In relationships as in life, things are not always black and white. When someone is consistently displaying blatantly toxic behavior, it’s easy to condemn them…but it’s a lot harder when we’re talking about thinking, feeling, nuanced human beings whose personalities and actions are a blend of genuine sweetness, shadows, and good intentions manifested in inappropriate ways. This is frequently what happens when it comes to discerning protectiveness versus controlling behavior. Good intentions can be demonstrated badly, and it is sometimes difficult to know where the line is between protective behavior and controlling behavior.
The following is an actual anecdote from a real, three-dimensional human being.
“I’m very protective because I’ve been in a lot of dangerous situations in my life and seen life-altering things happen at the drop of a hat, so I get scared that something is going to happen to her. I don’t let her go out at night by herself, and I make sure she checks in with me frequently. It’s something I’m working on.”
-Dave, a real person
We chose this anecdote because it shows that much of the time, actual people are hard to pin down as ‘toxic’ or ‘good guy’. Is this guy exhibiting controlling behavior by controlling when his girlfriend can leave the house? Absolutely. Is he aware that his behavior is problematic? Also yes. Is he working to change it? Yes indeed. Is it ok because he’s working on it? Well…no.
Our brains don’t like nuance. It takes a lot of energy for our brains to accommodate nuance, and our brains are built to conserve energy as much as possible. As such, when we encounter a nuanced circumstance, our instinctual, go-to tendency is to try to put them into boxes of this or that, black or white, good or bad. In the situation detailed above, there are two possible categorizations towards which we might be inclined:
1. This guy is a toxic manipulator. He’s projecting his own past bad situations onto his partner, and he’s even using them as an excuse for his toxic behavior. He’s controlling.
2. This guy is just being protective because his life experience has taught him to that he needs to do that in order to keep loved ones safe. He’s sweet.
When we step back and exert the mental energy needed to accommodate nuance, we can see that the situation above doesn’t conform to just option 1 or just option 2. “Dave” is a well-intentioned person with some maladaptive coping mechanisms that manifest as behavior that is both protective and controlling. Sometimes these two characteristics are intertwined, making it difficult to discern what’s ok and what’s not. So where’s the line? That’s what this article is all about.
The verdict on Dave: Dave is not a bad person, but some of his behavior is indeed controlling, despite his good intentions. His girlfriend needs to gently insist on managing her own schedule, including solo nighttime excursions–and Dave must be ready to accept that, even if it means that he’s going to worry a lot. He and his partner would also benefit from attending couple’s therapy. If these things are not possible for him, it doesn’t mean Dave is a bad guy, but it does mean that he’s not ready to be in a relationship until he works through the trauma that causes him to exhibit controlling behavior.
Now we’re going to move on to the how-to of spotting the difference between controlling behavior (which is unacceptable) and protectiveness (which can be an act of love)–but as we shift into drawing lines between these behaviors, please don’t forget about Dave, and don’t fall into the unhelpful mental trap of categorizing real people as all good or all bad. Also, bear in mind that although in this example, the partner exhibiting controlling behavior was male, people of all genders are capable of problematic and controlling tendencies.
The Differences Between Controlling Behavior Versus Protectiveness
Below, we’re going to examine a few common scenarios that could exemplify either control or protectiveness in romantic relationships.
Concerns about relationships with friends and family
Controlling: “I’m really not a fan of your friend Andrea. I don’t think she likes me. Could you please hang out with her a bit less?”
Protective: “I’ve noticed that Andrea undermines you a lot by making little comments that put you down in a way that seems sort of half-joking and half-serious. Have you noticed that? How do you feel about that friendship?”
Controlling: If the feedback one partner doles out tends to come in the form of near-constant correction or criticism, this is controlling (Bonior, 2015) because it is aimed at changing many things about the other person. For example, controlling behavior in the form of chronic criticism could include the following:
- Someone insisting on exerting a lot of influence over the clothing choices of their partner
- Attempting to ‘help’ a partner break a bad habit like smoking or eating too much sugar by closely monitoring and speaking out about their consumption–without having been asked to do so.
