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6 red flags: how to spot a subtly controlling partner

By Lea Rose Emery

We’ve all heard the horror stories — relationships where one partner is toxic, controlling, maybe even abusive. As much as you might have compassion and empathy for people trapped in those types of relationships, it can be hard to imagine how they happen if you’ve never been in one yourself. How can someone put up with behavior that is so clearly unacceptable? So clearly twisted? The difficult truth about a lot of toxic relationships is that they often don’t start out the way. Manipulative people have a way of drawing people in and then, little by little, letting their toxic behavior take over.

This is especially true with controlling partners. Although control may seem obvious in its most extreme forms, it can be very difficult to spot those early, subtle signs of control that later turn into a full-blown nightmare. So if you’re worried you or a friend may be in a controlling relationship, here are the signs of a subtly controlling partner you should be on the lookout for.

1. Being “protective” 

This is a tough one- because it is totally normal to be protective of your partner. But a controlling person will use this so-called protectiveness as a way of separating you from your friends and family. If they are constantly claiming that your friends and family don't treat you well enough or don’t deserve you and begin to suggest that you ditch them, it can be a sign that they’re isolating you from your support network. Isolation is key to controlling behavior, because outside influences are the people who can intervene and lessen your partner's control. If you see a partner putting distance between you and the people who care about you, that’s something to pay attention to.

2. Being way overly coupley on social media 

If someone is constantly tagging you in photos or posting updates about the two of you, that can seem like the early signs of love. But sometimes, that’s a doorway into control. By being over the top about you as a couple is a subtle clue that you should be equally obsessed with them on social media — and sometimes this can lead to jealousy, monitoring your usage, or trying to control what you do and don’t post. Any form of invasion of privacy can be used as a controlling mechanism, because it limits your autonomy and your connection with the outside world.

3. Wanting lots of “quality time” 

Being possessive is one of the most obvious signs of control, but in the early days, it can look much more innocent. Maybe they just start suggesting that you cancel on your friends for the night so you can have some more cuddly couple time, maybe they start tagging along to girls’ nights, but every time act like it’s just a one-off fluke. And then it keeps happening — and keeps happening. If those boundaries start to look blurry early on, it may be a sign of controlling behavior down the line.

4. Punishing behavior they think is inappropriate 

One way that controlling partners gain their power is by getting you to amend your own behavior — and punishment is very effective. If you go out with friends, don’t text back quickly enough, or pursue a hobby without them, they will let you know that they disapprove — often through the silent treatment. Though other methods of punishment are effective, the silent treatment has a special way of making someone feel deeply uncomfortable, guilty, and ultimately make them stop behaving in the way that provoked punishment. If they make life difficult enough for you, you’ll stop doing the things that make them angry — limiting your independence and giving them control.

5. Backhanded compliments 

Backhanded compliments are a really horrible form of control and, though they can happen in any relationship, often are used against people who are less experienced in dating. They might say things like, “I don’t know why nobody else sees how great you are.” or “I’m the only one who can see the real you.” It sounds like a compliment, but actually it’s their way of saying nobody will ever want you besides them, so you better deal with their bad behavior.

6. Gaslighting you 

Gaslighting is a buzzword these days — and for a very good reason — it’s a disgusting, virulent form of coercion and control. But even though gaslighting is often portrayed as dramatic (and it certainly can be) it’s often introduced in very subtle ways that you might not even notice. Maybe your partner announces you’re meeting friends for drinks tonight and they swear they told you, but you know they haven’t. Maybe they “tidy” things to different areas of your home, so you can never find anything. It makes you doubt yourself and gives them authority, which allows them to control your sense of reality.

There are a lot of different ways someone can try to control their partner, but even the most intensive controlling or abusive relationships rarely start out the way. Subtle signs of control can work their way in, so it’s important to be able to spot them from the start.


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