A Pair of Jealous Boyfriends AKA Red Flags Aplenty

I'm 16 and I'm going through relationship problems that I'm not sure how to handle or what to think of. My boyfriend wants me to change the way I dress because he says I look "slutty." He says he doesn't like me wearing shorts, skirts, dresses or a plain vest top on its own (and I'm quite flat chested so I never show off any cleavage). I'm the type of person who likes wearing what I want. I'm into trends and fashion but now that he's in my life I feel like I'm not allowed to like or wear any of my skirts and dresses in my closet that I love. But even though he says I can wear what I want, he gets pissed off when I do.
sam w replies:

Sparknolee's question continued:

Whenever we're out, he says he sees boys look at me and he wants to punch them. I find this is too far as he even admitted himself he sees "hot girls" when he's out but has assured that he never sees them as a girlfriend. I understand that. Whenever he says he notices boys look at me, I'm also never wearing anything revealing. When I wear jeans and jumpers with a jacket which he says I am dressing as if I'm single.

Same with makeup. I barely wear any, but when I do, he thinks it's because I'm trying to attract other guys. I can't get him to understand the fact that I do it for myself because it makes me feel better. Hhe says I don't understand why I look slutty.

I feel really unhappy that I'm not able to feel good and express myself. I'm never able to win over this situation and make him understand because he's really persistent and I'm someone who can never properly explain things. He always puts me down and I wonder if I am actually wrong because of how much he puts onto me. I don't really feel accepted by him at all because of this and feel as if he doesn't trust me.
Should I change the way I dress for him? What should I do?

My first answer is just this: No. Do not change the way you dress for him.

In fact, I would carefully consider whether staying with him is the best decision for you.

This probably isn't what you were hoping to hear, but I want to be honest with you. I understand that he's your boyfriend, and I imagine that you care about him and that he has qualities that have attracted you to him. But when I read your descriptions of his behavior, my hackles go up in a big way. There are a number of controlling, manipulative actions mentioned, and that makes me worry about the possibility of a relationship that is becoming, or is already, controlling or abusive. I am going to provide you with a checklist at the end of my answer, and I think you should look it over and consider whether there are other signs of control or abuse.

The biggest reason, though, that I recommend a reevaluation is that his behavior is making you unhappy. It's making you feel as though you have to compromise the person you are to keep him from punching people. (Hint: He's the only one responsible for his own behavior, and him trying to make you responsible for his behavior is immature and manipulative.)

He puts you down. He puts you in a position where you feel like you have to constantly justify yourself. Go back and count how many times you insist in your question that what you're doing isn't bad. You already know that what you want to do is okay, and your boyfriend's words and actions sound like they're undermining your confidence in yourself.

The problem here isn't how you are dressing. The problem is that you are with a controlling partner who is starting their control in one of the most common ways controlling or abusive partners do, by trying to control how a partner dresses.

At the end of your letter, you wonder if you are actually in the wrong. I suggest you do not listen to this voice. It belongs to him, not to you. Your voice was the one pointing out the double standard he's using regarding looking/being looked at. Your voice is the one that told you you should write this letter, the one that is saying to you, "This is not an OK way to treat someone." Listen to this smart, sound voice. Because your boyfriend is exhibiting some MAJOR red flags, red flags from his voice, and the way you have internalized what he has said to you and how he has been treating you.

He's trying to control you and he's using jealousy as an excuse for that control. Someone who genuinely cares about and trusts you will leave how you dress up to you. They figure that you know what clothes make you feel happy and confident. They understand that a person who is dedicated to the relationship will be that way whether they're wearing a miniskirt or sweatpants. And yes, even the healthiest of partners may experience a flash of jealousy or insecurity at times. They're only human, after all. But a good partner will deal with those flashes of jealousy by themselves. Or, if they find that those feelings are getting to the point where they jeopardize the relationship, they might ask if you can talk about them together, or, if they're really struggling, they'll seek out help from a counselor or another neutral third party.

What they will not do is pin those emotions on you and you alone, which is what your boyfriend is doing.

