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When you hurt someone you love, you’re letting them know that they are not that important in your life. After all, why would you hurt someone you care about?

If you believe you are the emotionally abusive one in the relationship and you want to heal and evolve from that behavior, this article will be a good start for you.

In a relationship, control is the opposite of love. The more you control, the more love you lose.

Some people reach out to me and ask the question, “How can I stop hurting my partner?” or “How do I stop causing pain to a friend or a family member?”

When I first began discussing emotional abuse on my podcast, The Overwhelmed Brain, I didn’t foresee people would reach out to me asking me how to stop their own hurtful behaviors. It’s been quite a revelation to hear from those who recognize these tendencies and earnestly want to change and evolve into someone better than they are today.

This article isn’t necessarily aimed at the survivors of emotional abuse, though it may prove beneficial to you if you are currently in an emotionally abusive relationship. My focus here is on those who find themselves perpetrating these harmful behaviors—those who realize that their actions are damaging and want to make a change.

I’m so grateful to see a rise in self-awareness in the minds of emotionally abusive people; it suggests that there’s a collective awakening happening. Some people are realizing they don’t want to inflict pain on their partners, friends, or family. They want loving relationships yet struggle with behaviors that show the opposite.

Firstly, acknowledging that there’s a problem is a commendable step. And while we’ll explore the subsequent steps to healthier behavior shortly, I want to emphasize the importance of connecting with others without exerting control over them. Believe it or not, for some people, that’s challenging to do.

I can relate; in my past relationships, I wanted to control outcomes to suit my desires. I became adept at manipulating conversations and situations to my advantage, coaxing those I loved to act in ways that served my interests.

This control extended to making them feel how I wanted them to feel. I wanted their love, but I wanted it my way. I did things like make them feel guilty for things like going out with their friends without me or even talking to their own family. I believed if I made them feel bad or guilty, they’d rethink their behaviors and do what I wanted them to do.

That’s a dark aspect of abusive behavior: Subtly making someone feel bad for not acquiescing to your wishes.

I’ve been there, employing passive-aggressive tactics to elicit guilt and compliance. Reflecting on my past marriage, I regretfully recall how I made my wife feel guilty about her eating habits and other behaviors, hoping to change her to fit my expectations.

Thankfully, she had the courage to leave, which was a pivotal moment that spurred my healing journey. It made me realize that without change, I wouldn’t be able to maintain any relationship. It was the wake-up call that my behavior was the issue, not her.

Sharing this personal story is my way of offering a perspective from someone who has been on both sides—the abuser and the one who has healed.

If you’re reading this and recognize these patterns in your interactions, know that it is possible to move beyond this toxic behavior. You can evolve and learn to interact with people you care about without trying to control them.

In my Healed Being program, I teach members to ask themselves the following before doing or saying anything to someone in their life: “Is what I’m about to say or do an attempt to control the other person?”

Asking that question helps to give you pause before you say or do something hurtful. It’s how you learn what actions are controlling and what aren’t. Defining control is key. Control, to me, is observing someone and thinking, “I want that person to act according to my wishes.”

Even if you don’t explicitly mention their thoughts and behaviors, the underlying intent of “I want that person to do what I want” implies control.

After asking yourself the above question, it’s critical to follow it up with self-reflection, asking yourself, “Will what I’m about to do achieve my goal of control?

This self-inquiry is a powerful tool. It forces you to confront the reality of your intentions. Are you genuinely trying to promote a positive outcome for both parties, or are you seeking to manipulate the situation for your own benefit?

Let’s reframe this. If you find that you say or do hurtful things, before you act or speak, consider whether what you’re about to do is an attempt to influence someone to fulfill your personal desires.

This self-reflection is crucial for understanding your own thought processes. You might rationalize your intentions by saying you want someone to quit an unhealthy habit, like smoking or eating junk food, or even to do something for you, like rubbing your feet.

But the real question is, does the intent behind your desire lead to an action or words from you?

