Letters like these come in to our “Ask the Therapist” column every week:
“My boyfriend freaks out if I go out with my friends for an evening — even though he hangs out with his friends almost every day,” says Angela. “I love my boyfriend to death but he’s always putting me down,” says Katie. “Every weekend we have to go see my boyfriend’s mom but he doesn’t want to spend any time with my family. It’s gotten so I have to lie if I’m going to see my own sister,” says Kieshi.
Angel’s letter is only a little different: “I used to have lots of friends but my boyfriend wants all my time. I used to think that was romantic. Now I’m scared I’m losing most of my friends.” And Melody echoes several other letters when she says, “My boyfriend is always accusing me of coming on to other guys when we’re out. Guys do look at me but I don’t invite it. It’s gotten so I don’t want to go out any more cuz we always end up in a big fight about it.”
It’s almost as if these young women are in relationships with the same guy who just zips himself into a different outer suit to appeal to the woman he’s with. In the name of romance or commitment or love, he increasingly limits his girlfriend’s life and chips away at her self-esteem. This is what is meant by a “controlling” boyfriend.
Why do some guys act like this? Generally it’s because they are scared of the vulnerability that comes with loving and trusting someone. They may have been betrayed by a former girlfriend and fear being hurt again. They may have grown up observing relationships where the man held the upper hand by controlling the woman. Their self-esteem may be so low that the only way they can be sure that someone will stay with them is to make the girl’s self-esteem even lower. Whatever the reason, it isn’t good for them or for the women who had the misfortune to fall in love with them. Relationships built on distrust and control are unhealthy. Relationships where love is held hostage don’t last.
There are some common signs of a controlling guy. If you recognize your boyfriend or yourself here, you may want to take a step back from the relationship. But please be careful not to jump to conclusions based on a list. It’s not at all uncommon for people to have some of these characteristics some of the time. When people get scared, they often try to get things back under control.
Signs like these become a problem when they become a pattern. If your guy shows some of these behaviors but will talk about them with you and will work consistently on making change, it may be worth it to hang onto the relationship. Part of becoming a couple is negotiating how you will manage different tastes, different opinions, and different ways of operating in the world. It’s the guys who regularly behave in a number of these ways (especially those who get physical) and who see nothing wrong with it that you have to be concerned about. A guy whose standard operating procedure is “my way or the highway” is someone who is more interested in being in charge than being in a relationship of mutual respect.