Jon Brooks 12 min read

How to Spot a Controlling Relationship and Get Out Alive

Psychology & Happiness abuse domestic violence

controlling relationship

There are three golden rules to having a successful non controlling relationship:

  1. Choose your partner wisely
  2. Choose your partner wisely
  3. Choose your partner wisely

Problem is, those rules are really hard to follow. We meet someone we like, chemicals hijack our brain and we’re hooked. We find ourselves in love, addicted, and unable to just walk away.

I’ve been in relationships where I felt extremely needy; I’ve been in relationships that have crushed me, that have stretched, and tested me; I’ve been in relationships that have enraged me and frightened me; and I’ve been in relationships where I was hit and verbally abused.

If you’ve never been in an controlling relationship before, you might ask yourself… why would anyone enter one, let alone remain in one for years?

Picture This: You Are a Teenage Girl

There is a guy in your school. He gets into trouble a lot. He frequently has fights. There is something about him that’s rough and vulgar. He really doesn’t care what people think. Quite a few boys are afraid of him. Women blush around him, but label him a jerk. Underneath this hard exterior you see glimpses of a softer side. A troubled soul… someone who just needs a little love.

You start hanging around him. He is complex, and smarter than you realized. He is different from other boys. He goes for what he wants. He’s unapologetic. He respects himself. He is unpredictable: fun and exciting. You are attracted to him, but you know you couldn’t be with him in his current form for a longterm relationship. You think you can change him, tame him and make him a good guy. You know it’s there underneath. You are a bit of a pushover… maybe he can help you to stand up for yourself.

You begin dating. The first few months are amazing. The love you feel is so passionate. The sex is mind-blowing. You can’t stay away from each other. You are now dating a bad boy and people don’t pick on you so much. You do risky dangerous things and you start to love the adrenaline rush. Here and there you annoy your partner, and he lashes out at you, but you immediately apologize. You know he has quite a temper and backing down is always the best thing to do.

A few months into the relationship, you both get really drunk at a party. You end up speaking to another guy. He says a few things that makes you laugh. He’s pretty cute but you would absolutely never cheat on your man. Later when you get home, your boyfriend calls you out on your flirting. He starts shouting at you and getting in your face. You are quite afraid and begin cowering. Perhaps if you tell him about the time he was flirting with your friend he’ll realize and he’ll back off. You bring it up and stand up to him. He hits you in the mouth. You get a busted lip. You start crying and he leaves to go in the other room.

The next morning, your memory is hazy. You both realize that you had too much to drink, but you still remember what he did. You don’t know what to do or say, but before you decide your next move he breaks down crying telling you he’s sorry. You tell him it’s okay and he cuddles up to you. You soothe him as if he’s your child. You tell him that you love him and you’d never leave him and you know he won’t do it again.

From this point on, his anger and the desire to control you increases. He hits you more and uses threats of violence to keep you in line. You no longer have discussions and arguments. If you do or say something he doesn’t like, he hits the door or slams something. Most of the abuse happens when you’ve both been drinking. When you’re drunk you remember and feel less. Problem is, he seems to want you both to drink every day. He encourages you to drink more than you want to. In fact, he forces you to drink when he’s with you. He starts to force you to do many things, especially lie. You tell lies nearly every day to hide what is going on. You continue to forgive your partner and have sex with him. Sometimes even when you don’t want to. The months turn into years. Now and then things get too much and you find the courage to break up with him. He promises to change after a few weeks of begging, and you take him back, further enabling his actions. Whenever you talk about the abuse, you end up apologizing to him. Somehow you always started the fight.

Because the emotions in the relationship are so extreme, life outside the relationship seems boring. In a way, you become addicted to the danger and the adrenaline of the relationship. You date other guys for a while, but they all seem so weak and simple. When you fight, they back down and apologize. In a way, you think this is nice behavior, in another way you know that your ex would never back down like this. You find yourself talking about your ex a lot. You only ever say bad things. You really hate him, but on some level you’re still attracted to him and respect him. You still miss his ways. It’s confusing. You often feel lost. And what makes matters worse, your ex is always chasing you. He never goes away. He even makes fake accounts to contact you when you block him. He tells you he loves you. Sometimes your self-esteem is so low and you feel so bad you want to get drunk with him and get hit. You don’t know why, but there is some strange relief to it all.

Controlling relationships never start out as controlling relationships. Nobody ever chooses to get into an controlling relationship, but in usually both partners are getting some kind of emotional need met.

Note: while I focus on a romantic relationship in this article, everything still applies to work, family, or friendly relationships.

Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse

If you’re being hit around by your partner as I described in the example above, then you see quite clearly that you are being abused. If you are getting physically hit or your house is getting smashed up, just leave the controlling relationship immediately (more on this soon).

