When it comes to love, our society romanticizes intense, controlling relationships and controlling behavior 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 to many other controlling husband and partner archetypes — 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 Nicole Richardson, LPC-S, LMFT-S, tells Bustle, there are many different signs that a partner is controlling or manipulative. When wondering if you’re in an abusive situation, as yourself if, “you have started to second guess yourself because your partner keeps telling you that you are wrong,” Richardson says. “You start to want to avoid dong things you used to enjoy because your partner does not like it when you do them or does not think that they have value. You start having a difficult time trusting yourself and start apologizing for lots of things, even when you didn’t cause a problem. [These are all signs.]”
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. “[A controlling partner will] make you feel badly for having a life outside of the relationship,” Erika Martinez, Psy.D., CDWF, licensed psychologist, tells Bustle. “Most people don’t like to feel this way so you may start to alter how you behave, where you go, who you hang out with, etc., to avoid feeling this guilty. In the beginning, this feels that your partner is really into you so it’s common not to realize that it’s happening, especially if you have a history of being treated like this growing up.”
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. But if it doesn’t feel right, take note.
“Criticism is erosive, Richardson says. “Criticism assumes some sort of personality or character flaw exists within us and that is why criticism is so damaging. Someone who loves and accepts us for who we are doesn’t seek to makes us feel smaller or less than, they may need or want us to improve a habit but they love who we are as a person.”
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.
“Trust is a critical part of any healthy relationship but it can be used as a tool to make a partner prove their loyalty and love,” Richardson says. “[…] If your partner needs to know where you are at all times of the day but does not assume that you deserve the same courtesy [for example], there is an imbalance. Ideally, trust flows freely both ways.”
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 controlling partner] can create a sense of learned helplessness, i.e. that the person can’t take care of themselves without their partner,” Martinez says. “This can also happen in terms of finances.”
A partner who “protects” you by taking control of your messy savings account, 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. “Say you discovered that your partner was snooping your DMs on Instagram and you confront them and they completely deny it,” Martinez says. “They may say you’re imagining it, that it must have been someone else, etc., and as a result, you start to second guess yourself and start to think you were crazy to have suspected your partner. All this despite the evidence that it was, in fact, your partner. That’s gaslighting.”
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.
Nicole Richardson, LPC-S, LMFT-S
Erika Martinez, Psy.D., CDWF, licensed psychologist