And this is the point where you must be incredibly vigilant about your next move. Being observant of your own behavior and diving deep into your thought process is vital. Ask yourself, “Is my next action or word meant to change them? Is it an attempt at control? Am I trying to make them do something they wouldn’t naturally do on their own?”

Take the example of wanting someone to quit smoking. Rather than addressing the issue in a supportive way, you might be tempted to make them feel guilty every time they light up a cigarette by giving them a disapproving look. It’s not a look of love but one of disdain or even disgust.

You might argue that it’s the behavior you dislike, not the person. But what does that person feel when you look at them that way? They likely feel judged, even hated.

It’s fair to express your dislike of the behavior directly by saying, “I hate that behavior. Please stop.” Though, saying it that way may not give you the results you’re hoping for. But it’s a straightforward expression of your feelings, unlike passive-aggressive comments that aim to guilt them into compliance.

Continuing with the smoking example, it’s common in relationships where one partner dislikes the other’s smoking habits. When that look of disapproval appears, it’s often followed by an atmosphere of tension. The person who wants their loved one to quit smoking might be angry for a while after that person smokes, then friendly again when they don’t.

The smoker might even try to hide their smoking to avoid conflict, knowing it upsets you, but they may build resentment because they have to hide. They might choose not to do these things altogether to avoid upsetting you. But, again, they can grow to resent you over a short period of time since they’d be altering their behavior under duress.

Control can create a rift in the relationship, eroding love and connection. Wanting to control someone is the antithesis of love. For a controlling person, it can be challenging because they want the other person to not only do what they desire but also to want it themselves. In other words, the non-smoker who wants the smoker to stop smoking wants the smoker to want to stop smoking.

This is the aspect of control some people often seek but cannot truly have, as the desire to do something must come from within a person, not from our imposition on them. Attempting to shape someone’s desires to match your own is a surefire way to create a divide. It chips away at love, gradually wearing it down.

It reminds me of an article I wrote on judgment being the ultimate destroyer of relationships. When we look at someone and wish they wouldn’t engage in a particular behavior, our critical eye can cast a shadow over them. Whether we express our disapproval through words or actions, overtly or subtly, we communicate our feelings about their choices, even though they have their own desires and ways of being.

You can’t control someone else’s desires. Letting that go is vital.

The attempt to govern someone’s wants is acting like a master over their will. There are implications of trying to dominate another person’s will. I look at it this way: if someone has a passion for reading and you tell them, “I don’t want you to read anymore. It bothers me,” and then you spend most of your relationship trying to stifle their desire to read, you’re only driving the wedge deeper. This comes in the form of giving them disapproving looks, irritating them on purpose, being late on purpose when they expected you earlier, being passive-aggressive, or even withholding affection or intimacy if you’re in a romantic relationship with them.

What happens is that you start to replace their internal reward of reading with punishment. Then, they begin to associate their desire to read with negative consequences. As a result, they may start to lose their desire to read because it’s met with punishment rather than pleasure.

This is what controlling people do: they turn internal rewards into punishments. The person on the receiving end of this emotional manipulation faces an internal struggle – they want to engage in their desired activity but fear repercussions from the other person.

If they give in, they risk facing disapproval or anger from the person whose love and support they crave. In turn, this can lead them to suppress their own desires.

This behavior is a form of emotional abuse, where one person tries to enslave the desires of another. It’s a deep and complex issue and it’s definitely worth exploring if you find yourself doing these behaviors.

If you suspect you might be guilty of this, ask yourself whether you’re trying to alter someone’s desire or the things they naturally want to do. If the answer is yes, then you’ve recognized something important about yourself.

This isn’t the beginning of a healing process; it’s an opportunity to ponder and let these thoughts percolate in your mind. As you reflect, you’ll become more aware of who you are, how you’ve behaved, and your patterns—some of which you may not like, want to change, or feel indifferent about.

