What do you picture when you think of a controlling relationship?
Perhaps you imagine a partner who is physically aggressive. Or maybe one who dictates what their partner can and can’t wear.
While these behaviours are dangerous, there are many other signs of a controlling relationship that can be harder to spot. In fact, some people might not even realise when they’re in a controlling relationship. But whether these patterns lead to more severe emotional or physical abuse or not, this doesn’t make them any less unhealthy, hurtful, and damaging.
We asked Relationship and Family Counsellor Val Holden to share some of the red flags to watch out for, and advice if you’re experiencing or using control and manipulation in a relationship.
What is a Controlling Relationship?
A controlling relationship is one where one partner dominates the other in an unhealthy, self-serving manner. If your partner constantly makes you feel intimidated, insecure, or guilty, you could be in a controlling relationship. And control in a relationship is a form of abuse.
Val explains that abuse can come in many forms; it can be physical, emotional, sexual, financial, spiritual, and psychological.
“Does your partner make you feel guilty for having a good time or spending money?” she asks.
“Are you fearful to bring up something in a conversation because of the reaction you may get from your partner? Do you feel ashamed or made to feel stupid in front of friends or family? Do you ever question your sanity? If you have any of these feelings, you may be in an abusive relationship.”
Some signs of a controlling relationship might include:
Getting upset when you make plans without them
Your partner may not like it when you make plans that don’t include them, or when you leave the house without them. They might not want you to have a life outside of your relationship, and not respect your need for alone time. They might want to know where you are and who you’re with at all times, and constantly check in on you with texts and phone calls.
Making you feel guilty for spending time with family and friends
Similarly, your partner might make you feel bad about spending time with the people you love.
“Sometimes, these forms of control can come across as quite caring, or you may feel that your partner just really wants to spend time with only you,” Val explains. “’Stay home with me.’ ‘Why don’t we just
do something together?’ ‘We don’t need others in our relationship to be happy.’ Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But what if that happens all the time, and when you want to spend some time with your friends and family or have some space for yourself, you are made to feel guilty or selfish?”
Val advises that respect for each other’s needs and emotions, and respect for each other’s personal space and the ability to be yourselves, is paramount for a good relationship.
Overactive jealousy and accusations
A controlling partner may be overly jealous and regularly accuse you of flirting or cheating with other people without reason or evidence. While this might be a sign that they have their own insecurities or experiences from past infidelities to deal with, it’s unfair and unhealthy for them to constantly accuse you.
Going through your phone and belongings
Whether single or in a committed relationship, everyone deserves privacy. A partner who reads your texts, call history, emails, or looks through your belongings without consent doesn’t trust you or respect your boundaries.
A controlling partner might undermine your confidence and make you feel insecure, putting you down in private and/or public. For example, they might criticise the way you dress or how you spend your time, exaggerate your ‘flaws’, or make fun of you in front of others but pass it off as ‘just a joke’.
Blaming you for everything
The ‘blame game’ is a popular one with controlling people. They might immediately take on the role of the victim and blame you for everything that goes wrong – even things that have nothing to do with you.
Making you doubt your reality
Some controlling partners don’t stop at trying to isolate you from your friends and family – they’ll also try to make you question your sense of reality. This common manipulation technique and form of emotional abuse is called “gaslighting”. It happens when a partner twists the truth to make you question your memories, instincts, and feelings.
An example of gaslighting might be when a partner sends you an upsetting text message, but when you approach them about it, they insist you misinterpreted it or you’re being too sensitive. Another example might be when a partner breaks a promise to cook you a nice dinner, and then blames you for making them feel bad about it.
Val offers some advice to anyone using control in their relationship.
“Trying to control your partner’s life, their emotions, and their ability to be themselves says more about you than them,” she says.
“If you are frightened and fearful and need to be able to control them, you will eventually push them away. You can never control someone – the relationship will eventually break down to become abusive an unhealthy.”
How to Cope in a Controlling Relationship
If you recognise these signs in your relationship, you should take them seriously. They’re unhealthy and destructive, and can lead to even more dangerous behaviours.
“First, recognise that you are in an abusive relationship, seek help from a professional counsellor, and make sure you are safe and can leave if you need to,” Val advises.
The good news is, some controlling relationships can be repaired if the unhealthy behaviour is addressed in a safe environment.
“Couples can work things out. Finding out what is really happening in the relationship and beginning to work on becoming more reflective on what is happening for you, or to you, is the start,” explains Val.
“Change can only happen when you seek to understand and respect yourself. Then begin to work on improving how you interact and react to each other. You need to start by owning your part in any argument, learning to let go, walk away, reflect and look at how to repair. This can all be done with a professional counsellor helping you to navigate your way through all these emotions and reactions.”
If you’re having a hard time in your relationship and need someone to talk to, you can access our free over-the-phone counselling on 1300 364 277 Monday-Friday between 8am-8pm and Saturday between 10am-4pm.