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15 Signs of a Controlling Boyfriend & How to Deal With a Controlling Relationship

Jorge's relationship advice is based on experience and observation. Let his trial and error be your success (hopefully).


Is My Boyfriend Controlling? How Do I Know for Sure?

Nearly all people want control over their environment. It's human nature. We're notoriously unable to let go and allow a situation to just be. We always feel like we have to do something to make things go our way. So don't be shocked if your man shows a few signs here and there of wanting some control. It's only natural.

How to Spot Abnormal Controlling Behavior in a Relationship

The big difference between someone who is merely being human and someone who is controlling is that the later results in emotional and physical abuse. A person who just wants control over themselves and their environment is pretty normal. However, a person who wants to constantly control what others say and do has issues. The distinction is that one behavior does not try to restrict others' freedom while the other behavior does.

The following signs are red flags that your boyfriend may be headed towards becoming a controlling and manipulative person or already is one.

Signs of a Controlling Boyfriend

  1. He's very insecure and paranoid.
  2. He pointlessly criticizes you.
  3. He uses ultimatums and other threatening tactics to manipulate you.
  4. He isolates you from others.
  5. He spies on you or actively distrusts you.
  6. He acts like you owe him for everything.
  7. He makes you miserable when things don't go his way.
  8. He uses conditional sentences to make you feel inadequate.
  9. He keeps score of everything in the relationship.
  10. He uses "humorous" teasing that is actually underlying criticism.
  11. He expects sex.
  12. He plants seeds of doubt.
  13. He uses guilt to control you.
  14. He makes you feel beholden to him.
  15. He makes you feel less than you are.
Don't reward your partner for being insecure and paranoid.

Don't reward your partner for being insecure and paranoid.

1. He's Very Insecure and Paranoid

The first thing that you should understand about someone who is controlling is that their need for control usually comes from a deep insecurity. This doesn't mean that they're only insecure about your relationship specifically, although that certainly is part of it. An insecure person rarely limits their neurosis to just one part of their life.

Common Insecurities in a Relationship

  • His looks or your looks.
  • His job or your job.
  • How people view the two of you.
  • Whether you're attracted to other people besides him.
  • Whether you and others "respect" him enough.

The more fragile his self-image, the more controlling he is likely to be. Because he has a flimsy emotional foundation on the inside, he will try to make up for it by controlling situations on the outside.

Signs of an Insecure or Paranoid Man

  • He constantly judges others
  • He always seeks validation
  • He's jealous of other guys (constantly critiques other men)
  • He questions your loyalty
  • He smothers you with gifts
  • He sees "disrespect" everywhere he turns
  • He's extremely sensitive to criticism

How to Handle It

  • There are many levels of insecurity. A little insecurity about a certain aspect of this life is fine. If he's feeling insecure about his position at work or his performance in bed, ensure him that he is amazing and that you love him the way he is.
  • If his insecurity turns into paranoia, sit him down and tell him your concern. Paranoia leads to feelings of mistrust in a relationship, which then leads to spying, false accusations, and a constant fear of cheating. This is unhealthy, and it needs to be prevented or stopped.
  • Don't reward bad behavior. Many women fall prey to the notion that the correct way to handle an insecure man is to smother him with affection or appease him. Women think, "If I show him how much I love him, he won't think that I think less of him, or he won't think that I might be cheating on him." WRONG! Don't allow him to snoop or invade your privacy. Don't allow him to question yourself. You can still love your man by being supportive and by helping him overcome his insecurities. Not tackling the problem directly and masking it with superficial shows of affection don't solve the problem—they only hide it for awhile.
Constant criticism from your partner may indicate an unhealthy need to control you.

Constant criticism from your partner may indicate an unhealthy need to control you.

2. He Pointlessly Criticizes You

It may start out with small criticisms that only come once in a while, but once your boyfriend begins criticizing you constantly, he's displaying controlling behavior that is a cause for concern.

This is a tact that controlling people use to influence your behavior. By making you feel small, dumb, and incompetent, you become helpless, and you're much easier to control that way. If you feel like he's taking your power away bit by bit, then you're probably dealing with a controlling relationship.