- Making a lot of suggestions about how one’s partner should behave, speak, or otherwise conduct themselves in public
Protective: Constructive feedback is not always critical. The following examples are more protective than controlling:
- I worry about you getting sick someday because of all the cigarettes you smoke. I’m here to help in any way you want if you ever want to try to quit. But I’ll support you no matter what; no pressure.”
Controlling: A controlling person may overlook or try to dictate their partner’s needs. For example, imagine that one person wants to sleep in the same bed every night and the other prefers to sleep alone at least half of the time. If the one who prefers to sleep in the same bed every night were to try to convince their partner to do so more often than is comfortable for that person despite knowing their partner’s preferences, that would qualify in a subtle but real way as overlooking and trying to change the needs of the other person.
Protective: Someone who is protective does the opposite when it comes to needs: They look after the needs of their partner (Curtis, 2022), honor them, and even try to guard them. Protectiveness does not always imply only trying to keep one safe from danger or difficult external circumstances; it can also mean protecting the needs of the other person. Think “I’d love to sleep in your bed tonight, but are you sure that’s ok with you? We’ve slept in the same bed every night this week, and I don’t want you to feel obligated. I’ll be fine either way and want you to know that I’m looking out for your needs here” over “Plleaassee can we sleep in the same bed tonight?”
Rules and Standards
Controlling: Do the rules set by one person only apply to their partner, and not to themselves (Knight, 2022)? Double standards that exemplify this kind of dynamic include:
- One person is allowed to use or go through the phone of the other, but it doesn’t work in the other direction (Knight, 2022) (and no, past transgressions do not
justify the double standard)
- One partner can hang out with whomever they want, but there are some restrictions on who the other is allowed to spend time with
Protective: There isn’t really a want to exemplify an opposite scenario that would be protective. With a partner who is protective but not controlling, there would simply be an absence of double standards like the ones described above.
Controlling: Someone who is exhibiting controlling behavior might have a hard time coping with time spent apart, or with the idea of their partner having a lot of fun without them (Knight, 2022). They might try to insert themselves into social events to which they haven’t been invited, despite the fact that the other party might sometimes want to spend some time spreading their wings as an individual without being in couple mode. A person who has controlling tendencies might falsely interpret this need as a threat to the relationship or as a sign that their partner is losing interest in them.
Protective: A protective partner is ok with their other half regularly spending time away from them (Knight, 2022), cultivating themselves as an individual, and having fun doing so. Again, this comes back to protecting one another’s needs; this is an ability that often stems from a sense of security in oneself. Someone secure is able to protect and respect their partner’s needs, even when those needs don’t involve them or even explicitly involve time away from them.
Remember, real-life situations are often a blend of protective and controlling. It’s up to you and your partner to carefully discern where the line is and to take steps to repair boundaries whenever something crosses over into ‘controlling’ territory. And remember that controlling behavior does not always mean that a person or one’s experience with them is all bad or completely toxic.
A Note on Control and Prenups
Some celebrity prenups are notorious for being more complex and far-reaching than normal prenups. Occasionally, these celebrity prenups include very controlling lifestyle clauses. For example, Jessica Simpson and ex-fiance Tony Romo’s prenuptial agreement stated that Simpson would need to compensate Romo $500,000 for every pound she gained during their marriage. Luckily, these two never actually got married, so the prenup never came into effect–but if it had, a clause like this would have had a pretty low likelihood of enforcement. Anything illegal or unconscionable could invalidate a prenup, and controlling stipulations could sometimes fall into this category. There are also protections against being forced into signing a prenuptial agreement. In order to be considered valid, a prenup cannot be entered into under duress or coercion.
And remember: It’s just as important to recognize controlling tendencies in oneself as it is to be able to set boundaries around them with a partner. Sometimes both partners can exhibit different types of controlling tendencies in different areas of their relationship. Ultimately, the key is to be accountable for oneself, receptive to feedback, and always willing to make adjustments in service of personal growth and strengthening relationships.
Julia Rodgers is HelloPrenup’s CEO and Co-Founder. She is a Massachusetts family law attorney and true believer in the value of prenuptial agreements. HelloPrenup was created with the goal of automating the prenup process, making it more collaborative, time efficient and cost effective. Julia believes that a healthy marriage is one in which couples can openly communicate about finances and life goals. You can read more about us here 🤓 Questions? Reach out to Julia directly at [email protected]