How to Recognize a Manipulative or Controlling Relationship

As your relationship with a new person in your life has developed, you find your old friends falling away, while family members remark on how you don’t seem like yourself. Are you losing yourself to an odd, and ultimately destructive, relationship? Before you can regain your individuality and strength, you’ll need to determine whether the relationship is taking something away, and, if so, you must put an end to the destructive cycle. While the steps are directed towards romantic relationships, they do apply to any kind of relationship.


    Evaluate honestly: Is this relationship healthy, or is it unhealthy? Be objective as you analyze how things have changed since this relationship began.


    Are your family relationships suddenly filled with tension, every time your partner’s name comes up? Red flags should go up if everyonewho cares about you is getting worried or is being pushed away.

    • Does this person bring out your best, or worst traits? Do you feed each others’ best self, or have you seen your attitudes change to more closely mirror your partner’s, which puts off your family and friends? 

    Recognize your blindness to your partner’s faults. Infatuation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be necessary and good; however, it does make one “temporarily insane” for the first part of a relationship. Sometimes our starry-eyed affection can make us willfully close our eyes to warning signals, even though we really kind of know that our friends and family have a point when they say they don’t like this or that about the significant other. Ask yourself: Do you find yourself apologizing or defending your significant other’s behavior? If you find yourself getting defensive when someone questions your relationship, you’re probably already aware that there is a problem and haven’t yet come to terms with it. Remember that people in healthy relationships have nothing to hide or defend. In fact, when a relationship is healthy, your friends and family are normallygoing to recognize that this person makes you very happy, brings out the best in you, and they will rejoice with the two of you. 


    Notice if your plans are continually overturned in favor of hers. Instead, you’re always changing plans to do what she wants, always meeting up with herfriends.

    • Be aware of the way he/she behaves with your family and friends, especially if she/he interrupts them, contradicts them, or behaves dismissively. If you feel you need to apologize or explain her behavior to your family or friends, there’s a problem there.
    • Are you realizing it’s just become easier notto spend time with people you’ve loved for years, rather than to make apologies or excuses?
    • Have all of your past attachments to people and places been replaced by either old friends of your new love, or new friends you’ve made since you’ve been together? Severing your ties to the familiar stability of people you have always known means she has just made herself/himself the center of your universe, and now has no competition for your attention. 

    Watch out for subtle discrepancies. When talking with mutual friends, have they ever said something about your new boyfriend/girlfriend that made you stop and say, “Huh? But he said something different to me… You can’t have understood that right.” Did you then dismiss the idea that what your friends heard could have actually been true? That’s a big red flag. When you’re being controlled or manipulated, it’s usually through half-truths or omissions, not outright lies. There’s just enough weirdness to make you stop and think, but not quite enough to get you to re-evaluate the entire relationship. If this happens more than once, STOP and remind yourself that this isn’t the first time you’ve had this reaction. Start analyzing discrepancies between what your boyfriend said and what your friends say. If there are a lot of them, call her out on them. If his reaction or answers don’t satisfy, it is time to re-evaluate in a major way. And don’t delay doing the analysis – it may save you from disaster later. 


    Keep your support system. Cutting you off from your support systems helps her/him gain dominance over you – and you think it’s your decision. A controlling partner will treat your friends with disrespect – your friends will report rude remarks made behind your back, or you will actually see her treat them in a dismissive (“You don’t have the same experience I have.”) or outright rude way (“That’s just stupid. You’re wrong.”). However, when you’re alone with her, she never says a bad word about those friends, but rather is kind, loving, and even complimentary about them. It makes you believe your family or friends are simply jealous, don’t understand her, etc. You forget her nastiness to their faces because she’s nice behind their backs. When you find yourself telling your mom or sister, “But, you have to understand her like I do,” that’s a bad sign. Why should everyone else understand her and adjust their behavior – wouldn’t it be easier if she would adjust hers?It’s much easier for her to control you when you’ve decided your loved ones just don’t understand your mate, and soon, you have no one but her to turn to. 


    Recognize excessive jealousy or possessiveness as a danger signal. If your partner is protective of you, that’s sweet. If he’s bizarrely, overly protective, it’s scary. Consider whether he constantly nags about how long it takes you to make a trip to the market or to the post office. Does he interrogate you if you aren’t home exactly on time, or if you go out for any reason? Does he question you too intensely about why you were talking to another person? 


    Watch for repeat offenses, shallow apologies and “courting” afterwards. She does something that is totally unacceptable then asks your forgiveness, tells you she realizes she was wrong, and promises to change. She seems utterly sincere and convincing – but it is part of the control. It is a way to use your compassion to keep you interested – at this point she may even tearfully say she wants your help to change, particularly if you have let her know that you will not tolerate such things again. She may bring you lavish gifts and attempt to sweep you off your feet, again, re-establishing her sincerity and your belief that she truly loves you (and she may, but in a really toxic, controlling way). Watch for the bad behavior to resume as soon as she believes she has you hooked and complacent again. 


    Beware of the “backhanded compliment”. Saying, “Nobody will ever love you the way I do,” seems sweet, but he wants you to believe that nobody but he will ever love you again.It fosters utter dependence on him and his love. Over time, these ideas erode your sense of confidence. You will begin to believe you’re unworthy of better treatment, and he’s the best you can hope for. Do not believe this, you deserve so much more – and that is what you should have. 


    Stop berating yourself for being into this person. Realize that she’s amazing – on the surface – and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for being attracted to that. These people are often an odd mix of very high intellect or talent, coupled with low self-esteem (although they often seem confident to the point of arrogance – a mask for their internal lack of true confidence). Controlling, manipulative people are not able to just let things happen naturally – she mustcontrol things or, in her mind, things will “get away” from her – so she’s compelled by her inner horrors to make sure she’s the one pulling all the strings. But what makes it most awful is that she’s probably gorgeous (you thought so, right?) and smart, funny and charming. It’s no wonder you fell for her.


