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Are you in a Manipulative or Controlling Relationship?

by Eharmony Editorial Team - August 13, 2009

When you're in a relationship that's controlling and demeaning it can be hard to recognize the patterns and work for change. This guide can help you see your relationship in a more objective way.

As your relationship with a new person in your life has developed, you find your old friends falling away, while family members remark on how you don’t seem like yourself. Are you losing yourself to an odd, and ultimately destructive, relationship? Before you can regain your individuality and strength, you’ll need to determine if the relationship is taking something away, and, if so, put an end to the destructive cycle. For the purposes of the article, we’ll alternate between male and female gender examples (“him” in one step, “her” in the next). While the steps are directed towards romantic relationships, they do apply to any kind of relationship.



1. Evaluate honestly: Is this relationship healthy, or is it unhealthy? Be objective as you analyze how things have changed since this relationship began:

* Are you enjoying elevated esteem from your friends & family, or are they looking at you sideways? Are your family relationships suddenly filled with tension, every time your partner’s name comes up? While stressed relationships with others aren’t a sure sign of an unhealthy romance, red flags should go up if everyone who cares about you is getting worried or is being pushed away.
* Do you find yourself straying from your path? Are you doing things you wouldn’t ordinarily do (like drinking or drugs)? Are you obsessing about activities that require you to be alone (any time you can’t be with your love)? Have all the goals and activities that previously defined you suddenly been pushed to the back burner for no reason other than that your love is not into them? Deferring your future (that means quitting school or blowing off a good job so you can spend more time together) is a sign you are becoming unhealthily dependent on this person (usually a result of being systematically isolated from family and friends from before you got involved).
* Does this person bring out your best, or worst traits? Do you feed each others’ best self, or have you seen your attitudes change to more closely mirror your partner’s, which puts off your family and friends?

2. Recognize your blindness to your partner’s faults. Infatuation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in can be necessary and good; however, it does make one “temporarily insane” for the first part of a relationship. Sometimes our starry-eyed affection can make us willfully close our eyes to warning signals, even though we really kind of know that our friends and family have a point when they say they don’t like this or that about the significant other. Ask yourself: Do you find yourself apologizing or defending your significant other’s behavior? Finding reasons to excuse it? “Oh, he went through a terrible relationship before and has some issues… you can understand…” If you find yourself getting defensive when someone questions your relationship, you’re probably already aware that there is a problem and haven’t yet come to terms with it. Remember that people in healthy relationships have nothing to hide or defend. In fact, when a relationship is healthy, your friends and family are normally going to recognize that this person makes you very happy, brings out the best in you, and they will rejoice with the two of you.

3. Notice if your plans are continually overturned in favor of hers. You go to pick her up, thinking you’re going to see “The Wizard of Oz” at the art theater. But by the time you’re halfway through dinner (at the other end of town, her restaurant selection), she has talked you into seeing “The Fast & The Furious” at the theater next door to the restaurant she chose, instead. More and more, you realize that you’re not keeping any of the dates you chose. Instead, you’re always changing plans to do what she wants. And heaven help you if you planned to have dinner with friends of yours at 7pm. She won’t get into the shower until 6:50, so you’ll be calling to apologize, and inconveniencing everyone as you all wait for her. Because it’s always about her.

4. Remember that manipulation is when your partner gets you to do something you really wish you hadn’t. This person likes getting you outside your comfort zone, because then he is pulling the strings, getting one over on you.

5. Watch for efforts to exert financial control. A controlling partner may take over financial decisions, whether he earns more or less than you. If you earn less, he may require you to ask permission to buy things, seriously restricting even rare personal purchases, or may demand a long and/or emotional discussion of even trivial expenses. If you earn more, be wary of joint credit card accounts – BOTH people are legally responsible for paying, even if only one of them incurred the debt; some controlling people will use a joint credit card account, max the card, and then leave you with the bill.

6. Look for subtle establishment of control over time. It doesn’t happen obviously, suddenly, or overnight. Controlling, manipulative people are often very insecure. That’s why they have the compulsion to control others – they simply don’t trust anyone but themselves. They will invest weeks or months in ‘training’ you to accept and carry out their will:

* Does she treat your friends and family disrespectfully? Rudely?
* Are you realizing it’s just become easier not to spend time with people you’ve loved for years, rather than to make apologies or excuses for her lateness, or her rudeness?
* Have all of your past attachments to people and places been replaced by either old friends of your new love, or new friends you’ve made since you’ve been together? Severing your ties to the familiar stability of the world you have always known means he has just made himself the center of your universe, and now has no competition for your attention.

