When your partner is controlling …

A controlling partner creates unhealthy patterns that are often difficult to detect. A Psychology Today article highlights warning signs and offers some advice in dealing with the behaviour.

Psychologist Andrea Bonior identifies signs of a controlling partner in her article entitled “20 signs your partner is controlling” (Psychology Today, 2015). The danger, she says, is that we often have the wrong stereotype in mind: “ … the grumpy bully … physically aggressive … openly berates and belittles … commands their partner how to dress.”

Bonior attributes the controlling behaviour to emotional fragility and heightened vulnerability on the part of the controller. While not all controlling behaviour is abusive, it can lead to a rather unhealthy relationship, especially when the controlled person counts themselves lucky to be the recipient of such ‘care’ or ‘concern’, or considers themselves to be, at least in part, responsible for the unhealthy state of the relationship. It may be that neither the controller nor controlled person is aware of the complexity of the manipulative behaviour.

What to watch out for

  1. Creating a debt to which you are beholden
  2. Spying, snooping or requiring constant disclosure
  3. Not respecting your need for time alone
  4. Making you ‘earn’ good treatment or trust
  5. Getting you so tired of conflict/an opposing view that you relent
  6. Belittling you for long-held beliefs
  7. Making you feel that you are unworthy of them
  8. Teasing/ridicule has become an uncomfortable undercurrent
  9. Sexual interactions that feel uncomfortable or upsetting afterwards
  10. Unwillingness or inability to hear or consider your viewpoint
  11. Pressuring you to unhealthy behaviours
  12. Thwarting personal and professional goals by making you doubt yourself
  13. Presuming you are guilty until proven innocent
  14. Overactive jealousy, accusations, paranoia
  15. Using guilt as a tool
  16. An overactive scorecard – keeping tally of your interactions
  17. Making acceptance/attraction/caring conditional
  18. Isolating you from family and/or friends
  19. Veiled or overt threats
  20. Chronic criticism – of even small things

Breaking free

  1. Assess your level of safety: for many, the end of a relationship is a clean break; for others, it may signal danger, says Bonior. Anger and grief may push a controlling partner to threatening behaviour, largely owing to their sense of lack of control. Have a safety plan.
  2. Assemble your support system: It may be your spouse has isolated you or you may have presented a healthier version of your relationship to friends and family. You may be ashamed to relay reality. “It is crucial, if you want to make changes, you strengthen your ties with trustworthy friends and family who can help you through this process,” Bonior advises.
  3. Map out different paths and scenarios: Be specific about short- and long-term goals. Will you stay or go? If you stay, will you go for counselling? Are there ways to make changes? If you leave, what are your financial plans? Where will you stay? “The more you can anticipate the logistical challenges of changes you’re hoping to embark on, the less likely they are to halt the process. Preparedness and predictability equal power,” adds Bonior.
  4. Practise self-care
  5. Understand feelings can be mixed: It’s not uncommon for a person to be motivated to leave or even just have a real conversation with a partner about problematic behaviour. Then, the next morning, things feel much scarier. Or, they determine to leave the unhealthy relationship, and their partner does something so loving that they have second thoughts. The more you anticipate this, the more likely you are to follow through with your original plan.
  6. Ask for help – really
  7. Keep following through – keep your long-term goal in mind and give yourself a break. It is a process, not an event.

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