did you really talk to your boss like that? How will that get you a promotion?”), the way you spend money (“Another headband? Seriously?”), or your interests (“Why do you waste so much time doing crafts?”) in a way that sounds less like criticism and more like they think you’re “too good” for the decisions that you’re currently making.
How To Tell It Apart From Healthy Behavior: Though almost all partners occasionally criticize each other, when the criticism is constant and contains the implication that you’re incapable of making good decisions on your own, that’s a red flag. And whether you’re talking about your job, your friends, or your wardrobe, the idea that your partner always knows better than you do is dangerous. Their comments are not really about improving your life — they’re about undermining your ability to make decisions and take action on your own.
3. They Don’t Trust You
Even people who are deeply in love are allowed to have some privacy. And a partner who refuses to acknowledge this — who claims that people who truly care about each other don’t keep their texts or emails private, or will allow their partner to read their diary — isn’t being romantic. They’re being controlling. Your partner doesn’t have the right to check your email or texts, or have access to your social media passwords, just because they say they’re “afraid” you might cheat, or because they claim that people who are in love don’t have secrets. There’s a difference between “having secrets” and having an existence independent of your partner — and you don’t have to give up the latter in order to be in a relationship.
How To Tell It Apart From Healthy Behavior: On occasion, serious couples who are recovering from an incident of infidelity will allow the cheated-on partner access to the other partner’s texts and emails for a limited period of time as a form of accountability. But if this is not a deal that you have specifically worked out with your partner in this context (and hopefully with the help of a counselor), it isn’t right.
4. They Spend A Lot Of Time Talking About Protecting You
A lot of us have had crappy stuff happen in our lives —enough crappy stuff that the idea of a hero riding up on a white horse (or fixie bike) and protecting us from any problems for the rest of our life can sound really, really appealing. And loving someone does generally include feelings of protectiveness. We typically want to bend over backwards to keep the people we love from suffering in any way.
But think twice if your partner’s ideas of support involves “protecting” you from making your own decisions and living your own life. A partner who “protects” you by taking control of your messy finances, chasing away a friend you’ve been fighting with, or keeping close tabs on where you are and what you’re doing at all times isn’t looking out for you — they’re trying to make you dependent on them.
How To Tell It Apart From Healthy Behavior: A healthy partner knows that they can’t “protect” you from the messiness of life — they can just support you and stand by your side. If you’ve gotten yourself into a financial mess, a healthy partner might buy you financial advice books, help you find budgeting apps, encourage you to take a financial planning class, or offer to help you go through your backlog of unopened credit card bills while providing emotional support. But they won’t take your bank password, handle your bills, and give you an “allowance” until you pay off your credit card debt. A healthy partner will offer every kind of support that they can conceive of, but knows that you have to deal with your own problems in the end.
5. They Make You Question Your Sanity
Sometimes, a controlling partner won’t stop at trying to cut you off from your support system — they may try to cut you off from your sense of reality as well. There’s a common manipulative relationship technique called “gaslighting,” in which your partner messes with your sense of reality in order to make you question your own judgment. According to Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D, in PsychCentral, gaslighting “happens when false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.”
A gaslighting partner may claim that things you know happened never occurred. For example, if you bring up a fight you two had last Tuesday, they may deny that you even saw each other that day. A gaslighting partner may also mess with your conception of reality in other ways — like throwing out a possession of yours and denying it, or convincing you that your boss has been quiet lately because she’s planning on firing you.
How To Tell It Apart From Healthy Behavior: Our partners are bound to forget something once in a while. There’s nothing sinister afoot if your partner throws out an old box you had in the basement, then legitimately forgets that it happened when you ask about the box a month later. But if you notice a pattern — especially with regards to your partner denying interactions that you two had or comments you know they made — you should be aware.
Anyone can fall into a controlling relationship, no matter how smart, savvy, or feminist you are — and realizing that you’re in one doesn’t make you any less smart, savvy, or feminist. Don’t feel stupid, or like you should have seen this coming. Controlling relationships often creep up on us, and we can’t see them for what they are until we’re deep in them.
So if any of this sounds like your life, remember: It’s not your fault, and you don’t have to live with this. No matter what your partner has told you, other people care about you, other people love you, and other people will want to date you. If you feel like you need help getting out of this relationship or figuring out what to do next, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.
And remember: This isn’t what real love looks like. This is what control looks like.