He is placing all the responsibility for his feelings on your clothing choices and on you. And, to make this situation even higher on the not-okay-ometer, the actions making him jealous aren't even your doing. You are a woman existing in the world. When you do that, sooner or later some guy on the street (or the train, or the classroom, or that car over there) is going to look at you. Really, at any time, any person, of any gender is going to stare at you for any reason. Some people just like to stare. We can't always know their motives (or if they even have any: people who can see, after all, tend to look at people and things), but we can know that it's not ever something we can actively control, regardless of what we wear, how we act, what we do, and so on.

So, not only is he making you responsible for his emotions; he's making you responsible for the emotions and behaviors of people you don't even know. That is not logical and it's certainly not fair. It is also not part of a healthy relationship.

I think he's probably aware that what he's asking from you, and some of the things he is saying to you, are not OK. Hence those mixed signals where he says you can wear whatever you like and then gets pissed at you for it. He knows that a boyfriend shouldn't force his girlfriend to dress a certain way. But he still wants that control over you. So, he gives himself an out; he says that you can wear whatever you want, so that no one can call him out and say, "Hey, stop telling her what to do. She doesn't tell you how to dress, does she?" But then he makes sure, through his pouting and telling you that you look "slutty", that you know he's unhappy with your choice. And then it's all on you to try and puzzle out whether or not he actually means what he says.

I want you, and everyone else reading this, to know that feeling as though you have to be a mind reader to figure out what will keep your partner from being angry with you is a sign that the relationship is not a good one, and is never something you should have to do or feel like you have to do.

The second big red flag? That double standard. The one where he gets to look at girls because he's a guy and can't help it but you have to alter how you dress to avoid having another guy look at you. It's not clear to me whether this double standard is coming from him alone, or from your beliefs, too, but know that it's not sound. The fact that your boyfriend seems to believe that this is reality indicates to me that he has very different expectations for your behavior versus his in this relationship. It sounds like he wants a relationship where he is free to be human, and be himself, but you have to be perfect - according to his definitions of perfection - and be only who he wants you to be, for him. This is an unrealistic expectation to have for you, and an unfair one to boot. Nobody deserves to be burdened by being someone's perfect partner. Down that road lies stress and the feeling that no matter what decision you make you will never live up to the ideal the person has in their head. And no one can be that perfect partner, either. Someone like this will tend to keep adding on new requirements so even if you try and do everything they ask, you will never win, because they will just come up with new, impossible standards, for you to try and meet.

There's also a second, more subtle double standard here. His emotions are, apparently, enough of a reason for him to act the way he does, but you have to present a well reasoned argument just to be allowed to wear a dress? Nope, nope, nope. This is a classic move unhealthy people use. They demand that you give a fifteen point argument on why you should be allowed to do something that makes you happy, so that they can then spend the next hour poking holes in it. By doing so they hope to a) get you to do what they want and b) make you feel as though they will always be right and you wrong due to their "superior" reasoning skills. This often, sadly, results in a situation where not only do you give in to what they want, but you stop trying to argue for your needs because you feel like it will be pointless.

The final red flag here is the fact that he refuses to let this topic die. It sounds to me like he's going to keep pressuring you and putting you down until you do what he wants. This is not something that a healthy partner does. Good partners do not pressure you to conform to their personal desires. They do not try to wear you down with brooding or browbeat you into submission. They talk with you (without making value judgements like calling you "slutty") and respect your choices and your boundaries, understanding you to be a person all on your own, not just an adjunct to them, or part of who they are.

The other reason that this repeated pressure to do what he wants is a red flag is that this is a type of behavior that can (and usually does) escalate. If he learns that badgering you and making you feel bad eventually results in you doing what he wants, he is going to continue to use that tactic and use it on more aspects of your life. I have a sneaking suspicion that even if you had him make you a list of things it was OK to wear and then followed it to the letter, he would find something else you were doing that was attracting unwanted attention. And then he'd want you to stop doing that. Because there is something going on in his head that has him convinced that he is going to lose you, or that he deserves control over you. And there is nothing you can do to prove to him that these ideas are false. The fact that you can't "win" these arguments with him is evidence of that. I don't think he's looking for reassurance. I think he's looking for obedience.

