Recognising controlling behaviours
Self-control is the ability to control your own actions, impulses, and emotions.
- I would much rather be watching TV, but I need to study for this exam.
- She’s just talking like that to make me upset, but I will not give her that satisfaction.
- I love that jacket and really want to buy it, but I’m saving for Christmas so will keep my credit card in my purse.
Self-control helps you to achieve goals, manage your emotions, and is a positive influence on your self-esteem and well-being.
Self-control is you managing and controlling yourself.
Control is power or influence used to direct another person’s behaviour or actions.
A person can use their power or influence to control in a positive way.
- Lindsay handles all the finances. She’s so much better at it than I am. We’ve just about saved enough for a holiday and I could never have done that by myself!
- I’m grateful that Jacob takes such an interest in my studies. He really supports me to keep focused when I’d rather just be scrolling around social media.
- I can’t stand the thought of another big family dinner, but Sam says it’s important and that if we don’t go my mum will be upset.
We all know people that we’d consider are a ‘good influence’. Their actions are intended for our benefit and come from a place of genuine affection. And even if you might be initially cross about having to study when you don’t want to, or not buying the jacket you love but don’t need, or another long family dinner when you’re exhausted from work and just want to collapse on the couch, you still feel as if you have control over yourself and your actions.
When we talk about controlling behaviours, we mean behaviours that use power and influence in a negative way.
A controlling behaviour is when one person uses their personal power or influence to make another person behave in a way they might not otherwise, or limit their ability to freely make decisions, or convince them their reality is different to what they know it to be.
When another person’s behaviour feels oppressive and makes you feel as if you can’t make your own decisions or decide what matters to you, then the behaviour has become abusive.
Controlling behaviours are not always obvious so it’s important to recognise the different controlling behaviours, their purpose, and be able to name them if they appear in your own relationship, or of someone that you know.
Emotionally controlling behaviours
Our feelings are a powerful influence on how we respond to situations and other people. Positive feelings such as acceptance, friendship, trust and love are essential for healthy self-esteem and well-being, but they can also be turned against us and used as a means to control and manipulate.
A person who is emotionally controlling aims to take advantage of another person’s positive feelings towards them as a way to manipulate and exploit.
Not all emotionally-centred behaviours begin as deliberately harmful or abusive. But, if left unchallenged, behaviours that at first might appear to be a sign of affection can quickly evolve into ones that are controlling and manipulative.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
A possession is something that you have, like a good sense of humour. Or an item that you own, like a jacket or a car.
A person is not something that you can have or own because a person is not an object. Regardless of the relationship, one person can never have or own another person.
When someone is described as possessive, it means they are behaving in a way that signals they feel a sense of ownership over another person. They treat the other person like an object that they can use however they choose.
RED FLAGS: when one person attempts to control the other person’s time, or expects to always know where they are and who they are with, or control where they go and who they see, their behaviour has become controlling. Emotionally controlling behaviours include:
- Jealous: Who was that girl? Are you cheating on me?
- Obsessive: I was following you to make sure you got home safe.
- Guilttrips: If you really loved me, you’d stay and not go out with your friends.
- Threatening: Maybe we should break up, then you could see your friends whenever you wanted.
- Sulking: Whatever—do what you want I don’t care.
- Blackmail: If you break up with me, whatever I do will be your fault.
- Gaslighting: You’re imagining things. Are you sure you’re feeling ok?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that tries to convince a person that they have mis-remembered something they remember clearly, or are imagining things that they are certain are true, or that their feelings are different to what they know them to be.
Gaslighting attempts to destabilise a person’s memory, their sense of their own reality, and their sanity.
Verbal abuse is another form of emotional control. The use of language to demean a person’s intelligence, sexuality, body image or abilities, positions the controlling person as superior and in charge.
Verbal abuse can be direct and obvious. Constant criticism, irritability, and continual put downs to humiliate the other person can be subtle, even if delivered in a polite and detached way.
- That dress isn’t very flattering is it?
- You don’t sound too bright when you talk like that.
- I think what Sam really means is …
Verbal abuse can escalate to aggressive, even violent arguments. When this happens often enough and it seems like anything you say will cause the other person to start yelling, it can be tempting not to say anything at all.
Any attempt to silence another person is abuse. Everyone has the right to freely express their opinion and state their own wants and needs.
