Dating Safely - How to Identify Controlling Behaviour

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Are you suspicious that your partner might be trying to control you?

This Article is presented by: Emma Davey
Emma Davey is a relationships expert, qualified Counsellor and Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Coach.

If you have even the smallest inkling that something is amiss in your relationship and you don’t feel emotionally or physically secure, the chances are that you are right.

Image by Nik Shuliahin

In your experience, what are the common traits of someone who has a controlling disposition and why do they do it?

Narcissists lie continuously, even over the smallest of things. You will never get the truth from a Narcissist. They have to lie about who they are so that they can create the illusion they’re better than everyone else.

When you first meet a Narcissist, they will sell you the dream. Future faking is part of their scam of tricking you into believing you have met your soul mate and make you buy into the future they are creating for you. If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is.

A Narcissist wants to trap you as quickly as possible before their masks slip, and you start to see the harsh reality of their abuse. This is why victims of Narcissistic abuse describe the meeting, and falling in love, with a Narcissist, like a whirlwind. The ‘Love’ word gets used very quickly to make the victim feel that they are everything the Narcissist has ever wanted. A Narcissist will make their victim feel extremely special and that they’re ‘the one.

The victim is actually falling in love with a ghost; the person the Narcissist pretends to be at this point doesn’t exist and this is very hard for victims to accept, even when the words and the actions don’t match up.

It’s very common for a victim to put so much effort into trying to please and help the Narcissist, that they cling to the memory of the amazing and charming person who they met at the beginning. In the meantime, they neglect themselves and their own needs.

Manipulation & Control

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A Narcissist needs to take control of you very quickly. They will look to see who you are associated with and who your outside influencers are and then isolate you from friends and family, so you become dependent on them. Your isolation increases their power, control and influence over you.

The Narcissist will start by planting seeds in your mind to make you believe you don’t need anyone else apart from them. They will suggest that others are having a negative effect on your life or your relationship with them. This manipulation often sees victims cutting the outside world off to make their abuser happy and getting brainwashed into believing everybody is against them.

It is also common for a Narcissist to try and take control financially, as this is another way of making their victim depend on them for everything. Before a victim realises what’s happening, they have become a child again, having to ask for pocket money. Many abusers will even install tracking devices on their victim’s phone or vehicles so they can see exactly where they are going and when. This behaviour all helps to make the victim trapped and that they are not able to walk away from the relationship, however bad it gets.

The Need for Validation

Narcissists need constant attention and validation. To get this they will often appear, to the outside world, as the kindest, caring, generous and charming people. The person the Narcissist portrays to everyone else is often the opposite of who they really are.

Through this behaviour, Narcissists build a network of people that we call “flying monkeys”. These people are part of the Narcissist’s game. They make it very hard for victims to speak out about the abuse they suffer behind closed doors. No one believes the victim when they try to describe the real person and the “flying monkeys” will actively support the abuser and their version of the truth.

Many victims suffer in silence because they have such a hard time proving the abuse they receive.

Zero Empathy or Ability to Apologise

A narcissist will never admit when they’re wrong. That’s because they genuinely don’t believe they are ever in the wrong. To them, everybody else is the problem, and so they shift the blame onto others.

Narcissists have no empathy, it’s not part of their makeup. At times you might hear the odd fake apology, which will be said for a reaction to benefit themselves.

If a victim starts to break away from their abuser, the Narcissist will try to hoover the victim back in. They will do this by giving the victim a false apology and will promise to go and get help. You shouldn’t be fooled by this “performance” the likelihood of a Narcissist going to get help is extremely slim because they think they’re perfect.


Gaslighting is one of the most common techniques and forms of manipulation used by Narcissists. Gaslighting is when a person tries to convince somebody else (the victim) that they are wrong about something, when in fact they are not. A Narcissist will use this tactic to brainwash their victims. Over time it causes the victim to question their own sanity and what is reality.

The perpetrator knows what they are doing, but they get enjoyment and a sense of power in seeing their victim “lose their mind”. When Gaslighting, the Narcissist will use the phases; “that never happened”, “you’re overreacting”, “you’re too sensitive”, “you need to see a doctor”, “I never said that”, “you’re wrong”, “are you feeling ok”?

A victim of gaslighting will experience some or all of the following:

• Difficulty in making decisions on their own, due to the constant fear they will get it wrong.

• Confused about their relationship. Victims don’t know how to change themselves to make the abuser happy. They will start to lose their own identity.

• Constant arguments with the abuser, however hard they try to avoid them. They go round in circles and never get closure on a topic.

• Having to make excuses for the abuser’s behaviour to themselves or other people.

• Confused as to why they are not happy when the abuser says they love them. They know it doesn’t feel right, but they try to convince themselves and others that everything is ok.

• Blaming themselves as they have been led to believe everything is their fault. Victims will find themselves constantly apologising, even when they’ve done nothing wrong.

