11 Warning Signs of a Controlling Boyfriend and Why They Are Not OK

Relationship Rules
03 Sep 2023
10 min read
11 Signs of a Controlling Boyfriend - How to Navigate Them?

You just arrived at the local bar to hang out with friends, and your boyfriend is already texting you things that can be read as signs of a controlling boyfriend:

  • When will you be home? I’ll meet you at your place so we can spend time together.
  • I hope you’re not out with Julie.
  • I miss you! Come home early, and text me when you leave.

But is he being protective, caring, overbearing, or controlling? The simplest answer is that it depends. If you experience this, which leaves you feeling off balance and in doubt of your own perceptions, check out this article. We’ll step back and consider things objectively here so you can make an informed decision.

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Who Is a Controlling Partner?

A controlling boyfriend could simply mean well but doesn’t know when to step back. Unfortunately, a controlling partner can also be a dangerous partner.

Controlling may start with innocent comments about your behavior and life choices – but with time, it can grow into major restrictions and even abuse. According to RAINN, one of the largest anti-sexual violence organizations, many abusive relationships and dating violence begin with minor instances of controlling behavior. That’s why you should know how to distinguish the signs of a controlling boyfriend to start setting healthy boundaries early.

When you recognize controlling behaviors, prepare for a tough but important conversation. This can help you get your relationship back on track or solidify your decision to break things off.

11 Signs of a Controlling Boyfriend

11 TellTale Signs of a Controlling Boyfriend

Not every controlling boyfriend is the same. Yours may exhibit different signs than another person’s controlling partner. However, recognizing any of these signs is a good indicator that you are in a toxic relationship. If that’s your case, proceed with caution.

1. Your Support System Has Dwindled

The slow loss of your support system is one of the key signs of a controlling boyfriend. While an abusive partner might be very direct in his controlling behavior by outright forbidding you to see your friends and sabotaging your family connections, others do better at hiding their intentions:

  • Not long ago, you could call your mom and talk to her for hours. Now, you send her a couple of texts daily and feel guilty doing that.
  • Your nights out with friends never happen anymore. Sometimes, you feel sad or overwhelmed, but it just doesn’t feel like you have anyone to contact.

Even if you don’t recognize the behavior at first, the end result is still the same. You begin to solely rely on your boyfriend for your physical and emotional needs.

Here are some things your controlling boyfriend might do to damage your other relationships:

  • Distracts you with incessant calls and messages when you are out
  • Conveniently forgets to pass along messages and invitations
  • Has emergencies that require you to leave gatherings that don’t include him
  • Pouts and sulks for days after you spend time with your friends or family
  • Picks fights when the two of you do things involving your friends or family
  • Is rude or abrupt when you have company

Controlling people may get you to question your other relationships too. Your boyfriend may seem like a great guy, but if he insists your best friend is a bad influence, that’s a red flag.

Related reading: 14 Red Flags in Your New Male Squeeze

2. You Find Yourself Lying and Hiding Innocent Things

Guilt trips are common in a controlling relationship so much that you may find yourself adjusting your behavior in troubling ways. Are you lying to him about things that don’t matter or going out of your way to keep innocent behavior from him? This is a sign that you are in a controlling relationship.

Wait a Minute! Isn’t the Person Who Lies in the Wrong?

This is where things get complicated. When an emotionally controlling boyfriend is constantly picking fights or giving you a guilt trip for doing normal things, you may lie as a way to protect yourself emotionally.

Here’s the important thing to remember. In healthy relationships, people are allowed to function independently. They can freely discuss their plans or daily activities without fear of being harangued, interrogated, or accused of various wrongdoings. This isn’t a luxury that people with controlling partners enjoy. They know the most innocent outing or interaction can spark something ugly. So, they tell lies to avoid annoying conflicts or even psychological abuse.

Related reading: Setting Relationship Rules For a Healthy Partnership

3. He Sets Different Rules for Both of You

“A healthy relationship will never require you to sacrifice your friends, your dream, or your dignity.”