Socially controlling behaviours
Most humans are naturally social. Maintaining connections with friends and family are essential to our identity and well-being.
A person who is socially controlling attempts to undermine these essential social connections by damaging or removing support networks—family, friends and colleagues.
A person who is socially controlling aims to become the centre of their partner’s universe, their behaviour designed to isolate their partner so they have no-one else to turn to for support.
- You know I’m the only one that really understands you.
- I think Mitch is trying to set you against me. You should stop hanging out with that group.
- Your mum has never liked me. Don’t you care about how that makes me feel?
As the behaviour escalates, it becomes more persistent and abusive.
- If you go to that lunch I won’t be here when you get back.
- I don’t know where the car keys are—you must have lost them.
- I’ll be furious if I find out you’ve been texting Mitch after I told you not to.
- You are not wearing that out in public. We’re staying home!
Remember, our connections to others are fundamental to our identity, our self-respect and well-being. When one person deliberately tries to damage those connections, that person is not acting in the other person’s best interests. That person is exercising their power and attempting to control the other person.
Technology is a huge part of our lives. We rely on it to do everyday tasks like check the news, pay bills, and apply for jobs. We also rely on technology to maintain our social and professional connections to other people.
A person who uses technology to control another person might restrict their partner’s online access through withholding passwords, or monitor their social media, email, phone calls and text messages, or use a location tracker to monitor their every step.
- You said you were going straight home after work.
- You said you’d stopped talking to Tracey.
- Why do you need to call your mum so often?
All of these abuses are a massive violation of privacy.
A person who uses technology as a means of control might also threaten to share private images or content, or personal messages. They might monitor the videos you watch or the music you listen to—all of the personal activities and action that contribute to how you feel about yourself can be compromised by a person who uses technology as a means of control.
A person who is financially controlling uses access to money to control another person. By restricting a person’s access to money, that person becomes reliant on whoever controls the finances.
For example, you fall in love, everything seems perfect and you start planning a future together. You might be renting a flat, but your partner is keen to buy a house with enough yard for a dog. Your partner earns more than you do so it seems fair that they would control the finances—set budgets and savings plans.
Then your partner says they want to save faster and they are reducing your weekly ‘allowance’ for entertaining and personal items. Your ‘allowance’ barely covers essentials as it is—any less and you’re going to have to stop all socialising that costs money. No more coffee catch-ups or meals with friends. Your partner says you can invite people to the flat for a meal, but sometimes you enjoy meeting up with your friends without your partner. Your friendships are important to you.
Because your partner earns more, they give themselves a bigger weekly allowance. They never seem to be short of money for a coffee or a new shirt or a meal out with their friends. And your partner has changed the login details for your bank account—you’ve no idea how much money is in there, if any at all.
Next week, it’s your best friend’s birthday and there’s a big dinner planned. You ask your partner for some extra money to cover the cost of a present and the meal, but they say no. So, you must make up an excuse as to why you can’t celebrate your best friend’s birthday with them.
You feel terrible being cut off from your friends, but you are embarrassed and stop returning texts and calls and avoid their interactions on social media.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
A person experiencing financial abuse might:
- be unable to spend money on presents or special occasions or on themselves.
- be blocked from seeing household bills and any expenses the other person is incurring
- have all personal expenditure checked and approved, with receipts
- be blocked from accessing or seeing their own bank accounts and statements
- be blocked from accessing joint bank accounts and statements
Controlling behaviour can even infiltrate your spiritual life. Spiritual abuse is anything that damages your spiritual self or denies you the right to use or practice what you believe. It might be that your partner ridicules your faith, or makes it difficult for you to practice your faith, or insists you convert to theirs.
If their faith is different to yours, they may insist their faith-based practices are upheld in the household, regardless of how that makes you feel. Or they might mock your spiritual or faith-based practices to the point where it’s easier to hide them, or even abandon them for the sake of peace.
For many people, their spirituality or faith are key aspects of their identity. Any attempt to alter or suppress them is a denial of their individual rights.
Violence against women and children involves more than sexual and physical abuse.
Controlling behaviours develop over a period of time. At first, the behaviour may seem positive, a sign of affection and commitment, but over time it progresses so that one person relies more and more on the other person. The other person loses self-confidence and trust in their own judgement to make the best decisions for themselves.
The controlling person has engineered a situation where the other person doubts themselves, their decisions—their self-worth and identity.