Many readers have let me know that my pieces about the signs of controlling behavior and the steps to take in leaving a controlling relationship have resonated with them. Unfortunately, emotionally abusive relationships are far too common, and I have also received many messages from people who have seen themselves—or more often, their partners—in these posts.
Andrea Bonior Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, professor, and author. She received her B.A. with distinction in psychology from Yale University, with an additional major in American Studies. She completed her M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology at American University, with post-doctoral work at George Washington University. Specializing in the treatment of young adults, relationships, and life transitions, Dr. Bonior's additional clinical interests include anxiety disorders, eating disorders, women's issues, alcohol abuse, and grief and loss.
Editor: Talha Khalid
In addition to being difficult to break away from, controlling behavior can sometimes be difficult to spot, especially early in a relationship. Although friends and family might express concern, you may initially mistake the warning signs of controlling behavior as more positive—or even flattering—characteristics of the person you’re with. You may see them as encouraging signs of where your relationship is headed. Controlling people often know how to fly under the radar and how to make themselves look good. They can be skilled in manipulating the people they are dating into thinking that their friends and family must be wrong or jealous or overprotective. Controlling people may try to leave trails of "evidence" that they are good partners, and fool you into thinking that they only have your best interests at heart. And they can be adept at making you doubt and second-guess your instincts when your alarm bells do finally go off.
Following are some of the types of things that many of us look for—and very much want—in our relationships. In fact, they are the surface signs of a relationship that's healthy. But in the case of controlling relationships, they are often mirages—empty facades with no meaning or substance underneath. They form a superficial gloss hiding the more dangerous phenomena below. When this happens, what at first seem like wonderful traits are actually far more sinister.
A new partner's attention is one of the most flattering parts of a young relationship, and may be music to the ears of someone who has felt emotionally neglected by friends, family, or past romantic partners (which is why they can fall into controlling relationships more easily than others). Suddenly, you feel heard; you feel seen; you feel that this person notices important things about you and is making the effort to “get” you. That person wants to hear your stories; they remember your favorite flavor of soup; they can’t wait to see you and so they can’t help but pepper you with texts and calls throughout your day. Your new flame may want to spend every minute with you on weekends, or have more date nights per week than you were expecting, or spend the night at your place much more often. They may notice little things about you, physically or behaviorally, that no one has ever commented upon before. It feels good, and it certainly can be a healthy sign of an interested person. It can also, however, be the Trojan horse that lulls you into a falsely positive view of a partner. Controlling people often study up on their targets: They learn everything there is to know about them and then use it to their advantage, gradually nudging you past your comfort zone and denying the space you need to be an individual. They over-focus early in relationships, zeroing in on you like someone with a microscope.
2. Desire for Commitment
If you’ve been through the wringer of relationships that have gone nowhere despite your desire for them to do so, the idea that your new partner is eager to settle down can feel like a major triumph. “He (or she) wants to be with only me!” you may marvel. “At last, I’ve found someone who wants to get serious, and who doesn’t want to waste time or continue playing the field.” If your attraction to them is strong, it can feel like a match made in heaven—the stuff that 50th anniversary toasts are made of. And perhaps it really is. If that person is controlling, however, it can be something very different. A controlling person may want you all to themselves—and soon. He or she wants to limit your opportunities to compare them to others or to think twice about your decision of how deeply to get involved and how fast. What you may see as, “They like me so much they want to commit,” could be, in reality, “They see their opportunity to close me off to the outside world and my individuality.” They may say “I love you” far earlier than you expected, or initiate plans for vacations and meeting the family or even moving in together, in ways that surprise you. The danger is that you may try to push away your discomfort by convincing yourself that it is great that they are so into you.
It’s heady in new relationships: The knowledge that someone you’re into seems to be just as into you, and wants to show it to the world. Attraction is what motivates us to pursue a relationship with someone in the first place, and when we are attracted and they show their own attraction through affection, we can feel validated—or even like we’re walking on air. From middle-school days when we analyzed every word from our crushes, we’ve learned to be thrilled by affection from someone we’re attracted to. It couldn’t be more natural to feel good about it. It’s a beautiful thing as the dance unfolds in a healthy relationship. But what about in a controlling one? Sometimes, things might feel a little off—too much too soon, or too good to be true. There may be gifts or public displays of hand-holding that feel a bit over the top. There may be subtle pressure to be physically intimate more often or in ways that are beyond your comfort zone. Perhaps there's an invasion of physical space or forced attempts to kiss in front of others, or grandiose public displays. These things, when done by a controlling person, can seek to show "ownership" and warn others to back off.
How awesome to feel like someone cares deeply for you—so deeply that perhaps they get jealous when you talk to someone else. It might feel cute at first, or evoke legendary dalliances (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, anyone?). But jealous behavior is a spectrum, and while one end might seem endearing—a partner getting flustered when an attractive person is blatantly hitting on you—the other end can be downright frightening, like when a partner wants you to cut off even the most harmless contact with coworkers or friends, or constantly asks you to account for your whereabouts. Early on, it may seem like your partner just cares so deeply about you that you should be flattered that he or she sometimes explodes when you don't seem to be doing the "right" thing, or when you devote attention to others. It may seem to be a function of how passionate they are about you. You might even think it's sexy that they get a bit upset that a bartender was clearly interested in you. But in controlling people, early explosions of anger or jealousy can spell serious trouble later on, as they're not only showing their inability to maintain a clear head and discuss things calmly, but are using their outbursts to shape you into who they want you to be—through intimidation and fear.
To feel truly taken care of is perhaps the deepest desire of most of us who want to settle into a monogamous relationship with someone. To have someone take off work to be with you when you're sick, to handle your bills if you are not the paperwork type, to make you a home-cooked dinner or fix for your leaky faucet or to be your late-night ride to the airport. Being nurtured in this way can be a great comfort in a serious relationship. But sometimes controlling people adopt a seemingly nurturing personality so they can get to the point where they are the only one allowed to take care of you. They might lull you into relying on them for everything, to the point that you feel you couldn't live without them if you were to ever leave. An early and extreme interest in being the only one you should rely on, to the extent that they seem to want you to shut out others—from friends to family to the landlord—can be a warning sign of a person who does not have your best interests at heart after all.