5 Subtle Signs You Might Be In A Toxic Relationship

It's not always quite what you think it is.

Relationships and dating are complicated and very individual things that a loooot of people are going to have very different opinions on. Some couples focus on trying to keep their communication really open and calm all the time, while others prefer to go away to think before coming back to try to resolve an issue. (Very helpful for not getting too wound up about the small stuff.)

Most of us probably think we have a handle on how we’d like to be treated, and how we should expect to be treated by others. Not in a “he needs to buy me the Chanel bag for my birthday,” kinda way, but knowing relationships should be positive, supportive, and mutually respectful. Sometimes the signs of a toxic relationship can be a little more subtle though… it’s not always characterised by violence or obvious things like someone yelling and screaming at you.

Coercive control is one of the more insidious ways that people can suffer in relationships, and it’s often women in relationships with men who face it. Basically, it’s a type of domestic abuse where a partner uses emotional, psychological and other non-physical abuse to intimidate and control their partner.

If that seems kind of vague and broad, we’ve broken down five signs of a toxic relationship and how they might fly under the radar of what you think abuse really is. 

1. They frame controlling behaviour as “loving” you *so much*

Most people, when they’re in a relationship are pretty pleased if their partner is head over heels for them. After all, who doesn’t want to be loved? Where it gets toxic and a probable warning sign is if someone is using their “love” for you to try to control you.

For example, constantly checking in and asking where you are every day. While it might seem like concern, it can also be a way of tracking your movements. Or perhaps you have a disagreement and you want to spend some time away to cool off. If they immediately start begging you to forgive them and say they can’t be without you, that they love you too much to be apart and they’re going to harm themselves if you go, it might be a sign you’re in an unhealthy controlling relationship.

2. They use the excuse of “openness” and “trusting each other” to manipulate you

So we all share a Netflix login with our mum, or a Stan login with our friends—totally normal right? If your partner or boyfriend starts suggesting you share *more* than that, it’s probably a sign they’re trying to monitor or control you. It can sometimes be framed as sharing a social media account for “convenience,” or knowing the passcode to your phone for “emergencies.”

Let’s make it clear right now, trusting someone has nothing to do with giving them your login details or passwords. That goes for your financial stuff too! Would you give your coworker you’ve worked with for a year the login to your email address? No. So why would you do it with a partner?

3. They try to advise you not to pursue your goals or always discourage you

It’s natural for us to look to our friends and romantic partners for advice. After all, life is long and there are so many challenging decisions to make about school, university, where to study, what careers to pursue. Sometimes we get dumb ideas in our heads and that’s okay! No stress if your very niche baby-goat-yoga-studio combined with a cafe that only sells hot chocolate business idea doesn’t work out!

However, if your partner constantly shoots down your ideas, or tries to stop you pursuing, say, the nursing degree you’re really interested in, that could be a sign of a toxic relationship and a form of coercive control. If they make you feel stupid, or like you’re not capable enough or tell you to “be realistic,” it might be a sign you need to reconsider the relationship.

4. They limit your contact with friends, family or support networks

A partner not wanting to hang out with your friends is one thing. We all have some friends of friends we get along with better than others. Constantly wanting to be alone together and never hang out with anyone else is a very different matter though. How does your partner react when you spend time with your friends? Do they understand that friendships are an important and nourishing source of support? Or do they think you should be totally “satisfied” and only want to spend time with them?

Another way this form of coercive control can manifest is by moving your life very far away from where your family and friends are or not letting you drive or catch transport by yourself to see them because they want you to be “safe”.

5. They want to you to be an ideal “perfect” version of you… that they decided on

A good relationship, ideally, helps everyone involved in it feel like they’re developing into their best self. For example, encouraging each other to try new things, learn new skills or even just get comfier in their skin. Where this becomes coercive control is when someone is hell-bent on turning you into an idealised or “perfect” version of yourself.

Maybe that looks like only wanting you to eat certain foods to be “healthy” or pestering you to go to the gym a tonne. It could be suggesting you dress a certain way, or telling you they like you best when your hair is the way *they* want it, regardless of your own personal style. All of this is a form of coercive control and manipulation. Even if it’s hard to see because they “want the best” for you. It’s not okay at all, and if you feel like you’re losing your identity in a relationship it could be a sign you’re struggling with coercive control.

So what can we do about these insidious forms of abuse? Coercive control is actually illegal in a number of countries including Scotland, the UK, Ireland and Wales, but not yet in Australia. If you want to help change this, sign this petition calling on the government to make coercive control a crime. It could help change the lives of thousands of women.

If you or anyone you know needs help or advice, contact 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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