Violent and controlling behaviour in a relationship isn’t always obvious.

It might be easier to justify behaviour as not being too serious, or make out that it was the other person’s fault. Sometimes, worrying about consequences for ourselves or the relationship, we’ll apologise and promise not to behave that way again just so we don’t have to face up to the reality of what’s happening and why.

The person you’re hurting may not say anything because they’re also worried about the future of the relationship or their own safety, and will silently hope things get better. They may tell themselves it could be worse, or fear your reaction.

Violence and controlling behaviour is not just about physical abuse. Here are some examples of how you might be violent or controlling without realising it:

  • ‘Checking up on your partner’ by going through their text messages, social media, diary or possessions. 
  • Calling or texting several times each day to check up on your partner, following them or dropping in on them unexpectedly.
  • Always making the ‘important decisions’ on behalf of the both of you.
  • Pressuring them to not see particular people, e.g. friends or family or being nasty to or criticising their friends so they won’t hang around your partner anymore
  • Criticising or belittling them for the things they enjoy, e.g. TV shows, music, hobbies.
  • Telling them what they should or shouldn’t do/say/wear.
  • 'Gaslighting', i.e. playing mind-games by saying one thing then doing another, lying or tricking them.
  • Using emotional blackmail to get your way, e.g. “If you really loved me, you would…” or “If you were a real man/woman, you would…”
  • Using passive-aggressive behaviours such as ignoring them or refusing to talk to them. 

At first glance, some of these behaviours may not seem violent or controlling, but many are emotional abuse and controlling behaviours that aren’t healthy or acceptable in relationships.

What can you do?

If you recognise any of the above behaviours in yourself, here are some things you can do to stop:

  • Ask for honest feedback from your partner.

Remember they might be scared or worried about telling you what they’re really feeling. Explain you’re worried you’ve hurt them and you want them to feel safe. Listen, without attempting to justify your actions, making excuses, starting a fight or dismissing their feelings. You can’t tell people how they feel. Only they know. 

  • Take responsibility for your actions. 

Don’t shirk responsibility. Own it. Genuinely apologise for it. And once you’ve apologised, take the steps necessary to make sure it’s not going to happen again.

  • Understand why you act this way…and try to act differently next time. 

Sometimes we’re controlling because of jealousy, worried about being abandoned, scared or embarrassed. If you’re feeling jealous you need to work through those feelings – without trying to control others. You may believe you have the right to control because you’re better than others or because you think that’s what’s expected of you, e.g. wrongly thinking men should be in control of relationships – read some of our articles on gender for more on this.

  • Be clear about what respectful, equal relationships look like. 

In respectful and equal relationships, people are free to have other friends, have their own interests, work as a team but also spend time by themselves, have equal power to make decisions, and make mistakes without being put down or ridiculed. Have a look at some of our articles on relationships for more on this.

  • Think more about the impact on others of the things you say and do. 

Whether it’s ‘just a joke’ or you’re actually intending to hurt the other person, stop and think about what you’re doing to that person, why you would want to make someone feel that way and what it says about you. If you want someone to feel stupid, ugly or worthless you need to start looking at your own life and what’s making you feel that way. Try contacting 1800MYLINE (1800 695 463)or the Men’s Referral Service (1300 766 491) for advice.

  • Make real change. 

Don’t think that, after recognising your controlling behaviour, you’ll never act like that again. Habits are strong and many people repeat the same violent and abusive behaviour over and over again (see the Cycle of Violence model for the typical pattern). You may need to seek professional help to make real, lasting changes that will not only improve your life, but also the lives of everyone around you. For more information, see the No To Violence website.

If you feel like you have been, or are going to get violent, you need to leave until you’re calm. If you want to talk to someone or don’t know what to do, contact a service such as 1800RESPECT (1800 695 463) or the Men’s Referral Service (1300 766 491) for advice.