Ask yourself whether the relationship is worth saving. All of the above are warning signs that you are involved with a controlling person who’s likely to be manipulating you. Try to be objective, though. If talking, working it through, or going to counseling fails to get your partner to stop these behaviors for longer than it takes to convince you of his sincerity (in other words, behaviors resume again after a short time), there may be no choice but to part ways, even if you still love him. 


  • Do recognize that almost everyone is capable of some manipulative or controlling behaviors from time to time – we all want to get our way or to win the argument. But when you begin to recognize more than a few of the above warning signs, it’s time to take a closer look at your relationship and decide whether it’s truly an equal partnership.
  • Don’t blow off the opinions of your friends and family; they do have your best interests in mind. One person can be ignored – many cannot. Do they tell you you’re acting strange lately? Do they comment on how different you seem – and not in a good way? Has anyone you love and respect expressed actual dislike for your partner? Ask yourself, “Is my mom (for example) right about every other thing, but wrong about this ONE thing – the new girlfriend?” And if more than oneclose family member or friend is expressing dislike of the new gal, give more weight to the negative opinions.
  • Key to this entire discussion is the recognition that the establishment of control is subtle,and often occurs over time. The entire purpose of the article is to help you examine your relationship for the warning signs. Because these signs can be subtle, it can be helpful to see a collection of warning signs; one sign may not be a problem. Four or five – talk to friends and relatives. If they affirm the signs are there, it may be time to re-evaluate this relationship – and try to do it outside of the control of this person.
  • Make sure your relationship is a two-way street, and that your partner is giving as well as receiving. If you have something big coming up — an exam, for instance — so that if you get together, you will still need to study. She agrees initially to just come over and hang out while you study, but when she gets there, says something dismissive, like, “You shouldn’t be studying when we’re together, you should spend time with me. That exam isn’t such a big deal and it’s rude of you not to spend time with me.” That should be a flag. A healthy relationship means there is give and take. A controlling or manipulative relationship forces you to constantly choose between other important events and people in your life and your partner. Giving back in a relationship does not only mean showering you with affection and gifts. It means working together in co-operation on non-romantic subjects.
  • Controlling persons often check out of the relationship before you do; he may become detached and apathetic toward you. But unless he is the one to end this relationship, even though it is obvious he is interested in someone else, or at least looking with interest at others, he will freak out if you are the one to leave, and spend hours berating you for your thoughtless abandonment. Just so you know.
  • Don’t be mean about it. You don’t have to be like her to get away. Just say it’s not a match and you don’t intend to continue the relationship. Period. Don’t try pointing out all of the above warning signs. This type of person won’t recognize herself. It’s like trying to teach a pig to sing– it wastes your time and makes the pig bitter.
  • Confess to your friends and family – apologize to themfor marginalizing them and disregarding their bad opinion of this person. Tell them you wish you had listened to them. Get all the anger and hurt out of your system – they will be only too happy to share. They will rejoice when you tell them it’s over.
  • Resist the temptation to be bitter about the experience. You’ve just survived a very tough situation and lived to tell the tale.


  • Severely controlling and manipulative people are often produced by external factors such as abusive parents or clinical mental disorders. You cannot hope to change or rescue such a person, as much as you may care for her; the best help you can give her is to (A) refuse to be her victim, and (B) direct her to professional help.
  • The likelihood of stalking and violent behaviors developing in this type of person is higher than in others, both for you and any supporters you might have. If you feel you’re being stalked, notify the authorities and take steps to make yourself safe (travel with others, stay with friends or family, avoid places you frequented together, get a restraining order).
  • If he shows up at your door after you’ve broken it off, don’t open it if you’re home alone. Make sure someone else is with you if you do decide to talk to him (not recommended), but even though you want to be compassionate, the best and easiest approach is to simply cut off contact.
  • Compassion is not easily understood or accepted by these folks, and it just hurts you both more in the end, as it is likely to be used as a weapon against you. Cutting them off may seem cruel, but it ends the confrontations and forces them to move on or get help.
  • Watch for stalking or menacing behaviors or threats, including threats to harm you or your supporters, or to commit suicide. Don’t rely on your own judgment to determine whether threats are serious. Report them to the police immediately. This person is probably just difficult and not dangerous, but don’t take any chances. If necessary, get a restraining order and call the cops each and every timeit is violated.
  • While it is preferable that marriages involving kids be worked out, in many cases, a controlling manipulator is not amenable to marriage or family counseling. If your partner is not willing to commit to counseling, then separation may be the only answer. Without family counseling, the manipulative, controlling partner will damage the children, and you will spawn more of the same type of person.
  • Couples counseling or marriage counseling may not be a safe place for you to talk about any abuse you are enduring, with the abuser sitting right next to you during a session. You need individual supportive counseling that is often available for free at your local domestic violence agency. They can connect you to an agency close by.
  • Don’t be cowed by people or ideas that you should “stay for the sake of the children.” Some people are so controlling, manipulative and narcissistic that the best interest of the children is served by leaving the relationship, and taking the children with you. Unfortunately, controlling, manipulative persons can become very destructive, and even dangerous, and you should never stay in a relationship that is either, especially if you have kids. It’s your first duty to protect them, not continually allow them to be abused by a person like this.

1 thought on “How to Recognize a Manipulative or Controlling Relationship

  1. Pingback: Control Issues….. « Relationship Voice

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