7. Watch out for subtle discrepancies. When talking with mutual friends, have they ever said something about your new girlfriend that made you stop and say, “Huh? But she said something different to me… You can’t have understood that right.” Did you then dismiss the idea that what your friends heard could have actually been true? That’s a big red flag. When you’re being controlled or manipulated, it’s usually through half-truths or omissions, not outright lies. There’s just enough weirdness to make you stop and think, but not quite enough to get you to re-evaluate the entire relationship. If this happens more than once, STOP and remind yourself that this isn’t the first time you’ve had this reaction. Start analyzing discrepancies between what she said, and what your friends say. It may save you from disaster later.

8. Keep your support system. Cutting you off from your support systems helps him gain dominance over you – and you think it’s your decision. Controlling people treat your friends with disrespect, but when alone with you, they never say a bad word about those friends, but rather is kind, loving, and complimentary to you about them – it makes you believe your family or friends are simply jealous, don’t understand him, etc. You forget his nastiness to their faces because he’s nice behind their backs. When you find yourself telling your mom or sister, “But, you don’t know him like I do,” that’s a bad sign. It’s much easier to for him control you when you’ve decided your loved ones just don’t understand your mate, and soon, you have no one but him to turn to.

9. Recognize excessive jealousy or possessiveness as a danger signal. If your partner is protective of you, that’s sweet. If she’s bizarrely, overly protective, it’s scary. Consider whether she constantly nags about how long it takes you to make a trip to the market or to the post office. Does she randomly show up at work or drive by to check on you (particularly after a disagreement)? Does she question you too intensely about why you were talking to another person? Get angry about it? Disbelieve you when you say that person is just a friend or work colleague?

10. Watch for repeat offenses, shallow apologies and “courting” afterwards. He does something that is totally unacceptable then asks your forgiveness, tells you he realizes he was wrong, and promises to change. He seems utterly sincere and convincing – but it is part of the control. It is a way to use your compassion to keep you interested – at this point he may even say he wants your help to change, particularly if you have let him know that you will not tolerate such things again. He will bring you lavish gifts and attempt to sweep you off your feet, again, re-establishing his sincerity and your belief that he truly loves you (which he may, in a really toxic, controlling way). Watch for the bad behavior to resume as soon as he believes he has you hooked and complacent again.

11. Beware of the “backhanded compliment”. She will say things like, “Gosh, it’s a good thing you’re so attractive” (implies that you are stupid or incompetent) or “It’s a good thing you’re with me – who else could put up with you?” (same). At first blush, it seems sweet and funny. But she will drill this idea into you over and over – that you should consider yourself very lucky to have someone like her, who will love you despite the fact that you have no positive attributes, talents, and apparently, the IQ of a head of lettuce. Saying, “Nobody will ever love you the way I do,” seems sweet, but she wants you to believe that nobody but her will ever love you again, it fosters utter dependence on her, and her love. Over time, these ideas erode your sense of confidence and you will begin to believe you’re unworthy of better treatment, and she’s the best you can hope for.

12. Don’t let every minor disagreement become World War III. You make a date with him, warning him ahead of time that you will need to leave by 7 to have dinner with your brother. At 6:40, as you’re getting up to leave, he suddenly “remembers” some urgent task he needs your help with before you go. You remind him that you really need to go. He begins to argue, wail, accuse, rant, rave, threaten to kill himself, and do whatever it takes to keep you from leaving. Hours later, you’re emotionally drained and physically exhausted, and you find he’s turned the whole thing around on you – you’re begging for forgiveness and a “chance to make it up to him.”

13. Stop berating yourself for being into this person. Realize that she’s amazing – on the surface – and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for being attracted to that. These people are often an odd mix of very high intellect or talent, coupled with low self-esteem (although they often seem confident to the point of arrogance – a mask for their internal lack of true confidence). Controlling, manipulative people are not able to just let things happen naturally – she must control things or, in her mind, things will “get away” from her – so she’s compelled by her inner horrors to make sure she’s the one pulling all the strings. But what makes it most awful is that she’s probably beautiful (you thought so, right?) and smart, and maybe even funny and charming. It’s no wonder you fell for her.

14. Assess whether the relationship is worth saving. All of the above are warning signs that you are involved with a controlling person who’s likely to be manipulating you. Does that mean the relationship should end? Not always. Try talking about it with your partner, show him or her this article, or get into couples therapy. If you recognize any or all of these signs, there’s a chance that now that you can identify and articulate your problems, you may be able to work through them. Be objective, though – if talking, working it through, or going to counseling fails to get your partner to stop these behaviors, there may be no choice but to part ways, even if you still love him or her.