Understanding yourself can be quite revealing, especially when you start to see the complexities of your own behavior in relationships. It’s like holding up a mirror and seeing not just your reflection but the nuances of your character.

And for the person on the other side, the one feeling the weight of your actions, they might not even have the words to describe the discomfort they’re experiencing. They just sense that something’s off, that there’s a strain in the relationship that they can’t quite pinpoint.

They’re unlikely to think, “Oh, they’re just trying to suppress my desires.” That level of insight often comes from deep reflection and a commitment to personal growth, something I’ve dedicated a lot of time to myself. After all, it took me a long time to recognize that there are behaviors that nourish relationships and others that lead to their demise.

By examining your own actions, you can start to grasp the nature of your behavior, even if you’re not ready to change it yet. That initial step towards self-awareness can be daunting, but it’s crucial.

I remember when I used to try to control the people in my life; it was fear that drove me. The fear that if I didn’t control, I wouldn’t get what I wanted. And if I didn’t get what I wanted, I wouldn’t feel loved. I’d be left alone, abandoned.

Living with that kind of fear means your actions are often not the healthiest. Yet, there’s a powerful choice to be made here:

Do the right thing regardless of the fear.

That’s terrifying, I know, but it’s also the path to healthy behavior. It’s a declaration that you’re not here to control others; you’re here to focus on and face your own challenges.

Focusing on and tackling your own issues is the starting point. It’s not the entire solution, but it’s the beginning of understanding that your challenge with another person is really about you and your lack of acceptance with who they are. When you dislike something someone else is doing, it’s because it bothers you. And if something bothers you, that can lead to a desire to control.

But let me clarify: I’m not talking about people doing reactive abuse. Some people have found the only way to get through to an emotionally abusive person is to become just like them, like it’s the only language they know. That is a different scenario. But the same principle of focusing on yourself still applies. When you shift the focus from trying to control them to working on yourself, you’re taking a step in the right direction.

Let me be very clear, though. If your actions have been overbearing and your partner or someone else you care about is unhappy because of how you’ve been behaving, and deep down, you feel remorseful that your behavior is the root of their unhappiness, then it’s crucial to understand that without change, you risk losing their love. And you stand to lose them from your life altogether.

It’s vital to grasp that if you’re engaging in behavior that isn’t loving but is controlling, you need to sear into your memory that control is the antithesis of love. Trying to control someone isn’t loving them; it’s preventing them from being their true selves and supporting their happiness. It’s about controlling them to fit your needs, which is, quite honestly, selfish.

It’s essential to find a way to meet your own needs and desires without forcing the other person to conform to them.

Here’s the bottom line when it comes to learning to stop being hurtful to someone you love:

Support their happiness, even if you don’t agree with the steps they take to be happy. When you do this, they begin to see you in a whole new light. You become the most attractive person to them in many ways. You become their rock, their unwavering support system, someone they can trust and depend on, someone they look at with admiration and think, “Wow, you stood by me through it all. Even when you didn’t agree with my choices, you were there for me.”

Can you imagine how meaningful being that supportive is to someone? You’ll naturally become their biggest fan. That’s the natural outcome when you allow someone to be themselves, to say, “I’m going to let you be you, and whatever you decide, I support it.”

The hard part is accepting their decisions, even if it means they choose not to be with you. That’s still a form of support, that’s still love, and it’s definitely not control.

If you can practice this more with the people closest to you—the ones we often try to control—you’ll discover what they truly want. You’ll uncover their genuine desires and the depth of your connection rather than operating from a place of fear that they might make a choice that doesn’t include you.

Trying to control someone into loving you the way you want is a futile endeavor because control does not equate to love.

Do You Feel What They Feel?

Empathy should be the driving force behind how you interact with others. If you’re controlling, emotionally abusive, or manipulative, then learning to empathize with the person you’re hurting is going to be the path out of these behaviors.

