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What are the common signs of controlling behaviour in a relationship?

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To paraphrase the opening line of one of Tolstoy’s classic novels, Anna Karenina, all controlling partners and their behaviour are unique in their own way – meaning toxic relationships can sneak up on almost anyone. People of any age, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation can find themselves in a controlling relationship. But are there any common signs of controlling behaviour in a relationship? Read on to find out.

Controlling behaviour isn’t always overtly aggressive or threatening. Sometimes a partner is emotionally manipulative, uses veiled threats, belittles someone, or uses guilt as a tool for influence. Sometimes the conduct is sufficiently complex that the person being controlled believes they are the villain, or they are lucky that their partner “puts up” with them. If you notice more than a couple of the following signs in your partner, you should seriously consider the future of your relationship.

  1. Persistent criticism

Criticism usually starts small, and most times, the person on the receiving end convinces themselves that the criticism is warranted, or that their partner is simply trying to make them a better person. They may say that they don’t like the way you dress or speak, eat, or decorate the house, and that you shouldn’t take it personally. No matter how small a criticism seems, it is part of a constant dynamic of shifting sands, and making someone uneasy or question their decision making abilities.

  1. Isolation from family and friends

As with criticism, isolation starts subtly. Perhaps they complain about how much you speak with your sister on the phone, or have an issue with your best friend, who they say is a bad influence. Their goal is to strip you of your support network, so that you are less likely to stand up against them.

  1. Making acceptance/caring conditional

Some examples are more blatant than others, but the message is the same – you are not good enough until…. you do the specific thing they are claiming on that particular day and at that particular time. “If you can’t be bothered to make dinner, I don’t even know what I’m getting from this relationship”, or “If you’d actually got a degree/some other form of qualification, you’d have something to talk about with my friends and wouldn’t feel so left out,” are all classic examples of this type of controlling behaviour.

  1. Veiled/overt threats

Threats of leaving or threats by the controlling person to hurting themselves can be as emotionally manipulative as physical violence. It is common for the person being controlled to feel stuck in a relationship, not out of fear for themselves, but because their partner may self-destruct or harm themselves if they were to leave. Others may be threatened with losing their home, access to children, or financial support if they leave a controlling or abusive partner.

  1. Using guilt

Many controlling people are skilled manipulators at making their partner’s emotions work in their favour. If they can make their partner feel a steady stream of guilt about everyday matters, then a lot of the work is already done, as their partner modifies their behaviour even when the controlling person is not even present.

  1. Creating a state of indebtedness

It is extremely common for controlling people to come on very strongly at the beginning of the relationship. However, upon closer inspection, many of those seemingly romantic gestures, such as expectations of serious commitment, taking you for expensive meals or outings,  or letting you use their car, can be used to control you. This is because it creates an expectation of quid pro quo, or you giving them something in return and can make it more difficult to escape as you feel increasingly beholden.

  1. Spying or demanding constant updates on your whereabouts

Controlling partners generally feel they have a right to know more than they actually do. Whether they keep their spying secret or openly demand you share everything with them, it violates the boundaries of privacy. Perhaps they check on your phone, log into your email account, or constantly track your internet history. They will probably try to justify their behaviour by saying things like they’ve been burned before, have trust issues, or the old favourite, “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you won’t mind showing me”.

  1. Overactive jealousy and paranoia

Although a partner’s jealousy may feel flattering at the start, or even endearing, when it becomes increasingly intense and intrudes into your everyday behaviours, it can be frightening and possessive.

  1. Getting you so fed up with arguing, you relent

Many controlling partners are more overt in their behaviour, being openly argumentative and embracing conflict. This tends to make the other person back down, if only because they are exhausted by the constant battle.

  1. Teasing or ridicule

If the teasing or ridicule feels uncomfortable, or is thinly veiled as “I was only playing with you”, not only does the original criticism sting, but you have the additional claim of taking it the wrong way or having the wrong reaction. Essentially, you are being told that you don’t have a right to your own feelings.

  1. Making you feel unworthy

Constantly reinforcing their own accomplishments, whether personal or professional, or even comparing you unfavourably to one of their exes, is done to make you feel grateful that they have chosen to be in a relationship with you. This creates a dynamic where you will be more willing to work harder to keep them and make them happy at the expense of your own happiness.

  1. Thwarting your educational or professional goals by making you doubt yourself

Often a controlling partner has a way of using self-doubt as a weapon against you by planting seeds of unease about whether you are talented, smart, or hard-working enough to make these goals happen. This is simply another way to take away your autonomy,  and make you more reliant upon them.

There are many more examples of controlling behaviour than those mentioned above, and we have simply addressed the most common forms. You must trust yourself if you start to experience controlling behaviour from a partner to either move on to a healthier relationship or bring balance to your current situation.

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