• Confused as to what to feel or think, as they’re told that everything they do is wrong, so they lose their self-confidence.

The abuser will often leave the victim for short or long periods of time. This makes a victim accept any behaviour they receive; in the hope, the abuser comes back to them.

Lack of Respect for Boundaries

A Narcissist will never respect a boundary. When you first meet a Narcissist, they will see how far they can push your boundaries to determine if you are a potential victim.

A Narcissist will look for your vulnerabilities, which is why they will want to know everything about you as quickly as possible. They will find out how much you are prepared to take and how much they can push you into accepting their behaviour.

A vulnerable person is easier to control and manipulate than someone who has very strong boundaries in place.

Being involved with a Narcissist is extremely damaging to your mental and physical health. If you notice someone having a negative impact on your life, this is a red flag and should not be ignored. No matter how much you want to save them you will only be destroyed in the process.

Why are women not able to recognise they are often in a destructive controlling relationship?

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Men and women can both find themselves in a destructive controlling relationship. Someone doesn’t become controlling straight away, it’s a gradual process. An abuser will at first portray themselves as a very loving, understanding and overall, a nice person. This is who the victim falls in love with. When the abuser knows that their victim is starting to fall for them they start to push their boundaries and see how much they can control and manipulate them. The victim by this point has fallen in love with their abuser and will do whatever it takes to make them happy. If a victim ignores the red flags and allows them to discard their boundaries the abuser will now start to control and manipulate their life.

In many cases, victims will not want to admit they are in a controlling relationship and coming to terms with the fact that the person they have given everything to is actually the person that is abusing them can be extremely hard. By the time a victim does come to admit they are in a destructive, controlling relationship it might be so far down the line where getting out sometimes seems impossible as they have invested so much time and emotional feelings into it.

Do you think the rise of virtual dating will be a safer start for couples looking for love in that they can get to know each other in a safe space before meeting up?

Virtual dating needs to be taken with caution as people can still be victims of abuse even when talking online. Connecting with someone virtually means you don’t 100% know who you are talking to. I recommend having healthy boundaries in place and not sharing too much personal information so quickly.

Shame, fear of losing the partner, and failure to recognise an abusive relationship were reported as the main barriers to leaving an abusive relationship.

What is the first step to leaving?

The first step of leaving an abusive relationship is accepting that you’re in that type of relationship and recognising this is an unhealthy situation to be in. Acceptance is one of the hardest parts of leaving as you would have invested so much time, love and emotions into them and finally admitting there is nothing to be done to change the situation. You need to recognise your worth and identify that you don’t deserve to be treated like this and it’s not your fault. Reach out for support from family and friends, as victims of abuse you need the validation and clarification that you are doing the right thing and to have that added support is a bonus as abusers tend to manipulate you back into the relationship by promising change which never happens.

How do you start to rebuild trust and confidence in yourself and other people following a destructive abusive relationship? What advice can you give people who are feeling hopeless? How much does therapy play a part in this?

Recovering from an abusive relationship takes time. It’s quite common for a victim’s trust to be shattered and to be on high alert at all times. In fact, research My Trauma Therapy has just undertaken has found that 71% of victims say they are less trusting in relationships. Unfortunately, trust takes time to rebuild and many victims confess they don’t trust themselves anymore to make the right choices. Therapy with a trained specialist in this area can help the victim process the trauma they have been through and guide them into believing in themselves again while rebuilding their identity.

Recognizing the areas they need to help is the most crucial part as admitting where you feel vulnerable makes you more aware of what you need to work on. Boundaries are so important to have in place when moving forward after an abusive relationship. If they are not there, a victim could easily end up back in another abusive and controlling relationship, creating a pattern they become used to. Our research has revealed that 62% of victims believe they’ve had more than one narcissistic abusive relationship – highlighting the need for therapy to escape the trend.

How can you find the right therapist for you?

I could recommend a therapist that specialises in Domestic Violence and Personality Disorders. In my point of view, if the counsellor or therapist has been through it themselves they are a lot more relatable and will connect with the client a lot better than a therapist who hasn’t though this is not essential of course.

Can abusers change?


This is a question that can’t be given a definite yes or no. If a person has Narcissistic / Anti-social personality disorder, then you are very unlikely to see a change. This is because they will not recognise that there is anything wrong with them.

If someone is displaying controlling behaviours and they recognise they need to change for themselves then there could be a possible change but the change can only come from them. Nobody apart from themselves can make that change and as much as people want to help change them it won’t work unless it comes from them.

How do you see the world of dating and relationships changing from what you have seen and heard in the last year?

I believe more people are starting to recognise what an abusive relationship looks like. There has been a huge rise in domestic violence during the pandemic and I now believe people are starting to take more caution before they start dating someone new. Due to life feeling like it has been standing still for a year I believe people have become more patient. Getting to know someone properly before they proceed into a relationship is definitely recommended.

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