Is your man controlling? Here are the warning signs to look out for

By Anna Moore

1) He sweeps you off your feet


‘When I ask women what their abusers were like when they first met, they often say “charming,”’ says Sandra Horley, CEO of Refuge and author of Power and Control. ‘Whether builders or barristers, these men are caring and attentive at the start. They know how to make women feel special.’ Flowers, surprise trips, grand gestures or just 24/7 attention – he’ll put you at the centre of his universe to bowl you over. ‘It’s a weapon and a disguise,’ says Horley. It convinces you that he is your ‘ideal man’, your ‘happy ending’. And when abusive behaviour creeps in, he can turn the charm to manoeuvre, confuse and pull you back.


2) He hurries the relationship on


He declares his love, pushes you to go on a holiday, move in together, get engaged, try for a baby… Racing through key stages is a definite red flag, says Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, former police officer, criminologist and domestic violence expert. ‘A man who acts like this wants to take full control very quickly. He will often push things at a rate that makes everyone else think, “Whooah!” It may be flattering and exciting but if you feel you need to slow it down, do so. A good man will be fine with that.’


3) He’s sensitive to criticism


‘A controlling man can’t deal with any kind of challenge,’ says Monckton-Smith. ‘So a key personality trait is often that he’s hypersensitive to any kind of criticism, however low-level.’ Perhaps he gets angry simply because you take a breath when he accelerates on a corner (‘You have a problem with my driving?’) or he sulks at an innocent comment such as, ‘Have you had your hair cut?’ (‘Why? What’s wrong with it?’) If you’ve learnt to bite your tongue rather than risk anything being ‘misconstrued’, be wary.


4) He has a problem with your mother


A controlling man needs to isolate you to make you dependent on him. ‘The first stage will often be getting rid of the people who are closest to you, those who care the most and can question what he’s doing,’ says Monckton-Smith. ‘Often that’s your parents, then your best friend.’ He may instigate problems: ‘Your mum doesn’t like me,’ or ‘I feel inadequate around your family.’ He often does it so well that he seems reasonable – but the end result is the same: a growing distance between you and the people you love.


5) He’s jealous


It starts small. A hurt look when you plan a night out with friends or a sad sulk when you go for spontaneous after-work drinks with colleagues. He may say, ‘I just want you all to myself,’ or ‘I can’t help it, I love you so much, I hate sharing you.’ ‘This may seem flattering, but it’s not a sign of love,’ warns Horley. ‘Drip by drip, it isolates you from contact and support, and makes you dependent on him.’


6) He has his own idiosyncratic ways


There are things he likes ‘just so’, and they may seem so minor that it’s easy to go along with them. It could be rules about the house – perhaps he doesn’t like anyone going in his office or hates people rearranging the bookshelves. There may be certain programmes he has to watch or certain times he likes to eat. On their own, they’re trivial. Collectively, they become oppressive. ‘He’s making the rules,’ says Horley. ‘He’s saying, “I’m in charge, I get my way, you can’t challenge me.”’


7) He’s changing the way you look


‘It starts with comments about your appearance that aren’t complimentary,’ says Monckton-Smith. ‘“Are you going to have another biscuit?” “How much make-up are you wearing?” “You’re not putting on that dress, are you?” These remarks don’t go away – they always escalate.’ So you go lighter on the lipstick and ditch your favourite dress. ‘You try to reflect back to him the image he wants to see,’ says Clare Phillipson, director of Wearside Women in Need. ‘And little by little, your sense of self fades away completely.’


8) He takes charge of your finances


‘He often sets the stage by introducing the idea that he’s better at managing money,’ says Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, director of charity Surviving Economic Abuse ( Maybe he says you’re a bit of a spendthrift, that you could live a lot better with a bit more care. ‘That’s often followed with the romantic, “I’ll look after you” promise.’ He may rush you into having joint bank accounts and shared financial arrangements because you’re ‘partners’. Gradually, you find you’re ‘frozen out’ of financial decisions, you don’t know what he earns or how much is in the account, passwords are changed – and you can’t spend money without feeling anxious, guilty or fearful.


9) He worries about you


He likes to know where you are and how long you’ll be out, and usually checks up, calling or texting to make sure you’ve ‘arrived safely’ or you’re ‘home on time’. He’ll claim it’s only because he worries about you. Technology is another means of monitoring you, says Horley. Perhaps he knows your phone access code or your internet password, or he mentions things that reveal he scrutinises your social media. Before long, it becomes spying. ‘The possibilities are endless,’ says Horley: phone numbers are stored on a shared cloud so he knows who you speak to; there’s spyware on your laptop and a tracker on your car so he knows your every move.


10) He puts his hands on your throat


Perhaps it was one heated row, and he was so sorry afterwards but you drove him crazy and no one else has that effect on him… Women can be hesitant to label ‘hands on throat’ as serious – after all, it may be over quickly and without leaving a mark, ‘but I can’t stress enough how serious it is’, says Monckton-Smith. ‘Even if he doesn’t hurt you, placing his hands on your throat or over your mouth indicates that his default position is to threaten your life.’ In fact, one study found that it is associated with six-fold higher risk of attempted murder further down the line and seven-fold of murder. ‘If it happens just once, irrespective of anything else, get out of that relationship,’ warns Monckton-Smith.




By Refuge CEO Sandra Horley


Recognise you’re being abused. This is an important first step. Ask yourself whether you’re in control of your own life or if someone else is pulling the strings.


Talk to someone you trust. Abusers isolate their partners and make them believe it’s their fault or that they’re imagining things. Speaking to someone who can assure you that what’s happening is real can be very powerful.


Ask for help. Call a helpline and access confidential support (see below).


Don’t blame yourself and remember you’re not alone. Thousands of women find themselves in abusive relationships. Your partner is responsible, not you, and controlling behaviour is against the law.


The National Domestic Violence Helpline is a partnership between Refuge and Women’s Aid, 0808 200 0247. For more information, visit Refuge also runs a website with information on supporting someone who may be in a controlling relationship,