Mandy Hale, writer and the creator of the social media movement “The Single Woman”

The thing about controlling behavior is that it very rarely works both ways. Your controlling boyfriend wants you to behave in certain ways so he doesn’t have to deal with his emotions. Meanwhile, he rarely applies the same expectations for himself. For example:

  • He can go out solo with both men and women but you can only hang with the girls
  • Your outfits are subject to scrutiny, while he can wear what he wants
  • Any jealousy you feel is just craziness but his is just him being careful
  • You can’t text or call him to check up on him but he can do that with you

Sudden controlling behavior might also indicate that he is cheating or plans to. He may be setting up an end-of-relationship scenario that allows him to tell everybody he suspected you were cheating.

Related reading: Characteristics of a Cheating Woman: Pay Attention

4. Your Privacy Is Optional for Him

It starts out subtly. He opens your bank statements and justifies it by saying you should both be discussing finances anyway. Then you catch him scrolling your phone. At first, he says he was just bored and looking at old pics.

Then, the narrative changes. His questions become more intrusive as he becomes more controlling in your relationship. So does the boldness of his snooping. Your messages are his to peruse, your social media accounts are subject to analysis, and your mail is his to read. Then, you find yourself defending your actions, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.

God forbid you do the same. He’ll accuse you of invading his privacy and keeping track of him. Why don’t you trust him? It’s different with guys. He doesn’t need you doing that. But, when he searches through your private things, he’s just trying to protect your relationship. You’d support his controlling ways if you understood how other guys really are.

Controlling behavior may result in physical abuse

5. He Engages in Subtle Physical Abuse

Things can get ugly when a controlling person doesn’t get their way. Some engage in emotional abuse; others get physical, either directly or indirectly. It’s that subtle physical abuse that can really throw you off balance.

This can be manifested in several ways:

  • He roughly storms past you ‘accidentally’ shoving you aside
  • He angrily slams his things down and breaks something important to you
  • He shuts the door hard causing you to be startled

These are particularly common behaviors of a controlling boyfriend who has narcissistic personality disorder. He can hurt or intimidate you but maintain plausible deniability.

6. He Feigns Hurt And Rejection Over Your Independence

Your controlling boyfriend knows he can make you feel guilty by convincing you that your behavior hurts him. This keeps the focus on your behavior rather than his. Rather than address his underlying issues, he creates a narrative that makes you the guilty party.

Meanwhile, he is a poor, lonely, insecure guy with low self-esteem. He clearly loves you, and your unwillingness to make him feel more secure about your relationship is really selfish.

You’ll notice this after he attempts to exhibit controlling behavior and you call him out on it. This is a form of DARVO and deserves to be treated like the big deal it is.

Related reading: How To Maintain Your Individuality While In a Relationship

7. You Frequently Receive the Silent Treatment

The silent treatment is another coping mechanism your controlling partner might use when they can’t force you to do what they want. There are a few reasons for this, and that can change from one controlling boyfriend to the next:

  • A manipulative person may understand that the silent treatment can damage your mental health. So, they use the tactic to punish you for acting independently. The goal is to ensure that it isn’t worth it for you to act independently in the future.
  • For another person, the silent treatment is the result of them feeling genuinely hurt and angry. They engage in the silent treatment as a way of licking their own wounds.

To be very clear, any of these reasons make their behavior justifiable. A controlling boyfriend is still responsible for his behavior and choices, even if his emotions are genuine.

8. He Uses Emotionally Manipulative Language

Jonah Hill spent years being known as a bit of a mensch. Unfortunately, publicly released texts revealed him as a controlling man who wanted the final say over his ex-girlfriend’s wardrobe and social interactions.

That’s sadly common, but what really stood out was the words he used to communicate his demands. He never threatened his partner or cursed at her. Instead, he simply explained that all of this was due to his need to set boundaries in his relationship.