While we're on the subject of what you're wearing, I want to emphasize that I would be giving you this exact same advice even if your default outfit was a mini-skirt and six-inch heels. Clothing is a guaranteed indicator of exactly one thing: what you feel like wearing that day. One person can wear a low cut top because the weather is hot, another because they feel extra sexy today, and another because that's just the kind of clothes they wear. We like to pretend that clothing is somehow this indicator of intent, that it can send messages that override our behavior or our words. It can't. And that's a fact this guy needs to get through his head.

I also want to pause a moment to discuss the word "slutty." Your boyfriend is using it as an insult, as a means of making you feel bad about yourself. But the fact that he's doing that says a lot more about him than it does about you. He needs a word to describe choices of yours that he doesn't like and, because "slutty" is a trait assigned to women who do not meet societal expectations of behavior, he chooses to use it. Strip it of its context, though, and slutty becomes only a word. So that's how I want you to treat it when he directs it at you; as a word that he thinks, nothing more.

I think you need to reconsider this relationship because it's making you unhappy. We (straight girls in particular) get a lot of messages about how having a boyfriend is a VERY IMPORTANT THING and we should bend over backwards to make a guy happy at the expense of our own well-being. That we shouldn't jeopardize our status of "girl with boyfriend." But, in my experience, this means that a lot of us grow up suppressing that voice in our heads, the one I referred to earlier, that tells us when something is wrong. We smile, shrug our shoulders, say that it's not that big of a deal, we could have it worse. But that voice still tries to get to us, to help us. So we train ourselves to ignore it. And sometimes we get so good at ignoring it that we find ourselves in a position where someone hurts us. Then everyone is confused as to why we didn't see the signs. It's an ugly cycle, and the best way to stop it is to encourage people to listen to that voice when it speaks up.

And that's the ultimate reason why I wanted to answer your question. Not to list all the ways in which your boyfriend is waving red flags. Not to tell you to leave him (although that's something I really encourage you to consider). But to validate the feelings you are having about how this is not the way you deserve to be treated. To tell you that you are a perceptive, intuitive person who is better at making an argument than your boyfriend would like you to believe. To tell you to listen to that voice.

I am going to leave you with a few resources on evaluating relationships, and a few on ending them, should you choose to do so.

But first, I ask that you keep reading. Because the following question demonstrates the next step up in toxic, controlling behavior, one that is usually coming in time when someone starts by trying to control things like how you dress.

LochNess asks:

I have been in a happy relationship with my boyfriend for little over a year and three months. It's been great, we're doing wonderfully except for one recurring problem: his jealousy of me talking to other guys. The way we see it, he has no friends who are girls, so I can't have friends who are guys. It started when he helped me get over my ex, and he provided the push I needed to cease contact with his sorry @$$. But then he asked me to not message guys I met on Omegle, a chat site (who I explicitly made sure were only interested in friendship before conceding to talk, as friends), and recently it got to the point that I told my guy friend from school whom I'd been messaging but never see in person that I couldn't text him any more. I see this as for the betterment of my relationship; my boyfriend emphasized when we fought over it (and these were practically the only times we'd fight) that it was the guy friend I was texting that he didn't trust, NOT me, though I view it as such and don't know what I can do to help with my boyfriend's self-esteem in these matters. He knows I would never cheat on him. However, it probably didn't help that the guy I'd been texting had confided in me about a number of his rather personal relationship problems, including fetishes, and I was giving him advice, as a friend, though many of these things I didn't feel comfortable divulging in my boyfriend. But, he'd look up my messages, would caustically remark on a phrase my guy friend had said that maybe he viewed as overstepping his bounds (I didn't think so and if things got weird I'd certainly tell my friend so), and a fight would ensue. I love my boyfriend very much and can't imagine life without him... but he is not very social and outgoing, and while we do have our own (same-gender!) best friends, neither of us are very social outside of each other, though I may be more friendly and open in general than he is. He's certain that any guy I talk to is flirting with me... why can't he trust me? He has repeated something I have told him before about me not being able to tell if guys are flirting, but guys and girls can be just friends, can't they? If they know I'm off the market...