When you pause to consider whether your actions are an attempt to exert control, take a moment to ask yourself if you are being empathetic. You do that by imagining being in the shoes of the person you’re trying to influence.

For instance, if you’re a smoker who finds peace in the ritual of lighting up a cigarette, enjoying those precious minutes to unwind and connect with yourself, how would you feel if someone tried to strip that away from you?

If I pretend to be a smoker in that situation, I can almost feel resentment bubble up! The nerve of someone else trying to snatch away that moment of solace from me. It stirs up a storm inside me where I’m torn between affection for this person and a rising sense of defiance. I would think, ‘Why can’t they accept me as I am? Why do I have to fight someone else to do what I want to do with my life?’

This internal tug-of-war can be maddening. It’s like being trapped in a no-win situation. To shield yourself, you might build up emotional defenses, adding a layer of armor around your heart, which only serves to create distance between you and the person who’s causing you pain with their controlling tendencies or guilt-tripping.

I’m not suggesting that we give carte blanche for others to act recklessly or harmfully. Smoking may be harmful, but it is their choice as another adult. But clearly, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, such as if they betray you or insult you. Those actions are often part of a larger pattern of emotional abuse, and such relationships are virtually impossible to maintain without significant changes and the development of empathy.

This and other situations like it are about the everyday dynamics and even the significant issues in relationships that stem from a desire to control. The friction caused by wanting to change someone’s behavior or beliefs is like to the polarization we see in politics. It’s astonishing how we struggle to let others hold their own opinions and values, pressuring them to think like us, to be on our side, to conform.

In bypassing empathy and compassion, we inflict pain, push people away, and plant the idea that we are not a safe haven.

If you’re the type who leans toward control, and it’s evident you’re not allowing others to be themselves, you risk losing them—emotionally, physically, or entirely.

What I’ve learned through my own relationships is that when I choose to release my grip and let people be themselves, making choices I don’t necessarily agree with, I forge the strongest connections of my life.

Instead of being judgmental and manipulative, I embrace their right to be who they are and to hold their own beliefs without trying to persuade them otherwise. And sometimes, they stop the very behavior I oppose anyway!

This is the paradox of control. When you let go, people often make the choices you wanted them to make in the first place because they no longer feel their independence and autonomy are under siege. They no longer feel the need to resist.

As humans, we naturally resist when we feel our freedoms are being encroached upon. We tend to make different choices, almost in defiance. But when we’re given the space to make our own decisions, with the assurance that we’re loved regardless, it empowers us to assess our own lives. It allows us to conduct our own analysis and to find solutions that resonate with us without the pressure of external judgment.

This is the essence of trusting the process—having faith in others to make choices that serve them until perhaps they realize those choices don’t serve them after all.

Back to the example of being in a relationship with a smoker when you dislike smoking. Rather than attempting to change your partner’s habits, you turn the focus inward and ask yourself, “Do I want to live with a smoker?”

If the answer is no, you make decisions that are right for you, whether that means leaving the relationship or creating distance during their smoking times. It’s not about exerting control over your partner; it’s about taking responsibility for your own happiness.

It’s perfectly fine to express your feelings and to let your partner know that smoking bothers you without demanding change. This can open up a dialogue where your partner might decide to quit, not because of an ultimatum, but because they see the value in it for themselves.

On the flip side, if they enjoy smoking and have no intention of quitting, you’re faced with a decision:
Can you accept this aspect of your partner?

It’s not about assigning blame; it’s about recognizing what you can and cannot live with.

Anger doesn’t serve any purpose here; after all, it’s their choice to smoke, just as you have your own preferences and habits. Expecting someone to change their intrinsic desires under threat of losing your love or support is a form of coercion. It’s not conducive to a healthy relationship.

Instead, we should strive to empathize, to understand how we would feel if our own choices were under attack. For me, it all boils down to the adage, “live and let live.”

Important: If you’ve discovered that you are an emotionally abusive person and would like to change that about yourself, sign up for the life-changing Healed Being program over at

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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