Common Criticisms From a Controlling Man

  • He comments on your clothes, your weight, your hair, or anything else about your physical appearance.
  • Criticizes your way of talking. It can be something stupid like the way you pronounce "tomato."
  • Questions your intelligence.
  • Comments on your cooking.
  • Criticizes your tone of voice.
  • Comments on your decision making.
  • Criticizes everything you do ALL THE TIME.
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How to Handle It

  • Don't rationalize it. The ability to take criticism is noble and even rewarding, but accepting pointless criticism is self-destructive. After all, it's impossible that everything you do is wrong.
  • Realize that he's not doing it to make you a better person. If he were truly caring and supportive, he would offer constructive advice on how you can improve and also pair that with positive feedback to encourage you. Pointing out something he doesn't like is not constructive criticism; it's bullying.
  • Understand that you don't need to change. If everything you do is wrong, it can be hard to feel loved and accepted. But how do you change and what should you change? The answer is: nothing. If everything single little thing you do is "wrong" in his eyes, then you are clearly not the one for him.
  • Have an open discussion: If it gets to the point where you question why he's still with you despite him hating everything that you do, sit him down and respectfully ask him to explain his thoughts. Let him know that you feel like you won't be able to please his every expectation and that you cannot constantly change every little thing about yourself. The conclusion to this discussion may be that you both decide to break up, but if he can't accept you, then it's best to walk away now before his controlling behavior turns into emotional manipulation and possibly physical abuse.

3. He Uses Ultimatums and Other Threatening Tactics to Manipulate You

The manipulation doesn't stop with just criticism. Does he use threats to openly manipulate you? Is everything a transaction? Is everything conditional?

While it's normal to expect certain things from a relationship (basic respect, fidelity, etc.), it's not okay to manipulate someone into giving these things. Your boyfriend should either accept the relationship the way it is, talk things through like a mature adult, or leave you. Trying to alter your behavior by using threats is toxic, controlling behavior. Real love doesn't have conditions and requirements. You just have to be you.

Common Ultimatums

  • "If you don't stop hanging out with Samantha, then I'm going to break up with you."
  • "If you won't see me on Sunday night, then I'm not driving you to work on Tuesday."
  • "If you don't change your hairstyle, then I'm won't be attracted to you anymore."

How to Deal With It

  • Never give in: Threats and ultimatums are really extreme examples of controlling behavior. You may think you can change your boyfriend by agreeing, talking it through, and maybe even coming up with compromises, but responding to threats with anything other than a "no" only establishes a position of weakness, which your boyfriend will use to his advantage.
  • Realize he doesn't truly love you: This is a hard pill to swallow, but it's the truth. If he really loved you, he would do everything to make you happy. A loving boyfriend would not threaten to break up with you or threaten to withdraw certain acts of kindness in order to get his way. This is extremely selfish behavior.
  • Find your freedom: Never stay in a relationship that is held together by threats. If the only reason you two are still together is because you give into his threats, then you are in an abusive relationship. Seek help from a trusted friend, a family member, or an authority figure, and find the courage to walk away. You deserve better.
If you often find yourself declining invites from friends and family because you're worried your partner might get mad, it may be time to end the relationship.

If you often find yourself declining invites from friends and family because you're worried your partner might get mad, it may be time to end the relationship.

4. He Isolates You From Others

A guy that attempts to isolate you from your support network is someone who is trying to assert his dominance. People who are isolated are easier to control, so watch out if he's talking smack about your friends or your family. It's even worse if he actively tries to start drama to drive a wedge between you and the people you care about, or he blatantly forbids you from seeing them. No one has a right to stop you from seeing your loved ones, no matter how much he doesn't get along with them.

Signs He's Keeping You Isolated

  • He'll complain about how much time you spend with your brother or your friends
  • He endlessly criticizes your friend/family member in an attempt to get you to lose trust/confidence in that person
  • He makes you feel guilty about talking to or seeing that person
  • He threatens to leave or abuses you emotionally or physically to keep you from contacting that person

How to Deal With It

  • Don't believe what he says. He'll start by spreading rumors about the person/people he doesn't want you to be in touch with. These rumors are likely not true. He is only painting a bad image of these people to separate you from them and push you closer to him.
  • Leave. If your boyfriend forbids you from having friends or from being with your family, he is taking away what is most valuable to you. Ask yourself if being with your boyfriend is worth losing everyone else in your life.
If you catch your partner snooping on your phone or computer, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship.