Before you say it, ending this relationship is not an option. We have promise rings, have consummated love for each other (frequently and no troubles there-- he was my first, and I his, and since then we have grown very comfortable in the art of making love) and I would do anything for him... including giving up my social life, not that it existed in the first place.

Samw replies:
What you have described here is not a loving, healthy relationship.

I think it's great your boyfriend helped you break ties with your ex. And I am sure that, like Sparknolee's boyfriend, he is in many ways thoughtful/kind/sexy/all of the above. I keep emphasizing that point because I don't want to make either of you feel foolish for being with guys who are showing red flags. I believe that you do care for them and that they, in their way, may care for you. But people can be great in some ways and still do really unhealthy things to you. Loving someone, or being loved by them, is not a special shield that means nothing they do to you is ever harmful. We can also love people, but being with them, or with them in a certain way, can be really bad for us.

People who love you will not forbid you from having cross gender friendships. They won't read your messages: they will give you some privacy and space to have your own life. They will trust you to set boundaries with friends based on your comfort level. They will not send mixed signals. Every time he tells you that he knows you'd never cheat, but then READS YOUR TEXT MESSAGES? That's a mixed signal. He is doing the exact opposite of his words. Pay attention to his actions more than his words. They are the actions of someone who does not trust his partner, and who probably does not want or intend to.

I know he keeps insisting to you that it's not you he doesn't trust, it's your male friends. But here's the thing: even if every single guy who he thinks is flirting with you is (and I would say that is not an accurate evaluation of events), he has to trust that you will enforce your own boundaries. From your letter, that sounds like something you do. So he has no reason to be worried.

We can't build a universe where our partner is never attractive to (or attracted to) someone else. All we can do is build a solid, loving relationship to the best of our abilities and maintain it. And, as difficult as it can be to accept, we have to be ready for the possibility that one day our partner will decide to leave, and that it's their right as a human to do so.

Both your boyfriend and Sparknolee's are operating under the assumption that they can construct a reality in which you are theirs and theirs alone. And they've come to the conclusion that the way to do this is to exert more and more control over your lives. This is not okay. This is already scary, and is something we know only gets scarier, because this kind of behavior almost always escalates into more controlling or abusive behavior in time, like physical or sexual abuses.

This desire could be coming from any number of places. It could be insecurity, or anxiety about losing someone they love. It could be the belief that a girlfriend is a possession. It could be a desire to make you as obedient as possible. I don't know. In the end, the intent is less important than the outcome. And that outcome is that you end up feeling untrustworthy and powerless because you can't find the magical words that will reassure these boys of your love.

That's why when both of you ask what you can do to make these guys trust you more my answer is: Nothing. You've tried using your words and have been met with more pressure and more jealousy. It's on your boyfriends, either on their own or with the help of a counselor, to figure out how to get a realistic hold on their emotions. And to get that help and make those changes before getting into, or continuing, any intimate relationships, because as any counselor who works with these kinds of dynamics will tell you, or them, they can't fix this while still in relationships where they have established these patterns of behavior.

Your boyfriend is demonstrating several of the red flags I already mentioned. Trying to control your behavior, the mixed signals, and the placing the blame on you for his emotions. There's also the unwillingness to let the topic come to a resolution, choosing instead to use it as a tool for dredging up fights and making you feel bad. There is also another red flag: isolation.

Red flagness aside, it's not a good idea for couples to reduce their social lives down to only each other (or nearly each other). It means you are less likely to try new things, or form strong, non-romantic ties that make life more interesting. And, if one partner begins to develop a life outside the relationship, the other may feel abandoned or angry. Having a limited social circle also limits your support system in times of need, and makes you less likely to talk to others who can help you see that this is no good, and help you figure out how to only be in relationships that are healthy for you. It can also be very trying to be the only person taking care of someone in the midst of a crisis. Knowing that your partner has someone besides you to turn to for their emotional needs is an invaluable stress reducer. That's why I always advocate having a social life separate from your partner. Love is about making someone a part of your larger life, not shrinking your life down to make them happy.

