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Bonding or Bondage? Three Subtle Signs of a Controlling Relationship

When we first met, he was charming, kind, funny, and overall a great guy. He made me happy, and I felt like I could trust him. However, after we dated for a few months, I realized that the relationship was making me feel uneasy. He continuously needed to know where I was and who I was hanging out with. Also, he put down my interests and my dreams. Slowly, I realized that I was constantly stressed about his feelings: if I would do something to upset him, if he would argue with me about my opinions, if he would belittle me in front of others. He added stress to my life and lowered my self-esteem. I knew that I needed to get out. 

It can be difficult to decipher a controlling relationship while you’re in one. When we have romantic interest in someone, we try to see the best in them, and when we are in love with someone, emotional bonds can fog how we view things they do or don’t do. Romantic relationships, because of how intimate and time consuming they are, have a distinct potential to become controlling. It is critical to know the signs of controlling behavior so that you can enjoy healthy relationships and protect yourself. Below are three general signs that a relationship is or has become controlling.

Negative Nancy

Does your partner talk negatively about things that you enjoy/are interested in more often than they talk positively about them? Are they perpetually unimpressed by your success and achievements? Do they make you feel stupid for having certain opinions or desires? Consistent instances of these things imply verbally controlling behavior because your partner is showing that they believe your values are worthless and can be dominated. 

Though these instances on their own may not be overly damaging, daily repetition of negativity creates the idea of your partner’s thoughts being the most important in the relationship, and you feel expected to run your thoughts by them for approval. 

Dream Crusher

Does your partner imply that your dreams are dumb and not worth pursuing? Do they make you feel silly for your goals? This can be an inconspicuous form of controlling behavior. Your partner may cover this with the guise of compassion and concern for you, “Are you sure you can do that?” or “Do you realize how hard that will be?” However, repeated instances of putting down your dreams is not caring- it’s controlling. Your partner is simply uncomfortable with you having a good future that is unrelated to them, and they are verbally manipulating you into being dependent.

A controlling partner often insults dreams and desires for your near future as well, such as making you feel bad for doing things that do not involve them. They will be paranoid about where you are and who you are with. A dream-crushing partner talks bad about your plans and dreams that they are not a part of. 

bully

Bullying in a relationship can range from subtle to severe. Subtle bullying can be the perpetual controlling behaviors exemplified above. It can also be manipulation, such as your partner being kind to you when you spend time together alone but belittling you when you’re around other people. They may bully you into doing things that they want to do or try to destroy your boundaries/standards for a relationship. A partner who is a bully may start off by verbally controlling or manipulating you but could easily lead into physical aggressions. 

These signs, while easy to talk about on paper, can be hard to come to terms with when you’re in a controlling relationship. That said, no one has the right to control your life and your dreams, and though it is easier said than done, it’s necessary to listen to yourself if you feel like you may be the victim of a controlling relationship.

Remember: you are entitled to have your own opinions and desires outside of your partner’s. You can do things and have dreams that do not involve your partner. If your partner is constantly speaking in such a way as to make you feel bad about yourself and your goals, interests, achievements, plans, and overall worth, then consider the possibility that you may be in a controlling relationship. Controlling behavior, even if never physical, does damage to mental health and self-esteem.

It can be difficult to discern the line between sweet and stifling, but if you are feeling like you have to tiptoe around your partner’s emotions, if you hide things that you are interested in from them, if you worry about wording everything perfectly to avoid an argument, if you cannot know for sure if they will belittle you in front of people, then listen to those thoughts. You can trust yourself and your spirit. You deserve so much more than to live your life in emotional bondage. 

Source: Thompson, Kevin. “How to Recognize a Controlling Relationship and What to do about it.” LifeHack. 2021. https://www.lifehack.org/813513/controlling-relationship

I am an English major at the University of Alabama and originally from Hoover, AL. Writing poetry, shopping, traveling, and spending time with my sister are some of my favorite things to do. I received a Silver Key award from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and I am in the Blount Scholar's Program at UA. My main goal in life is to make a difference!
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