The Signs of Controlling Behaviour – Red Flags and How to Spot Them

If we were able to teach young people to recognise the signs of controlling behaviour, the ‘red flags’, would we be able to protect them from abusive relationships?

If we were to teach children in schools how to spot a controlling person, would be help save them from misery and self-doubt?

If we talk openly with friends about the ‘red flags’ would they recognise their own relationships and find the strength to walk away? I hope so.

For this reason, I am writing two blog posts today. One for adults, here on this blog, and one for tweens and teens on Jump! Mag When writing for kids, I am very concious of the fact that not all parents will have had The Talk with their kids, and some of our readers are just seven or eight years old. For this reason, sex is a taboo topic on Jump! Mag, but I believe that the foundation for healthy relationship building is laid before children hit puberty.

Young people are very susceptible to controlling behaviour – when tweens and young teens, more likely from their peers but as time passes also in adult sexual relationships. 

It is important that young people are taught how to recognise a controlling person – whether it is a peer, and adult or a family member.

This blog post is written from the perspective of a woman, and advises how to recognise a controlling man. This doesn’t mean that I don’t accept that men are abused too, or that women cannot be controlling or manipulative. In the majority of abusive relationships, the man is the aggressor. For this reason, and because it reads easier than using he/she, I have used the pronoun ‘he’. 

The Red Flags 

We talk about the ‘Red Flags’ of controlling and abusive behaviour. I interviewed several women, and hosted guest blog posts, for the Mumsnet We Believe You Campaign. Women who were raped, women who had been abused, many of them over a long period of time. Often these women are asked, ‘Why did you not leave?’ and they find it difficult to explain even to themselves.

The answer is that their self-esteem had been slowly but methodically eroded until they were no longer able to make a rational decision. Women who had been strong, independent and happy became timid and fearful. They tiptoed around the house and the moods of their partner. They sought to do everything right, and blamed themselves when they did something ‘wrong’.

What happened between the time that they met their partner and the moment when they realised it was time to get out? And why did they not notice that their partner was abusive?

The gradual escalation of abuse is often very difficult to spot, if you are living in the middle of if. Here are the signs to look out for. If you are seeing a man, and you recognise these signs, take a step back and assess the situation.

Initial Infatuation Period

  • He is extremely attentive, phones, emails or texts constantly
  • He gets serious fast. Talks about the love of his life, or moving in together.
  • He is jealous – which might flatter you at first. ‘It is only because I love you so much’

 In this period, he will bring flowers and gifts, treat you like a ‘princess’, be loving and caring. You might feel uneasy about the speed of the relationship but  don’t want to rock the boat because he is so different from the guys who want to play the field.

First Doubts

  • He blames others eg for his failed marriage or relationship. ‘My ex is a real bitch, I am so glad that I have found you’.
  • He tries to change you. Your hair, make up, clothes. In a subtle way,  eg. by bringing you presents very different to the clothes you would normally wear.
  • He tries to stop you seeing your friends. ‘I just want to be with you, I want to spend time with you’.
  • He doesn’t take notice of your feelings, ‘Don’t be silly…’

 In this period, you might have moments of misgiving, but then he backs off and is the loving attentive man you first fell for.

Sowing The Seeds of Self-Doubt

  • He puts you down, at first when you are alone but later in front of others, often disguised as a joke.
  • He makes comments about your appearance, making you feel less attractive.
  • His digs are subtle, and when you call him on them, he is offended and upset that you ‘didn’t get his joke’.
  • He insults your friends, and tries to stop you seeing them.
  • He is moody and unpredictable, but blames his bad moods on you so you start adapting your behaviour to keep him happy.
  • He accuses you of being unfaithful, or of flirting with other men.
  • He ignores you, if you do something that displeases him, and ‘rewards’ you with his attention and affection when he is pleased with you.

By now, you are already doubting yourself, and beginning to refer to him for minor and major decision making.

