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Home / Articles / Ask Amanda / Ask Amanda: Is Controlling Behavior a Type of Abuse?

Ask Amanda: Is Controlling Behavior a Type of Abuse?

5 signs of controlling behavior by a partner that can turn dominating and abusive

  • By
  • Jun 03, 2024
woman controlled by partner

Q: When I first met my boyfriend, I liked that he took charge of every situation. It made me feel safe and taken care of. But now, a year in, it’s getting on my nerves. He takes over all the planning when we go on dates or a weekend away. He even OKs the outfits I wear out. He controls all the money, even mine, and we’re not even married. I find myself asking permission before I go out with friends. He even dictates what time we wake up on the weekends and what our plans are going to be. I guess the final straw was when he sat me down and explained how our future is going to look—not only when we’ll get married, but what my career will look like—he says he’d like me to quit my job and take care of the kids, and I’m not even sure I want to have kids yet! I know that control can be a tactic of abuse, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that I’m a victim of abuse here. I can leave whenever I want and he hasn’t threatened to hurt me. What do you think

A: I can see why this is tricky. Most of us associate an abusive partner with someone mean, threatening, or who has an explosive temper. Physical abuse is easier to identify because we should all be well aware that there is no acceptable time when a partner can put their hands on us without our consent, especially in a way that causes harm or injury. But coercive control is not as obvious. 

Coercive control is a way partners can dominate someone else by taking away their ability to make decisions. It’s different than simply agreeing one partner is better at handling the money and another partner is the calmer driver and each person takes on certain roles in the relationship. When control crosses over into abuse, it can cause the other person to feel silenced, belittled and scared to speak up.  

It sounds like your boyfriend is controlling a lot of aspects of your life. It’s probably beginning to feel normal, to a certain extent, that he makes the decisions and you ask permission to do things. The talk about your future—telling you you’re going to quit your job—is especially concerning. Abusive partners will often try to prevent survivors from having financial independence in order to keep them dependent on the abuser, called financial abuse. It sounds like he’s already doing that by controlling your money. He may position it as doing what’s best for you or taking care of you, but I’m worried it’s not that altruistic.

Not only that, keeping you at home in the future isolates you from others who may be supportive of you leaving this relationship. He may know that and want to prevent that. 

You may feel like you can leave at any time, but the fact of the matter is that coercive control can sometimes feel like being brainwashed. Over time, you may begin to feel less and less like yourself. You may forget that you are allowed to make decisions over your own life. You may be trapped without him ever threatening you with violence. Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, describes how coercive control can affect survivors over time in this article: “The survivor becomes afraid to make waves within her relationship, so she silences herself. Her self-esteem tends to plummet as she is subjected to frequent criticism. She often feels depressed. Especially if the coercive control does not include physical violence—she probably blames herself for the problems in the relationship. She may develop new anxieties, even panic or social phobia. The more anxious she becomes, the less her partner needs to control her to keep her isolated.”

Of course, not all controlling partners are necessarily abusive. Have you talked to your partner about how his controlling behavior makes you feel? How he reacts to this discussion can give you a lot of clues as to whether or not this is a healthy relationship. If he’s willing to listen to your concerns, makes you feel safe when you share them and shows real change after the fact, these are signs of a healthy relationship.

On the other hand, if he shuts you down immediately, minimizes your concerns, doesn’t take responsibility for his actions, belittles your feelings, gets angry at you or threatens you, and continues to exhibit controlling behavior, these are signs of a potentially abusive partner. 

10 Signs of Abusive Control

The following 10 types of controlling behavior, especially in tandem, can indicate that the control your boyfriend is exhibiting has crossed over into abuse:

  1. Isolation—preventing you from seeing friends or family, or going anywhere without him. 
  2. Interrogating you about what you do, who you talk to, etc., when he isn’t around.
  3. Stalks you—follows you either in person or through a tracking device, including your phone, to see where you are at all times. 
  4. Limiting your access to finances (like giving you an allowance), preventing you from working or tracking how you spend your money.
  5. Embarrassing you, belittling you or tearing down your self-esteem. These tactics can make you dependent on him emotionally for validation. 
  6. Doesn’t respect your boundaries; acts like he knows what is best for you regardless of any decision you try to make. 
  7. Gaslights you so that you can’t trust your memory of what happened. 
  8. Sexually coerces you into doing things you’re not comfortable with, intimacy-wise. 
  9. Tries to make decisions about family planning without your input or consent, known as reproductive coercion
  10. Uses threats of violence against you, your loved ones or your pets, even nonverbally. Is able to look at you in such a way that silences you. 

It might help to take a look at this article we did on signs of a healthy relationship. But most importantly, remember to listen to your gut. If your partner isn’t making you feel safe or comfortable, this is a sign that his controlling behavior isn’t in your best interest. 

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Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.

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