This kind of language, delivered with self-confidence, is an absolute sign of controlling behavior. Worse, it is deliberately couched in words that make you seem unreasonable when you get upset. After all, why shouldn’t someone be able to establish clear boundaries in an intimate relationship?

Related reading: Boundaries in Relationships – Keeping Them Healthy

9. He Obsesses Over Past Relationships

“It is fine to commiserate with a man about his bad experience with a previous partner, but the instant he uses her as an excuse to mistreat you, stop believing anything he tells you about that relationship and instead recognize it as a sign that he has problems with relating to women.”

Lundy Bancroft, writer and consultant on domestic abuse and child maltreatment

Your emotionally controlling boyfriend may go on and on about past romances, both yours and his. The problem isn’t that he’s sentimental. It’s that he is either holding you responsible for his unresolved issues and jealousies from his old relationships, or obsessing over yours. Worse, he expects you to limit your freedoms because he can’t get over the past.

Does he talk about previous girlfriends in denigrating terms? Is he always the bad person in his narrative while he is the innocent victim? Does he label her as a cheater or worse?

Another woman’s infidelity may have indeed harmed him. But, that is his issue to deal with. The fact that he is bringing those problems into your relationship proves he has a lot of work to do. He may not be capable of a healthy relationship until he does this.

Your controlling boyfriend may also use your past relationship experiences, or even your ‘body count’ to justify being a controlling partner. He may accuse you of being likely to cheat or claim that he’s just worried that he can’t fulfill you. Both are unhealthy tactics used by controlling boyfriends.

Related reading: Insecure Men: How a Fragile Ego Can Ruin Romance

10. You Find Yourself Constantly Apologizing

Your boyfriend controlling you is bad enough. What’s worse is that you somehow find yourself apologizing and soothing his feelings. That’s proof of the impacts all of this has on your mental health. When your boyfriend controls you, especially if he gaslights you into thinking you are truly doing something wrong, you are overcome with guilt. So, you apologize for the smallest things, even when you have done nothing wrong.

Worse, this creates a cycle. You apologize. He sees that as an indication of your guilt. So he begins looking for subtle signs that you are unfaithful or disloyal. So, your romantic relationship becomes even more dysfunctional and controlling.

11. He Is Overly Confident in His Expectations of You

A controlling partner will often state his demands very confidently and calmly. He needs to appear calm and reasonable. In contrast, you are cast as the emotional, unreasonable partner if you argue or get angry.

He might say “Since we’re exclusive now, you should give up going out with your friends on Friday nights. We need to be spending time together without people interfering in our relationship. I know that’s what you want too.”

Notice how he phrases it in a way that assumes by going along you care about the relationship. So, if you don’t want to do that, it means you are fighting against him for simply wanting to have a good relationship.

Without thinking about this, you may agree with these controlling tactics. Because, at first they just seem so reasonable.

Does controlling partner care?

4 Differences Between Controlling Behavior and Caring Behavior

You think you see clear signs of a controlling boyfriend, but he claims he just cares about you and your relationship. This can be complicated if you’ve been in traumatic relationships that make you unsure of what a healthy relationship looks like. Here’s how to tell the difference between caring and toxic relationships.

1. Motivation

If your boyfriend loves you and cares about your well-being, he is motivated by wanting good things for you. On the other hand, controlling comes from a place of fear or dominance. He needs you to do or not do certain things either because he is afraid of losing you, or he thinks he should be able to tell you what to do.

2. It’s Often Based on Gendered Expectations And Roles

If your boyfriend is controlling, he may use gender in his arguments. There are certain things that he can do because he’s a guy. Meanwhile, you are limited by your gender because it looks bad, makes him jealous, is dangerous for you, etc.

3. Only One Person Is Subject to Control

When your partner wants to control you, they expect you alone to change your behavior and limit your activities. Notice that he never adjusts his own actions or imposes any limits on himself for the good of the relationship. If it was about caring, he would probably find at least some reasons to curb his own activities.