Escalation of Abuse

  • He stops you doing what you want, or seeing who you want.
  • He isolates you financially, making you dependent on him.
  • He blames you for anything that goes wrong.
  • He becomes more abusive, both verbally and physically
  • He becomes upset if you talk of leaving him, and threatens to do himself harm

 By this point, you are cowed. You are frightened and isolated. You barely say anything, for fear of saying the wrong thing.

One woman I interviewed for the Mumsnet We Believe You Campaign talked of the red flags, and how she could see in retrospect many of the signs of abusive behaviour. She was one of the lucky ones.

“I always remember the boiling frog anecdote. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. That describes a woman in an abusive relationship perfectly”.

See also the Guest Blog of Amber Rudd Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye on Mumsnet

Great blog post from Eliza Do Lots here is getting lots of attention and deserves a read. 


These websites all have information on escaping from Domestic Violence – if you share a computer with your partner, have a look at this section on covering your tracks online first.

If you recognise your partner or your situation in the above description, you can find advice on how to get help from Women’s Aid or Refuge.

Talk to a trusted friend or relative. They may already be worried about you or have felt unable to speak to you about your partner.



Women’s Aid – national support network for domestic violence services


Women’s Aid (Ireland) – Republic of Ireland’s domestic abuse support network


Women’s Aid (Scotland) – support for people suffering domestic violence in Scotland


Rape Crisis – specialist rape support services in England and Wales


Refuge – national support for women and children experiencing domestic violence


Broken Rainbow – support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people experiencing domestic violence across the UK


Directgov – government information for victims of domestic violence


The Hideout – information for young people and children about domestic violence


Men’s Advice Line – advice for men in abusive relationships


National Domestic Violence Helpline – national helpline for those affected by domestic violence


NHS: Live Well – basic advice on support options for victims of domestic abuse


Respect – runs a phoneline for people experiencing domestic abuse across the UK


Rights of Women – legal information for women experiencing domestic violence


The Freedom Programme – a domestic violence programme that is provided free by agencies across the UK.


 Pic Credit


  • LittleMe

    Excellent post. Very tough to spot the red flags when you’re falling in love however – even if you could spot them a mile off if it were happening to a friend / relative…

  • Michelle

    Great Post.
    I am getting over a breakup with a controlling man. It took me a while to figure him out, but it became apparent when i took a step back, wiped my “rosey love-stricken” googles clear and saw him for what he was.

    Any man who hints at how you should do your hair, how you should dress, how it would be great to quit your job and he will treat you like a queen, how its better if you stay at home, be obedient to him and respect THE MAN,,no matter whether he is wrong or right.. ask his permission when you go out…insist on knowing what you do and where you go etc. etc….my advice…give him the finger and walk away..

    while respect for ones spouse or significant other is critical (this is mutual and not one sided)..you are you and if he cant understand that or accept it…find someone else..he is not worth it.

  • Scribble

    I broke up with my boyfriend nearly two weeks ago. We were about four months into the relationship and somewhere in the ‘Sewing the seeds of self-doubt’ phase. I’m really glad that I had a three week trip away from him, planned before we got together, around the three-month mark because it helped me see the relationship from a different perspective and made me come to terms with what he was doing and what he had already done.

  • Valkyrie

    This blog isn’t just good for relationship abuse, but it discusses controlling behaviors in general, making it good for matters outside of dating and romantic relationships. Looking over everything, you’ve helped me out with my own family issues… The signs listed remind me of my uncle… He’s been this way toward me for as long as I can remember, although it’s mainly verbal, nothing physical (thank god). So thank you. I want to gain my independence as soon as possible and never see that terrible man again. – Val, 12 years old

