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.
7 Warning Signs of Men Who Need Too Much Control
- You are his everything. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s not. When a guy needs to be attached to you at the hip and you can’t do anything without his say-so, it’s a big red flag. Sure, it’s normal to be with each other constantly in the first blush of new love. But if it goes on after the first few months; if it limits your ability to do things independently; if it means that you have no privacy; then it has become an issue of control.
- You find yourself losing contact with family, friends, and activities you once enjoyed. He may not even like you to be on the phone or Facebook or email unless he’s around. He always has a reason. He says he doesn’t like how so-and-so takes advantage of you. He says he wants you to spend more time with him. He says your family is too controlling. Some of it even sounds like it makes sense. But over time your boyfriend has isolated you to the point that you don’t have many friends anymore and your family complains that you are neglecting them.
- He has different rules for you than he has for himself. He gets to hang out with the guys. You don’t get time with your girlfriends. He makes plans for both of you but flips out if you do the same. He flirts with other girls when you’re out but makes sure you have eyes only for him. He insists on his right to privacy regarding his phone log or his email account or his Facebook password but gets angry if you draw the same boundaries.
- He invites, then insists, that you join in his life but isn’t interested in getting to know yours. Over time, the two of you end up spending your time going to events and doing only the things that interest your guy even if you’re not terribly interested. You rarely if ever do things you love to do. You may justify it at first, figuring that you’re more flexible, that you want to get to know his friends, that it’s cool that he wants to teach you about his interests, that getting him to go to one of your events isn’t worth his sighing and his restlessness and his comments. But somehow you end up making all the compromises and feeling like you’ve lost something that was important to you.
- Finances are a big issue. Somehow you’ve ended up either not having any money of your own or spending it all on your life together. This is one of those issues where opposites produce the same outcome. In some controlling relationships, the boyfriend gradually, or not so gradually, does little or nothing to support the couple. The girlfriend finds herself working all the time to keep the bills paid and food on the table while he “looks for work” or “waits for his band’s big break” or drops in and out of school or simply does nothing but make promises that tomorrow it will be different.
On the other end of the spectrum is the guy who says that he will take care of his girlfriend, that she doesn’t need to work, that he needs her at home, that real women take care of their family. All that would be fine if the couple had a reasonable way of sharing and managing the family income. But the controlling guy doles out an allowance like it’s the last dollar and doesn’t let his girlfriend or wife in on many of the financial decisions that affect both of them. She ends up even further isolated and dependent on him.
- He is never at fault. In fact, he is phobic about blame. The controlling guy always finds a way to make you feel that anything that goes wrong in your relationship is all about you. If you have a complaint, he will quickly move the conversation to all the things you’ve done wrong since the beginning of time. Instead of discussing your concern, you find yourself on the defensive. Instead of working out a compromise, you feel you have to give in or the fight will go on forever.
- Often these relationships become physically abusive. If the guy is controlling because he doesn’t trust you, he may lose it when he is suspicious. Sadly, it doesn’t take much to make him suspicious. What generally follows are accusations, blaming, relentless grilling, and anger. When we’re talking about something as ephemeral as trust, it’s almost impossible to defend oneself. How do you explain away something that never happened in the first place? Not satisfied with the girlfriend’s answers, the guy gets increasingly frustrated and, though he’d never admit it, scared. It’s not uncommon for the guy to get physical at that point.
If you’re in a relationship that is more about control than about mutual respect, mutual support, and mutual care, do something about it. If you believe that there is real love underneath all the drama, by all means try to talk it out and work it out. But if your guy can’t make the compromises that go with treating a partner as an equal; if he needs to control you to feel like a man; it’s time for you to take back control of yourself and your life. Do what you need to do to extricate yourself safely. Hold out for the kind of love you deserve.
If you are afraid to end your relationship, you need help and support to stay safe. Call the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence at 800-537-2238 or visit their website at www.ncdsv.org/.