4. Assumption of Authority

If someone wants you to do something differently because they are concerned for you, they will engage in open communication with you about it. If they want to control you, they will simply make a demand with the assumption that you should do what they want. This shows they place more importance on being in control than what they think is best for you.

What Makes a Controlling Person Tick

Be careful before you spend a lot of mental energy analyzing the possible mental health condition, personality disorders, past traumas, or other issues of someone who is trying to control you. It isn’t your responsibility to diagnose them or navigate any healing process they should go through. That’s something for them to do.

Just know that your boyfriend is controlling for any combination of reasons. He may simply believe that’s how a relationship should work should work. This is common when people grow up with very rigid and traditional gender roles and expectations. He may have some issues he needs to work through from previous relationship experiences, or he may truly be someone who is a narcissist with a need to control others. That’s for him to figure out. Your job is to set boundaries and communicate them with your partner.

When Do the Signs of a Controlling Boyfriend Signal Danger?

There are many signs that your partner has controlling tendencies. Then there are signs that you are truly unsafe. These controlling boyfriend signs should have you seeking professional advice about getting out of your situation.

1. He Controls Your Technology

It’s one thing to have a moment of insecurity and check one of your incoming text messages. That’s crappy, but possibly forgivable in the context of an otherwise respectful relationship. But, if he has taken charge of your electronics by hiding your devices, installing monitoring software, or stealing your passwords that could mean your life is in danger.

2. He Threatens Physical Harm

This isn’t just limited to harm to you. Does he threaten to hurt himself if you don’t do what he wants? What about your friends, family, or pets? Does he break your things? That’s not normal behavior, and you need to get this person out of your life.

3. He Sabotages Your Independence

He shows up at your workplace and picks a fight. Your boss calls to ask you to come into work and he doesn’t pass along the message. He works on your car and makes it inoperable. These are all tactics to sabotage your independence and ensure your life centers around him. This makes it even more difficult to leave when you’ve had enough.

4. He Physically Prevents You From Leaving

You want to get out of the house for some alone time or a coffee break with a friend. He becomes angry. He blocks your path out the door or stands in front of your car so you can’t drive away. Later, he’ll deflect and minimize that behavior. He just wanted to talk. Why wouldn’t you just stop and listen to him? Why did you insist on leaving if you weren’t going to cheat or do something shady? In reality, controlling your movements is abusive, even if he never lays a hand on you. Consider whether you truly want to stay in such a relationship.

Can you save a relationship with an emotionally controlling boyfriend?

Can a Controlling Relationship Be Saved?

Your partner definitely has a tendency to control you, but is it possible to fix things and build a life together? It may be. That depends on your partner and his ability to listen, engage in some self-reflection, and make changes. You also need to be willing to communicate clearly. For example, “When you disrupt the time I spend with my friends and family, it tells me your need to control me is more important to you than my happiness.” or “When you invade my privacy by reading my emails it sets off warning bells that make me question our future together. I feel confused. What are you trying to accomplish here?” That last part forces him to think about and justify his actions.

Low-risk controlling behavior can be overcome with communication and commitment to change. If he is generally respectful of your right to live your life as you please, you may be able to save this relationship. But, it may take some professional help to get there. This may involve your boyfriend seeking therapy to resolve his issues and boost his self-esteem without relying on you to change your behavior to meet his needs.

However, if his behavior makes you scared or if it has escalated into obsessiveness or abuse, it’s time to make your escape. Don’t endanger yourself with hopes that he will somehow become a better person. He’s shown you who he is. You could end up in a situation where your life is in danger.

Related reading: On the Rebound – Where Your Relationship Goes?

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You Have Decided to Leave – Now What?

You’ve seen both obvious and subtle signs of his nature. Now, you want to leave. If you can, seek professional advice. Someone who has helped people through this process can help you get your life back. They will know each little detail you need to get in place to make a safe escape.

Remember that there are emotionally healthy single men out there. You never have to settle for someone who disrespects your independence.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.

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