  • cody

    u people are sad u talk as if onley woman can be abused and u talk about red flags to watch out for in “”men”” basicley saying if a woman does these things its not abuse that is a double standerd The fact is men are abused by their wifes or girlfriends all the time but its not reported.Their was a study done at a Collige last year in Texas the study was done by 12 sicolagy majors made up of 6men and 6woman they did several poles on the internet and in
    pulic with flyers and qustionares asking people if they new anyone who was in an abusive relation ship and the sex of the abused the pole was done all over Texas. The results came back and showed that 55% of abusive Relation ships in Texas the man was the one being abused. I my self just got out of an abusive relationship in witch I was forced to watch my ex have sex with another man while she degraded me I stade in the relation ship for 8 years trying to deal with it because i was afraide of what i would have to go through if we wasnt together and sure enough i was right u see we have two kids together and in the eys of the law abuse on a man is olmost unherd of so now i get belted with insults in front of my kids when i go to pick them up the system is set up for woman and theirs nothing i can do it states in my visitation rights that i can send someone else to pick up my kids but when I try to send someone else my phone gets rung off the hook and my voice male gets filled with statements that are vary hurt full belittleing and demeaning most of the abuse that i incered while with her was behind clossed doors and wear my kids could not see it but now they see it all

    • Lynn C Schreiber

      Cody, I have heard of that report but it is quite controversial research, which has been discredited.

      Which is not to say that men cannot be abused, or that these warnings do not apply to men or boys who get involved with potentially abusive women. I have written it from the point of view of a woman for two reasons. First, I am a woman and secondly, almost all research points to the fact that the majority of abused people are women.

      At the end of the day, the research into statistics is no comfort. Any person who is being abused is one person too many, and I would not automatically defend a woman, just because she is the same sex as me. I am very sorry to hear your story, and hope that you can find support and assistance in dealing with your ex. It is horrible when children have to grow up in an abusive household.

      Have you been in touch with the Domestic Abuse Helpline (I am presuming you are in US, as you use American language in your comment). I am not up to speed on US help centres, but this looks like a good place to start.

      Good luck.

  • Kevin

    With the exception of violence (replaced by – you’d better do as I say or else you’ll never have a relationship with your children) these steps perfectly describe the actions of the woman I had a relationship with. By the time I walked out 20 years later (yes, it took that long) she’d successfully removed me from most of my social supports, friends, and much of my self esteem about having relationships others than with her. Because of gender differences the details differ in nuance (although being a successful woman her financial situation allowed much of the same actions) but how they played out were the same in the end: control, isolation and the exercise of power. Her job too also allowed her to make it pretty clear to me that if I dissented at all from her viewpoint then she could make sure pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be believed.

    I’m sure with society as it is at the moment it’s far easier for men to abuse in this manner than women, and I’m sure the large majority of abusers are, so I’m not trying to invalidate the experience of women here – far from it. But maybe the dark side of equality will be that my story becomes more common.

  • Gilraen

    Thank you. It has been a few years but most of the signs I did see and ignored. Our initial phase was slightly different as he at the time still controlled his ex partner and pretty much jumped into phase 2 immediately. The most amazing thing though is I knew them; I had warned friends about them at times when boyfriends got too controlling and then I fell for it still. That is how hidden it can be. I was aware, it still happened

    I like the frog analogy. It fits, it so totally fits. You are so sucked in and it is so hard to be honest to yourself that it is not you but the relationship that is so wrong. I got out. For me the turning point was looking in the mirror and not knowing the person looking back at me and to be honest not liking her either. I got angry at myself, for many reasons. My parents always brought me up that I could be proud of who I am and that I am a person to be liked. It is when I started plotting my exit.

  • Claire

    I was brought up by a controlling father and so have been groomed
    My two last relationships have seen that in me and used it. I am left with nothing but processions and no pension or property. I shall be referring to these sites and counselling myself by regular visits to keep myself on the straight and narrow so to speak. Sadly these individuals disguise they’re actions by insisting on your snap/ decisions and judgements. As I read somewhere ” if a decision needs to be made immediately… The answer should be no”
    Wishing all who read this site … Good wishes and make your own luck

    • Lynn C Schreiber

      Thanks for your comment, Claire. I am sorry that you have been through this, but feel certain that you will forge your path. That quote is excellent, and a good one to live by. All the best to you on your journey.

  • Taylor

    My ex girlfriend I beleive has entered into an abusive relationship. I am quite concerned for her. The relationship exhibits many of the signs you have listed and my gut tells me that it is about to go off the rails. The guy has taken her personal cell phone away, and has her isolated in his house and stuck being financially dependent on him.

    Perhaps articles on how to help someone you care about see what they’re getting into.

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