But in this case, where your boyfriend is deliberately telling you that you can't see/contact your friends, and seems to be discouraging you from having an outside life, it is not a good sign. It means that he thinks you should be able to get everything you need from him. And, conversely, that you should be able to fulfill all of his needs. That may sound romantic now, but it's setting you up for some nasty stuff down the line. When we set someone up as our everything, only to discover that they have flaws, limitations, or needs not related to us, it can make us resentful and frustrated in their direction. Those emotions are not the foundation of a happy, healthy relationship.

Now, I want to address the reasons you gave me for why breaking up is not an option.

You say you have promise rings and that this means you can't break-up. I'm not going to tell you that the promises you make when you're young are insignificant and therefore not relevant. I hate it when people say that. But promising to stay with someone doesn't mean you have to stay with them if they treat you badly. We tend to think of promise rings (and engagement/wedding rings) primarily as an agreement to be loyal to our partners. Yet within that promise is also an agreement to do right by each other and respect each other. Your boyfriend stopped doing that the moment he started reading your messages. He's already not holding up his end of the bargain you two made.

You also say that your being together sexually means you can't end things. I think now is a good time for a reminder that having sex with someone is not a binding contract to be with them forever. Some of us -- albeit very few -- marry the first person we sleep with, some of us marry the sixtieth. Having great sexual chemistry with someone is not an indicator that they are a good partner for you overall. So, when you're evaluating this relationship, I want you to remove sexual history from the "reasons to stay" column.

You mention you don't mind losing your social life because you never had one to begin with. Since you are planning on a future with this guy, I want you to imagine something for me. Let's assume he continues in his present jealous habits. What happens when you find interests and hobbies that involve mix gender groups? What happens when you have a job with male coworkers? What happens when you meet other guys in your school, or online, who seem cool and who you enjoy spending time with? Because all of those things are going to happen. Is he going to accompany you everywhere, growling at any guy who gets within five feet of you? Is he going to tell you that, sorry, even though you love doing thing x he just doesn't trust the guys who do it and he wants you to stay home and never leave?

I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I think you should seriously examine those possibilities. Because if you do what your boyfriend wants in regards to your friends and you stay with him for life, that is an outcome that exists. I said this to Sparknolee and I'll say it again to you: the type of controlling behavior your boyfriend is exhibiting usually escalates. People who are controlling don't tend to relinquish that control as time goes on. They tighten it; they broaden it. That's why I pointed Sparknolee to your question, and why I am constructing these hypotheticals for you to examine. I want you to understand that once a toxic partner has gotten you to agree to one of their demands, they are going to keep pushing to see what other behaviors they can get you to stop (or start) doing. It won't end with any one thing you comply with. It never does.

You say you would do anything for him. If I could abolish any mode of thinking, the belief that loving someone means doing anything for them would be high on the list. We have this idea that we must prove our love to others by whatever methods they choose. That we should give up anything for love, because that person is all we'll ever need. This is incorrect. Yes, love is about compromise, about supporting each other even when things are awful, about being willing to take someone else's emotions into account when making decisions and demands.

But those compromises? They take the feelings of both partners into the matter. What's happening here is that your desires and feelings are seen as less important than his. That's not compromise, that's control. That's not love, it's subservience. If you're going to spend any part of your life with someone, you want them to see your feelings as equal in importance to theirs.

I also sense that you are not 100% convinced that what he is doing is OK. I think you have that internal voice I mentioned, and that it's flashing little warning messages into your mind. But I think you're trying to shut this voice out and forgive his controlling actions because of love. This is not going to do you, or him, any favors in the long run. It's one thing to believe that a person is good deep down, but another thing entirely to let them keep being toxic in your direction with no attempts on their end to change. It's one of the ways people end up staying in abusive relationships, by telling themselves that the person is really good underneath it all, that if they are patient and kind enough the person will stop being awful.

With that in mind, I want you to honestly evaluate your relationship and consider the odds that your boyfriend will improve his behavior. In my opinion, this relationship should only be continued if he can demonstrate to you that he actually isn't toxic and controlling. That means no more reading your messages. No more forbidding you from speaking to your guyfriends. It means working to recalibrate his mental alarms so that they don't go off every time you talk to a boy.

If he can't do that? If he doubles down on his control or tries to insist that having boundaries means you don't really love him? Then he's not a person who deserves your forever, nor your now.

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