What I’ll be focusing on in this article is emotional abuse, and things get more tricky when it comes to emotions. Every couple argues and fights. Every couple gives one another abuse at times, but not every relationship is in a controlling relationship.

According to this great article, here are the 21 signs of emotional abuse:

  1. Humiliating or embarrassing you.
  2. Constant put-downs.
  3. Hypercriticism.
  4. Refusing to communicate.
  5. Ignoring or excluding you.
  6. Extramarital affairs.
  7. Provocative behavior with opposite sex.
  8. Use of sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice.
  9. Unreasonable jealousy.
  10. Extreme moodiness.
  11. Mean jokes or constantly making fun of you.
  12. Saying “I love you but…”
  13. Saying things like “If you don’t , I will.”
  14. Domination and control.
  15. Withdrawal of affection.
  16. Guilt trips.
  17. Making everything your fault.
  18. Isolating you from friends and family.
  19. Using money to control.
  20. Constant calling or texting when you are not with him/her.
  21. Threatening to commit suicide if you leave.

If you are or ever have been in an emotionally controlling relationship, this list will immediately hit home. Typically, any one of these is a “red flag.” But if there are more than three stacked together, this is a big sign that you either need to leave the relationship or bring it up with your partner now.

When it comes to put-downs or insults, it’s difficult to know whether to categorize a put-down as abuse or good-hearted teasing.

Rebecca Lee writes:

When one partner uses “jokes” to put the other down, especially in front of friends or family, this can be an early warning sign for problematic relationship behavior. Although the partner may insist they are “joking”, this can leave the other partner with nowhere to go. It is very difficult to address a joke as worthy of serious attention.

Talking About Emotional Abuse

Dr. Jordan Peterson recommends the “three times rule” when it comes to abuse. He says that you should pay attention to when someone acts out of line. The first time they do it, just make a note. The second time they do it, make another note and raise your suspicion. If they do it a third time, bring it up. Tell them that you’ve noticed they’ve done it three times, list each time they do it and tell them you’ve been watching them. Give them the instruction to stop, or you will leave or take some other action.

The warning signs of abuse listed above should shine some light on the types of behaviors that you need to pay attention to. Even if you’re happy in a relationship and you don’t consider it to be abusive at all you should pay attention to possible signs of abuse so you can nip them in the bud early.

Unfortunately, if you allow people to act abusively toward you may end up subconsciously encouraging them to do it more. If you think on a deep level you don’t deserve love, then you may say and do things to enable your partner to treat you in a way that mirrors this belief. Women who have been abused are told not to tell their new partners about their past.

If you fear you may be in an controlling relationship, You must be vigilant. You should even keep a diary of the times you think your partner has acted abusively so you don’t get your own thoughts twisted by them.

But even when you do bring up issues with an controlling partner, it can be extremely difficult to have a constructive discussion. Here are five ways your partner may sabotage your attempts to have a healthy discussion:

1) Opposing: The abuser will argue against anything you say, challenging your perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. The abuser doesn’t listen or volunteer thoughts or feelings, but treats you as an adversary, in effect saying “No” to everything, so a constructive conversation is impossible.


Victim: I thought you liked chocolate.

Abuser: No, I said I liked cookies.

Victim: Really? I thought last night you said you liked Dairy Milk…

Abuser: What are you talking about? You must be confusing me with your exes again… Typical.

2) Blocking: This is another tactic used to abort conversation. The abuser may switch topics, accuse you, or use words that in effect say, “Shut Up.”


Victim: Did you really stay at your sisters last night? I called her and she said you weren’t there.

Abuser: Are you accusing me of stuff again!? So jealous, can’t I have a life? If I wasn’t there I obviously popped out… Did you follow me?

3) Discounting & Belittling: This is verbal abuse that minimizes or trivializes your feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It’s a way of saying that your feelings don’t matter or are wrong.


Victim: I’m really upset about what you called me last night. I’m not fat.

Abuser: Boohoo. Fucking grow up will you, you’re not 5 any more… People say stuff like that all the time in an argument. Stop being so sensitive.

4) Undermining & Interrupting: These words are meant to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” finishing your sentences, or speaking on your behalf without your permission.


Victim: I didn’t mean it like that, what I was saying—

Abuser: It’s fine! Don’t worry.

Victim: But babe, you won’t let me—

Abuser: No it’s fine! Can you leave now please…

5) Denying: An abuser may deny that agreements or promises were made, or that a conversation or other events took place, including prior abuse. The abuser instead may express affection or make declarations of love and caring. This is crazy-making and manipulative behavior, which leads you to gradually doubt your own memory, perceptions, and experience. In the extreme, a persistent pattern is called gaslighting, named after the classic Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight. In it, a husband used denial in a plot to make his wife believe she was losing her grip on reality.


Victim: My neck is all red and my arms are bruised because of what you did to me last night!

Abuser: Fuck up! You always say shit like this. You don’t remember coming onto me do you? I had to push you off! You’re not exactly small.

