The Dangers Of Being Overprotective In A Relationship

Experts explain the damaging effects of this behavior.

How being overprotective in a relationship can be a form of emotional abuse.

In many relationships, especially when partners are living together, each person can fall into different “roles” in the relationship. One may be in charge of paying certain bills, the other grocery shops or takes responsibility to care for a pet, etc. These separate contributions can help maintain a balanced, trusting, and healthy partnership. However, if your S.O. tends to assume a role of authority in most areas of your shared life — or even your own life — they might be bordering the line of overprotection.

Although there are plenty of ways in which you and your partner can care for each other and ensure mutual safety and well-being, being overprotective in a relationship can sometimes fall into the category of emotional abuse. “When a partner limits the other in any way for their own sake and selfishness, it has passed the threshold of abuse,” licensed psychologist David Tzall, Psy.D., tells Bustle. “It is also abusive when issues of control, submission, and dominance are in play.”

Does your partner sometimes dictate how much time you can spend with family or friends, or do they ever demand to know where you are or what you’re doing whenever you’re apart? If so, there’s a chance that they are engaging in overprotective behaviors. While they may not intentionally try to harm you in this way, experts say that there are many ways in which overprotection can be abusive.

Overprotection In A Relationship


Like many forms of emotional abuse, overprotection can gradually build over time and is sometimes difficult to spot in your own relationship. Because of this, it’s important to understand some of the common signs and behaviors that exist when a partner is being overly protective.

Typically, according to Tzall, an overprotective partner’s goal for their behavior is to gain control over the other in a variety of ways. Each behavior is dependent on the relationship, the partners themselves, and the reasons the overprotective partner is that way. Tzall says this can manifest in your partner wanting to stop you from keeping your own money in your bank account, limiting how much you’re able to do without them, cutting you off from family or friends, or even preventing you from having a job.

According to Jaci Lopez Witmer, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, an overprotective partner can also try to monitor you most or all of the time and become jealous or even possessive in many scenarios. It’s all to gain a sense of control; while partners often share their locations with each other for safety reasons, Witmer notes that a partner who is overprotective would abuse that privilege and use it for constant supervision.

Why A Partner Might Be Overprotective

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While it may appear that a partner is only overprotective because of their feelings of jealousy or insecurity, it isn’t always that simple. Tzall says that there are a multitude of reasons that could cause this behavior. “It’s important to note that there is a line between overprotectiveness and it crossing the border to abusive behavior. An overprotective person might simply be hypervigilant about you and the relationship,” he says. “They also might have the best intentions and are not looking to limit you, but keep you safe based on their perceptions of safety. Whether it is abusive or not, it has more to do with the overprotective person than the other partner.” Your partner may have concern for your safety and believe that they are acting in your best interest, but be indirectly crossing a line into emotional abuse.

Your partner’s past history might also have an influence on whether they engage in overprotective behaviors. “One reason could be that the partner has a history of trauma or abuse, and another could be that the partner is very insecure — perhaps due to past relationship loss and rejection — and has a lot of anxiety about losing the relationship,” Witmer tells Bustle. “They might also be possessive, manipulative, and controlling based on a mix of their nature and personal history that shaped them.” It could have been their parents or caregivers, or simply deep-rooted insecurity from other past trauma, so understanding your partner’s potential reasons for being overprotective might help to put their behavior into perspective. That being said, it’s still crucial to acknowledge that it can easily cross the line into emotional abuse territory.

Effects Of Overprotection On A Partner

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If you or someone you know has a partner who’s overprotective, there are a number of ways that this behavior can affect you, ranging from subtle to outright dangerous. “The overprotectee can likely experience a diminished sense of their value and confidence,” says Tzall. “They may grow to view themselves as less than and that they have to stay with the overprotector with the mindset, ‘Who else would want them?’” The person being overprotected can also develop learned helplessness — a state that occurs after a person has repeatedly experienced a stressful situation, Tzall explains. “The person develops a belief that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they submit.” Once someone is in this situation, Tzall says, they’ll often surrender to the abuse and do nothing to help themselves or remedy the problem.

As Tzall previously mentioned, an overprotective partner may have the best intentions, which can lead them to believe they’re doing what is best for their partner. This can lead them to have a lot of anxiety over the safety and well-being of their partner and the state of the relationship, causing major conflict, Witmer says. “The overprotective partner may also be constantly worried about their partner, which can lead to arguments and tension,” she adds.

Effects Of Overprotection On A Relationship

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Beyond the ways in which overprotection can harm a partner, it can also have damaging effects on the relationship itself. Because of the overprotective partner’s focus on control, Tzall says that the relationship will lack trust and can foster an unequal power dynamic. The victimized partner’s needs can’t be met, and they’ll feel stuck in the relationship as they have already surrendered their power.

“The couple can grow apart. The relationship is almost like a zombie where it keeps moving but no life force is being generated,” Tzall says. “It also limits both parties in that they don’t learn from the experience of rupture and repair.” When there’s a rupture between two people, their connection becomes stronger after it’s repaired. But if the rupture turns into power, the people in the relationship don’t learn to correct this behavior, he explains.

Why Overprotection Is Abusive

Despite the possibility that they may be trying to care for you, engaging in overprotective behaviors can trump the partner’s intention. “While they may view it as a need to protect, their partner may experience it as controlling and suffocating,” Witmer says. “As that pattern repeats and deepens, there may be emotional abuse, as well as even physical abuse in some circumstances. When one person tries to control every aspect of someone else’s life and/or isolate them from the rest of their support system, this is considered emotional abuse.”

The biggest component to remember, Tzall says, is your choice in these scenarios. “[Overprotection] becomes abusive when consent is not observed,” he says. “Consent is important because this is how partners communicate that they are aware of what is going on and agree to what is happening. When consent is gone, then one partner is acting solely in their best interest without regard for how it hurts the other.” While your partner may think that they are caring for you by taking control, if they aren’t respecting your agency, that is abusive.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit


David Tzall, Psy.D., licensed psychologist

Jaci Witmer Lopez, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist