5 Signs You Might Be in a Controlling Relationship and Expert Advice On What To Do


**Trigger warning: this article deals with the topic of domestic abuse and may be triggering for some readers. 

It can be really tricky to recognise that you’re in a controlling, manipulative or generally unhealthy relationship.

Having emotions tangled up in a relationship can make you overlook certain behaviours or make excuses for your partner because you’re trying to empathise with them, rather than accept that their behaviour is wrong and unfair to you.

It can definitely be a coping mechanism, too. I can say from personal experience that it’s truly painful to come to terms with the fact that the person you love is treating you poorly. You just don’t want to believe that the soul you fell in love with is hurting you.

Given that many of us are having to stay home during lockdowns, domestic abuse cases have increased beyond measure and there are now many people who feel they aren’t safe at home with their partners. Some may not recognise that they’re in a controlling relationship, while others may know but feel unable to remove themselves.

“Our relationships should be uplifting, respectful and places of safety and comfort,” says Geraldine Bilston, Deputy Chair of Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council and a victim-survivor. “But what happens when they aren’t?”

“How can you tell if a relationship that started out as something exciting and exhilarating is now abusive and controlling?”

She asks some pretty poignant questions. Asking questions is the first step to recognising that there are controlling signs in your relationship, that you can’t “fix” and may need to remove yourself.

Ahead, Bilston shares five telltale signs of controlling behaviour in a relationship to look out for, and what to do if you find yourself facing them:


Does your partner stop you from seeing your friends and family?

Isolating you from others can be overt and obvious but it can also be more subtle. Sometimes we see jealousy and possessiveness in a relationship as love but, in the extreme, it can be unhealthy and lead to other forms of abuse.

Your partner might behave poorly when you socialise together, or demand to know who you are with and what you are doing when you’re out with other people. Or, they might humiliate you in front of others and insist your family and friends are bad people who don’t want the best for you.


Are you constantly questioning yourself, and find yourself continually apologising?

Gaslighting can make us feel crazy. It’s a form of psychological abuse that causes us to question our own reality and perceptions. Your partner may speak to you with absolute conviction while knowingly lying, insisting their poor behaviour was a joke. They’ll flip your legitimate feelings into an overreaction, leading you to believe you are the problem.

Pressure to Have Sex

Do you feel threatened, pressured, or forced to participate in sexual activity?

Respectful relationships include feeling comfortable and in control of the level of sexual activity in which you engage. Your partner might threaten to break up with you if you don’t meet their sexual demands. Being persistently pressured, guilted, shamed, and threatened into engaging in unwanted sexual activity is a form of abuse. 

No Financial Independence

Do you have agency and autonomy over your financial freedom?

Your partner might be stealing or misusing your money or restricting your use of your finances. This can make you dependent on them and have implications, not just on your freedom of choice and the way you live your day-to-day life, but also your future. By implicating you in future financial issues, they are making you feel anxious and financially bound to them.

Overprotective Behaviour

Does your partner constantly call you and check in with you?

You may be aware or scared that your partner has been using technology to track your movements. They might constantly text and call demanding to know where you are, asking you to send photos or FaceTime so they can confirm your location and who you are with. Constant monitoring of your mobile phone use or listening in to your conversations is controlling behaviour and another form of abuse.

So, What Should I Do?

If you know or suspect that you are experiencing abuse, it is important to know you are not to blame. You are not the cause of your partner’s behaviour.

It is also important to know you are not alone. There are people who will believe you and are waiting to help.

Reaching out to a specialist family violence service can be validating as they can assist you in recognising what you are experiencing, as well as support you to navigate your life and decisions.

It may also be helpful to speak to someone you trust and care about in your life – a family member, friend or co-worker. Sharing with them your concerns and feelings can help you feel connected and seen. It may also be helpful to set up a code word you can say or text to them to indicate you need immediate assistance if your situation escalates.

Always remember – you deserve to be safe, happy, and treated with respect.

Sexual assault, domestic and family violence comes in many forms. It can happen to anyone, in any relationship. It’s never OK. If you have experienced violence and abuse, support is available.

1800RESPECT is Australia’s national sexual assault, domestic and family violence support service. Anyone can access the confidential information, referral and counselling service at any time of the day, every day of the year through www.1800respect.org.au or 1800 737 732. The next step is always your choice.

There are also incredible resources such as articles (like this one), documentaries and podcasts that tackle the signs of unhealthy relationships as well as the aftermath and people’s personal experiences.

Victorian Women’s Trust (VWT) recently released a ground-breaking new podcast series The Trap, written and hosted by leading Australian investigative journalist and award-winning author, Jess Hill. The Trap takes a deep dive into how domestic abuse and coercive control impacts millions of Australians. You can listen to it here.

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