When it comes to dealing with abuse in relationships, we could spend a long time looking at all of the different ways we could handle each unique situation or abusive tactic, but a far more powerful strategy is to look at the mindset that makes abuse possible in the first place. That mindset is co-dependency.

A book that you should also read is Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. This will help you to stand up for yourself.

Recognizing and Overcoming Co-Dependency: The Root of a Controlling Relationship


of or relating to a relationship in which one person is physically or psychologically addicted, as to alcohol or gambling, and the other person is psychologically dependent on the first in an unhealthy way.

In an independent relationship, you both have your own paths in life. You are both growing and bettering yourselves. You don’t feel as though you’re making big sacrifices for each other. You are two self-sufficient humans who choose to spend their time together.

In a co-dependent relationship, you don’t really feel like you can live or function without your partner. In some ways, they are your reason for living. Making them happy is essentially your purpose in life. You think that they need you. The idea of breaking up with each other in a permanent sense is almost unquestionable. You cannot walk away, and your partner knows it.

In any relationship, the person with the most power is the one who needs the other the least.

— Rollo Tomassi

When you’re in a co-dependent relationship you’ll find that your thoughts and feelings are very much wrapped up in the relationship. You find yourself making big sacrifices to keep your partner happy. You don’t see your friends so much. You stop taking care of your appearance and diet. You start to become more anxious and unhappy. You feel somewhat trapped or held hostage by the relationship.

The following questions can serve as a guide to determine if your relationship involves co-dependency:

  1. Does your sense of purpose involve making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs?
  2. Is it difficult to say no when your partner makes demands on your time and energy?
  3. Do you cover your partner’s problems with drugs, alcohol, or the law?
  4. Do you constantly worry about others’ opinions of you?
  5. Do you feel trapped in your relationship?
  6. Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?

Many of us have co-dependent traits and we don’t realize that we do. If you are co-dependent you give your power away to your partner. They have control over you and they know it. For as long as you have a co-dependent mindset your emotional state will be tied up to something external.

If you want to have a healthy relationship with anyone, you must step out of co-dependency. To do this, you have to begin to realize that the most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself. You have to put your world first. You need to treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping, as much as any other person.

Everyone lives in their own psychological reality. You have the power to choose what you include in your reality and what you exclude. We all have the power to choose what behaviors we do and what behaviors we avoid.

Here is a simple checklist I created to help you to remain independent in your relationship:

  1. Exercise and eat healthy. Preferably have a gym routine.
  2. Keep an active social circle outside the controlling relationship.
  3. Don’t give in to your partner’s requests out of guilt or obligation.
  4. Allow your partner to take responsibility for their own life, suffer if they need to, and figure things out on their own—intervene sparingly.
  5. Have a personal passion or purpose that you put before your relationship.
  6. Aim to be respected rather than liked.
  7. Build a life that you would still love, even if your controlling relationship disappeared.
  8. Have a spiritual practice (yoga/meditation/journalling/reading/etc), that you always do.
  9. Become comfortable with the idea of ending the controlling relationship if it no longer serves your best interests. If you cannot walk away, you have no power.

I also highly recommend that you if you are struggling with co-dependency in a relationship, you give this book a read: Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.

How to Get Out of a Controlling Relationship

Recognizing and confronting a controlling relationship, setting boundaries, and becoming independent rather than co-dependent is essential for any healthy relationship. But if you’ve tried to make these things work and you saw no changes, you should leave the relationship. This will be difficult.

What is so perverse about human relationships is that anger or meanness doesn’t always equate to a loss of attraction. It is possible to hate or detest someone you are attracted to. But if this is the case for you, you are in a controlling relationship and you need to leave.

Your abuser may lower your self-esteem and make you feel unattractive or unworthy of other people’s love and attention. I have heard stories of abusers hiding their partners makeup and clothes, or encouraging them to overeat so they gain weight and appear less attractive. If your partner lacks self-esteem and thinks that you’re the best they’ll ever get then they are less likely to leave.

Another reason you might not want to leave is out of fear. An abusive partner will typically cut you off from family and friends or threaten to hurt you if you leave. It takes extreme courage and determination to leave an abusive partner, and even more courage and determination to stay away from one.

The first step is to tell as many people as you can and tell them what is happening. Reach out to people, join Facebook groups or online forums. Make a plan to leave, keep focusing on yourself and your independent lifestyle.

In the end, however, you can read all the advice in the world, but it just comes down to you. You have to walk out. You have to find the courage to get out and find something better. And there’s nothing wrong with rebounding either. Download Tinder, and go on dates. You’ll soon see that the world is wider and more magnificent than your partner tricked you into believing.

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is a Stoicism teacher and, crucially, practitioner. His Stoic meditations have accumulated thousands of listens, and he has created his own Stoic training program for modern-day Stoics.

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