If you catch your partner snooping on your phone or computer, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship.

5. He Spies On You or Actively Distrusts You

Going back to the whole insecurity thing, controlling people often don't trust their partners. They might go to huge lengths to spy on them or follow them around to make sure that they're not stepping "out of line." After all, he can't control you when he's not around, right?

Common Signs of a Distrustful Boyfriend

  • You catch him reading your email, mail, or text messages
  • He constantly asks you where you're going and pries for details
  • He asks you who you're talking to every time you're on your phone
  • He asks you who you're seeing every time you leave the house
  • He may even make a fake account to stalk you or talk to you online

How to Deal With It

If your boyfriend is stalking you or reading your text messages, then get help immediately. This is a very bad sign, and there's no telling what could happen. Speak to a trusted friend or, if you feel in danger, you might even want to get authorities involved.

6. He Acts Like You Owe Him For Everything

Another manipulation tactic he might use is to make you feel like he "does so much for you" that you owe him your compliance. Again, this is the transactional nature of a controlling relationship. You are exchanging your freedom for whatever it is that he says he's giving you.

Things You Don't Owe Him

  • Sex: Only you have a say in when, where, and how to have sex.
  • Time: You should make time for him, and as should he, but he should not expect you to sacrifice your time at work or with family. He should learn to compromise.
  • Your Opinion: You should have the freedom to express yourself without fear of retribution. You do not owe it to him to always be positive, even to the point of being fake.

How to Deal With It

Your freedom is not for sale! Nothing is worth giving up your freedom.

Is it his way or the highway? If your partner makes you feel rotten when things don't go exactly how he wants them to, it may be time for you to separate.

Is it his way or the highway? If your partner makes you feel rotten when things don't go exactly how he wants them to, it may be time for you to separate.

7. He Makes You Miserable When Things Don't Go His Way

A controlling person cannot handle it when something doesn't go his way. If he can't manipulate a situation successfully, then he'll make sure that everyone around him is as miserable as he is. This is a message that he's sending to you: "Disobey me, and see what happens."

Common Signs

  • You went out with your friends against his wishes, so now he's giving you the silent treatment.
  • You wore that skirt that he said looked too revealing on you, and now he's flirting with every girl he sees in revenge.
  • He didn't get the job he wanted, so it's your fault somehow.

How to Deal With It

  • Let him know it hurts you when he seeks revengeful behavior and that if he doesn't like how certain things go, he should try to talk to you respectfully to find a solution.
  • If he refuses to talk in a civil manner and continues to lash out or have an attitude, then you are not in a healthy and happy relationship. It would be better for the two of you to separate.

8. He Uses Conditional Sentences to Make You Feel Inadequate

A controlling boyfriend tries to change you by making you feel like he would only love you or stay with you if you are exactly the way he wants you to be. This is a very subtle but extremely toxic way of belittling you to get you to do what he wants. He's trying to make you feel like you have to earn his love.

Common Conditional Phrases

  • I would love you more if you lost a little weight.
  • If you took better care of yourself, maybe you would actually look hot.
  • If only you had a college degree, you would get along better with my friends.
  • I don't even know what I'm getting out of this relationship if you can't even do this for me.
  • I love you when you wear that dress.

How to Deal With It

  • Call him out every time he makes these statements. Ask him what he hopes to get out of saying those things. If he doesn't realize that what he is doing is wrong, let him know it hurts you and tell him exactly why.
  • If he doesn't change or doesn't put in the effort to change, walk away from it. If you continue to let it happen, you will feel completely worthless and lose control of your own identity.
Does your partner keep a mental tally of things you owe them and make sure you feel never like you're even? This is very unhealthy behavior.

Does your partner keep a mental tally of things you owe them and make sure you feel never like you're even? This is very unhealthy behavior.

9. He Keeps Score of Everything in the Relationship

He keeps a mental record of everything the both of you do in the relationship so that he can use them to blame you, to ask for a favor in return, or to make you feel like you didn't do enough.