15. Accept the end and get out as fast as you can. Assuming that your significant other has resisted changing his or her behavior and, despite your best efforts to work things out so that you are not being controlled so much, s/he persists in the controlling, manipulative behaviors, you will have to accept reality. Once you’ve recognized this emotional abuse for what it is, you will likely tire of it quickly and want to leave, despite your lingering feelings for this person. Be careful. Controlling, manipulative individuals will want to control you, even if they don’t care about the relationship any more. The old saying “S/he doesn’t want me, but doesn’t want me to be with anyone else, either,” was invented for this type of person. You deserve to be with someone who respects you and can maintain a healthy relationship. This just isn’t it. Take steps to end it swiftly and leave – now.

16. Go out with your friends, your family, and alone. Re-establish ties with all those things and people you left behind while your judgment was clouded.



* Do recognize that almost everyone is capable of some manipulative or controlling behaviors from time to time – we all want to get our way or win the argument. But when you begin to recognize more than a few of the above warning signs, it’s time to take a closer look at your relationship and decide whether it’s truly an equal partnership.

* Don’t blow off the opinions of your friends and family; they do have your best interests in mind. One person can be ignored – many cannot. Do they tell you you’re acting strange lately? Do they comment on how different you seem – and not in a good way? Has anyone you love and respect expressed actual dislike for your partner? Ask yourself, “Is my (for example) mum right about every other thing, but wrong about this ONE thing – the new gf/bf?” And if more than one close family member or friend is expressing dislike of the new guy/gal, give more weight to the negative opinions.

* Key to this entire discussion is the recognition that the establishment of control is subtle, and often occurs over time. The entire purpose of the article is to help you examine your relationship for the warning signs and to (A) either seek help and or validate your sense of things not being right, and help you be comfortable with your decision to leave – without manipulation or control from your partner.

* Controlling persons often check out of the relationship before you do, S/he may become detached and apathetic toward you. But unless s/he is the one to end this relationship, even though it is obvious s/he is interested in someone else, or at least looking with interest at others, s/he will freak out if you are the one to leave, and spend hours berating you for your thoughtless abandonment. Just so you know.

* Don’t be mean about it. You don’t have to be like him/her to get away. Just say it’s not a match and you don’t intend to continue the relationship. Period. Don’t try pointing out all of the above warning signs. This type of person won’t recognize him or herself. It’s like trying to teach a pig to sing – it wastes your time and makes the pig bitter.

* Confess to your friends and family – apologize to them for marginalizing them and disregarding their bad opinion of this person. Tell them you wish you had listened to them. Get all the anger and hurt out of your system – they will be only too happy to share (they will rejoice when you tell them it’s over).

* Resist the temptation to be bitter about the experience. You’ve just survived a very tough situation and lived to tell the tale!


* Severely controlling and manipulative people are often produced by external factors such as abusive parents or clinical mental disorders. You cannot hope to change or rescue such a person, as much as you may care for them; the best help you can give them is to (A) refuse to be their victim, and (B) direct them to professional help.

* The likelihood of stalking and violent behaviors developing in this type of person is higher than in others, both for you and any supporters you might have. If you feel you’re being stalked, notify authorities and take steps to make yourself safe (travel with others, stay with friends or family, avoid places you frequented together, get a restraining order).

* If s/he shows up at your door after you’ve broken it off, don’t open it if you’re home alone. Make sure someone else is with you if you do decide to talk to him or her (not recommended), but even though you want to be compassionate, the best and easiest approach is to simply cut off contact.

* Compassion is not easily understood or accepted by these folks, and it just hurts you both more in the end as it is likely to be used as a weapon against you. Cutting them off may seem cruel, but it ends the confrontations and forces them to move on or get help.

* Watch for stalking or menacing behaviors or threats, including threats to harm you or your supporters, or to commit suicide. Don’t rely on your own judgment to determine whether threats are serious. Report them to the police immediately. This person is probably just difficult and not dangerous, but don’t take any chances. If necessary, get a restraining order and call the cops each and every time it’s violated.

* While it is preferable that marriages involving kids be worked out, in many cases, a controlling manipulator is not amenable to marriage or family counseling. If your partner is not willing to commit to counseling, then separation may be the only answer. Without family counseling, the manipulative, controlling partner will damage the children, and you will spawn more of the same type of person.

* Couples counseling or marriage counseling may not be a safe place for you to talk about any abuse you are enduring, with the abuser sitting right next to you during a session. You need individual supportive counseling that is often available for free at your local domestic violence agency. They can connect you to an agency close by.


Article provided by wikiHow, a wiki building the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on “How to Recognize a Manipulative or Controlling Relationship“. Content on wikiHow can be shared under Creative Commons License.