Abusive Relationships: Recognizing Control Tactics in Conflict

couple in an abusive relationship

Navigating conflicts is really a part of all relationships, including healthy ones. But a hallmark of an abusive relationship is when conflict is less about disunity and difference of opinion and it’s more about one person controlling the other.

When an abuser engages in an argument, the goal has nothing to do with “expressing an opinion,” “being heard” or “creating compromise.”

Instead, an abuser works to discredit and silence you because your opinions and complaints are obstacles to his/her will. If you’re wondering if your partner is trying to control you, here is a list of ways that abusers often bully their way through arguments:

  • Sarcasm
  • Ridicule
  • Distorting what you say
  • Distorting what happened in an earlier interaction
  • Sulking
  • Using a tone of absolute certainty and final authority – “defining reality”
  • Interrupting
  • Not listening, refusing to respond
  • Laughing out loud at your opinion or perspective
  • Turning your grievances around to use against you
  • Changing the subject to his grievances
  • Criticism that is harsh, undeserved, or frequent
  • Provoking guilt
  • Playing the victim
  • Smirking, rolling his eyes, contemptuous facial expressions
  • Yelling, out-shouting
  • Swearing
  • Name-calling, insults, put-downs
  • Walking out
  • Towering over you
  • Walking toward you in an intimidating way
  • Blocking a doorway
  • Other forms of physical intimidation, such as getting too close while he’s angry
  • Threatening to leave you
  • Threatening to harm you

Next Steps

If you’re unsure whether these tactics are being used on you – share the above list with a wise, trusted friend who has witnessed your disagreements and ask if they’ve noticed some of these themes. While we’re not suggesting that just because you’ve seen one or two of these in your partner, you’re certainly in an abusive relationship… we are saying that their presence is worth being concerned about and it’s worth exploring with a professional.

If you have questions about whether your relationship is abusive, or if you are considering leaving an abusive relationship, our therapists are trained to help you explore these important questions in a safe, non-threatening environment.

Adapted from “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men” by Lundy Bancroft (2002).

Mindy Pierce, MA , LPC