A relationship should be unconditional, meaning there should be an innate practice of giving and receiving. But if your man keeps tally and demands favors in return for favors he gives you instead of practicing generous caring, then he has the upperhand. This tactic is not much different than tactics used by owners to train animals. He is creating a system wherein you will only receive his love and attention when you do something he wants.

10. "Humorous" Teasing That Is Actually Underlying Criticism

Do you often get the teasing jab about your weight, about the way you talk, or about something that he thinks is "wrong" about you? It may start off as a joke, and he'll even say, "I'm just kidding," but if the same joke comes up time and time again, it is a cause for concern because that joke has an undercurrent of truth—he really does mean what he says even if it's said in a facetious/playful tone.

If you get upset, he might even make you feel like your reaction is wrong by pointing out that you can't take a joke. Teasing once in a while is fine, but constant teasing, especially when there is a recurring theme about your physical appearance, your intelligence, or some other aspect of you, is a form of manipulation. He is hoping that if you hear it enough times, you'll eventually change.

It is never okay for your partner to pressure you into having sex.

It is never okay for your partner to pressure you into having sex.

11. He Expects Sex

No matter how big of a gentleman your boyfriend is outside of bed, there is no excuse for him to pressure you to have sex. In fact, it is common for a guy who spoils you, profusely compliments you, and showers you with love and generosity to expect something in return...and he expects that same attention that he gives you to reciprocated to him in bed.

He will make you feel guilty about it by questioning your love for him. You might hear him say, "Do you even love me?" or "Are you not attracted to me?" He will also mention all of the things he does for you and question why you don't give him what he wants in return.

How to Deal With It

If you are in a situation like this, the best thing to do is to break up. It sounds extreme, but unfortunately, a guy who expects things in return for what should be unconditional love will never change. Furthermore, guilting or pressuring a partner into sex is dangerous and toxic. A relationship like this could lead to physical abuse or cheating. It's better to end things now than to follow this dark path and suffer even worse outcomes later on.

12. He Plants Seeds of Doubt

A partner should be encouraging, should build your confidence, and push you to believe in yourself. A controlling boyfriend, however, always has a way of making you feel like you aren't good enough.

It may come off as giving practical advice, but in reality, he's just being negative. There is a difference between helping you set realistic goals and completely dismissing your professional/personal goals.

If your man is constantly telling you your grades aren't good enough or that you aren't good enough to do [fill in the blank], then he is controlling your life decisions and, ultimately, your destiny.

How to Deal With It

Before you label cast your boyfriend as a controlling person with bad intentions, please carefully analyze your relationship and the situation you are both in. Yes, what he is doing is controlling, and it's not acceptable, but he could just be a negative Nancy or a very risk-averse person. If you want to move across the country to begin a career, and he's afraid he'll lose you, he may plant seeds of doubt to persuade you to stay. Or if you wanted to go back to school, but it will be very tough to afford, and there is no guarantee that you will get a better-paying job, then he may not want you to take the risk. It all depends on the context. He may not be a bad person, just someone who has doubts and fears in a certain situation.

However, if he is always telling you things that make you feel worthless or he prevents you from doing something simple, like taking dance classes, then he is definitely a control freak, at which point, you should probably leave.

13. He Uses Guilt to Control You

Controlling people are highly skilled manipulators, and they like to use guilt as a way of getting people to conform to their wishes. In his mind, he thinks that if he can make you feel sorry for doing (or not doing) something, then you'll naturally give in and willingly do the thing he wants you to do.

Signs He Is Guilt-Tripping You

  • He acts disappointed in you when things don't go his way
  • He compares you to other people
  • He brings up the past
  • He blames you
  • He makes himself sound like the better person in the relationship
  • You feel uncomfortable saying no because you know his reaction will make you feel bad about yourself

How to Deal With It

  • Tell your boyfriend you understand how important his wishes are.
  • Let him know that you feel resentment after complying to his wishes and that you want to do things for him out of love, respect, and mutual agreement, not through guilt and resentment.
  • Ask him to try expressing his wishes directly, and assure him that you will fully consider what it is that he asks for, but that he should also respect your decision and understand why you might say no.
  • Try to be kind and patient. Unless your boyfriend checks off more than half the signs of this list, he may not necessarily be a controlling person—just someone with a few controlling habits. If you are both willing to work through the relationship and find better ways of communicating, try to help him let go of controlling habits by giving him gentle and loving reminders.
If your man only seems to enjoy giving you love, attention, and gifts so that you always feel like you owe him, it's time to get out.

