Recognising the Difference Between Love and Controlling Behaviour in Relationships: Warning Signs

Recognising the Difference Between Love and Controlling Behaviour in Relationships: Warning Signs

There are some things we all should expect from a partner: trust, respect, and support are amongst the most important. When trust is non-existent, respect is lacking and your partner is more likely to put you down than to support you, your relationship may have become controlling.

Often, the shift from a healthy, supportive relationship to one tainted by controlling behaviour happens over a period of time. That can make it harder to tell the difference between someone acting out of concern for your wellbeing, and someone who wants to take away your ability to make your own decisions about your life, friendships, and daily actions.

What are the behaviours of a controlling person?

One of the best ways to ensure you’re able to protect yourself from coercive control and retain your autonomy is to recognise the tell-tale signs your partner has crossed that line. There are several common behaviours that controlling people usually employ to keep their victims firmly in their grasp. Unsurprisingly they are the exact opposite of what a loving partner should do. These include:


Controlling individuals may isolate their partners from friends and family. This serves to make the victim more dependent on the controller for emotional support, as well as keeping them from seeking an outsider’s perspective on the relationship. A truly loving partner will never get in the way of someone’s relationship with their family and friends and will encourage their partner to pursue interests and hobbies outside of the relationship.


A controlling person may exhibit extreme jealousy, frequently accuse their partner of infidelity, or attempt to control their interactions with others. They may even put their partner under surveillance, monitoring phone calls, texts, or emails without consent – or after pressing them for consent. This type of behaviour shows an obvious lack of trust, which is one of the core tenets of a truly loving, healthy relationship.

Constant criticism

Controlling people will often criticise and belittle their partner’s choices, appearance, and actions, leading to low self-esteem in the victim. This is a far cry from the mutual support that is such a fundamental part of genuine love.

Withholding affection

Controlling partners may use affection, emotional support, or intimacy as rewards for compliance. Conversely, they may withhold them as punishment. In practise, this means the controller may appear affectionate and loving when their victim is doing as they wish, and cold and distant when they are not.

Individuals attempting to exert control will often employ guilt, emotional manipulation, and mood swings to keep their partner in a state of confusion and dependency. None of this should take place in a loving relationship, where open communication and conflict resolution should be the norm.

Financial abuse

Financial control limits the victim’s options and makes them financially dependent on their abuser. A lack of financial independence is often cited as one of the main reasons why victims are unable to leave a controlling relationship.

How can you tell if someone has a controlling personality?

Abusers are very unlikely to show their true colours at the start of a relationship. Most will begin with a honeymoon phase to ensnare their victim. This makes the victim more vulnerable by creating a false sense of normalcy. When the dynamic of the relationship changes, it’s easier for the victim to believe that things may well return to ‘normal’ even as the control deepens, leading them to stay with their abuser longer than would otherwise be the case.

Those with controlling personalities may project a caring and affectionate façade initially, but there are tell-tale signs that all isn’t as it seems. Indicators of a controlling personality include:

Frequent criticism

A controlling person is quick to criticise, nitpick, and find fault with their partner’s choices and actions. The criticism may be uttered in jest, and anyone can make a poorly thought out joke – but if you spot a pattern emerging, it may be a sign of a controlling personality.


Some jealousy and possessiveness may seem endearing at the start of a relationship – who doesn’t want to feel cherished? – but it’s often a sign of a controlling personality. This kind of person is likely to tighten their grip on their partner as time goes on.

A need for constant reassurance

Controlling individuals frequently need reassurance of their partner’s love and devotion, even when no reason for doubt exists.

Resistance to boundaries

They resist setting and respecting healthy boundaries and feel entitled to control every aspect of the relationship.


A controlling personality may employ emotional manipulation such as guilt-tripping or gaslighting to get their own way.

What is the root cause of controlling behaviour?

Controlling behaviour typically has its roots in a combination of factors. A person seeking to control their partner may do so because of their own deep-seated insecurities. It could also be a defence mechanism due to past trauma and low self-esteem. A controlling partner may even be re-creating the relationship they witnessed between their parents growing up.

It is important to realise that whatever issue is causing this behaviour, it’s theirs to resolve. You can’t change a controlling person; you can only choose how you react to them.

How to spot the differences between love and control

No one wants to believe the worst of their partner. That can make spotting the difference between someone who genuinely cares for you and someone who is attempting to control you incredibly difficult. Reaching a decision can feel impossible.

Recognising that there is a cause for concern can be achieved by carefully studying their patterns of behaviour. Do they set one rule for you, but feel free to behave as they wish themselves on a regular basis? Do they often expect you to cancel plans with friends or have you noticed an increase in how frequently they check in on you? Are arguments becoming more frequent and affection less so? When behaviours which make you feel uncomfortable are repeated, your partner may well have crossed the line from love to control.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, help is available. Our experienced team of family solicitors can provide support and guidance to access the legal protection you need to break free from the cycle of abuse. Speak to us in confidence.

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