If your man only seems to enjoy giving you love, attention, and gifts so that you always feel like you owe him, it's time to get out.

14. He Makes You Feel Beholden to Him

A truly controlling boyfriend will shower you with material things—gifts, expensive vacations, etc.—but he is doing this so that you slowly but surely feel like you owe him favors. This tactic creates a relationship in which he is your benefactor. He plays this game expecting you to say "yes" to his every wish, and if you don't say "yes," he will make you feel guilty by asking why you don't do things for him after all he's done for you.

Common Signs He Wants You to Feel Beholden to Him

  • He showers you with gifts and asks for favors in return
  • He makes you feel guilty or gets mad when you don't do things his way
  • He shows extremely nice superficial gestures, such as always saying sweet things, giving you gifts, treating you on every date, opening doors for you, etc., but he doesn't provide emotional support, understanding, or selflessness.
  • He constantly compares you to him and makes you feel like you don't measure up to his acts of superficial kindness.

How to Deal With It

This is a serious sign of manipulation, and men who use this power dynamic to control women cannot be trusted. Remember that a healthy and loving relationship should be unconditional, and he does not have the upper hand. He does not own you, and you do not owe him for anything. If he chooses to do things for you or give you gifts, they should be genuine and come from his authentic desire to make you happy. He should not expect anything in return.

15. He Makes You Feel Less Than You Are

If he constantly makes you feel like you're less attractive or less intelligent compared to his exes or even compared to himself, then he is slyly trying to make you feel like you should be grateful to even be in a relationship. This creates a dynamic where you feel the need to strive to be more complying in order to please him.

Common Ways He Makes You Feel Unworthy

  • He constantly compares you to his exes or to other girls to make you feel less attractive or less smart
  • He constantly belittles you or makes you feel like you don't measure up to him
  • He compares you to his siblings or to his mother to make you feel like you're beneath them

How to Deal With It

  • Confront him: Ask him why he doesn't think you're good enough and that if he isn't satisfied with the way you are, you want him to have the chance to find someone who can measure up to his standards.
  • Leave and explain why: A boyfriend that doesn't appreciate you is not worth having. Leave and explain to him why you're leaving.

Is Your Boyfriend Controlling?

If you've noticed any of these signs of a controlling relationship, then you need to step back and have a long talk with your boyfriend.

Unfortunately, it's common for controlling people to be poor listeners and to always find reasons to fault you. If that's the case, it's probably best to leave the relationship. Someone who doesn't even have the self-awareness to acknowledge their flaws will give you nothing but grief in the end.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: My boyfriend isn’t comfortable with me having guy friends, or being around other guys period. Is this controlling?

Answer: If he's "uncomfortable," it could just mean that he's insecure. But if you mean that he's actually trying to actively keep you from having male friends, then yes, I would say that's controlling. It's normal to have friends of both sexes.

Question: What do I do if my boyfriend doesn't want to break up, but he still can't change his ways?

Answer: Then you break up with him.

Question: What do I do if my boyfriend won't let me go and threatens to commit suicide if I leave him?

Answer: Get professional help (or help from someone you trust) immediately, so that both of you can safely break up.

Question: What do I do if my boyfriend won’t let me break up with him because he says I’m overreacting?

Answer: What do you mean he won't "let you"? You're a human being with free will; you can do what you want. If he's physically keeping you from leaving, call for help immediately from someone you trust. If he's not, and you just mean this figuratively, then remember that he doesn't control you, even if he might act like it. Break up with him.

Question: My fiancé doesn’t allow me to go out. He checks my location constantly, he calls me constantly, and when I don’t answer him, he calls me more and more. He also starts to cry and gets super upset when I try to change my mind about having a baby right now. What does this mean?

Answer: It probably means that he should be your ex-fiancé instead of your fiancé. Having said that, I don't know the context of your life. If he's physically trying to stop you from going out, though, that is a huge red flag that he is abusing you. Call someone you trust and get out of the situation.

© 2017 Jorge Vamos

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