Everyone should feel safe in a relationship, and taking your partner’s safety seriously is very important. For many women, safety planning is the scariest part of dating. Finding someone who is protective can feel nice at first. But sometimes that changes.
As a therapist, I often work with people who aren’t sure how to feel when their boyfriend “protects” them. They feel uncomfortable, but their partner is “sweet,” “caring,” and “attentive.” Shouldn’t they be happy?
Are you concerned that your boyfriend is taking “protective” a bit too far? That’s a warning sign that your boundaries are being crossed.
If you find yourself in that in-between state, don't worry. Keep reading and see if any of these signs apply to your relationship.
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In a healthy relationship, being protective is about working with your partner regarding safety and security in the relationship. Partners communicate about their concerns. They listen to and respect boundaries, even when there is a disagreement.
They trust their partner’s judgment.
The dictionary definition of overprotective as behavior tells a different story. The definition is “to protect (someone or something) more than is necessary or reasonable.”
Professionally, I define overprotective as being more concerned with things you're scared of than any real threat to you and your relationship. These behaviors cross your boundaries, which can leave you feeling hurt and anxious.
In my line of work, I see a lot of insecure and jealous people. I guide them to find tools and use skills to understand what they feel and communicate with their partners. In most cases, that helps them recognize unrealistic expectations and reduce overprotective behavior.
For a lot of us, it’s expected that a man or masculine partner will be protective. We look for someone who will help us feel safe and confident to be ourselves.
There is nothing inherently toxic or abusive about protective behavior.
However, an overprotective boyfriend is often acting on feelings of insecurity in a relationship1, not love and connection. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. But it doesn’t mean that he does, either.
Look out for the following signs that your protective boyfriend is crossing your boundaries.
During the honeymoon phase of a relationship, you would expect to spend a lot of time and energy on your relationship. This is the time where your connection is growing as you get to know one another. Once the honeymoon phase passes, it’s natural for relationships to stabilize.
But what if he doesn’t seem to get the hint that you need some space? If you talk to him about needing personal space without results, it’s possible that he’s crossing some of your boundaries.
It’s natural to want to touch your partner. Touching is relaxing and improves connection2. But not everyone feels comfortable with that all of the time.
Do you find yourself wanting to let go of his hand, but he just picks it up again? Do you find that he touches you more than you’re comfortable with? Have you mentioned the problem multiple times, without results?
It is not unreasonable to expect your boyfriend to honor your personal space. If he’s not respecting physical boundaries, he may be crossing other lines, too.
If you invite your boyfriend over, you’re inviting him into your safe space3. It can be a big step and requires trust.
Do you feel anxious when he’s at your apartment because you expect him to snoop around? Has your boyfriend ever gone into your bag without permission? Do you feel like they would try to go through your phone if they had the opportunity?
What he has access to should be on your terms. It’s one thing to become familiar with your partner’s space, it’s another to cross boundaries when it comes to privacy. Do you feel comfortable letting him into your safe space?
Spending more and more time together is normal, but so is spending time alone. Even married couples need their space. Having time to yourself helps you stay an individual with your own friends, interests, and hobbies.
Has your partner ever invited himself to things you’re doing? Do you never have time to yourself because he’s always around? Does it seem like he’s trying to take up all of your time?
Spending time with him is up to you. It’s not unhealthy to spend time apart.
When I think of how we experience emotions, I consider jealousy a fear of losing what we have, mixed with anger that motivates us to prevent losing that. Jealousy often reflects insecurities about how a person sees themselves. For many people, there is a fear of not being enough4 to keep a partner if “someone better” comes along.
Jealousy is a natural emotion, and on its own, it’s not toxic. It is just an indicator that someone has a need that isn’t met. The person experiencing jealousy can deal with it by speaking with their partner, a trusted friend, a mentor, or even a mental health professional.
With someone who is being “overprotective”, jealousy often shows itself as trust issues. The person has a hard time trusting their partner and other people.
There’s nothing wrong with checking in with yourself and your boyfriend for reassurance about your relationship. Insecurity about exes is a common hurdle for couples to address.
But there is a difference between feeling anxious and discussing it together and making accusations that you haven’t let go of the past.
Does your partner get angry when you mention your ex or your ex’s friends? Do you feel the need to explain that you are not interested in your ex constantly? Does it feel like you have to warn your friends not to speak about certain people?
You broke up with your ex for a reason. You chose to date your boyfriend for a reason.
If he doesn’t trust that you’re in the relationship because you want to be with him, is that because of what you’re doing, or his own insecurities?
We tend to spend time with people we care about and share values with. Sometimes friends don't see eye to eye, but we generally get along.
Your boyfriend doesn’t need to be just as close to your friends as you are. At the same time, he shouldn’t hate your friends.
Does your partner accuse your bestie of getting between you? Do they assume your friends are trying to set you up with someone else? When you tell him you want to spend time with friends, does he warn you that they’re trying to steal you away from him?
If he has legitimate concerns about your friends not respecting your relationship, he needs to speak with you about them. Your friends have been there for you. Are you really comfortable with him bad-mouthing them?
If you don’t have a hostile work environment, it’s likely that you have one or two people you work closely with. These relationships help us to be more productive, pass the time, and even enjoy being at work.
Do you have to defend yourself for mentioning your work-wife too often? Does he accuse the guys on your team of having hidden intentions? Does your partner suggest you need to find somewhere else to work?
Hopefully, you feel safe, secure, and comfortable at your job. If that’s the case, but your boyfriend still isn’t happy, ask yourself if it’s about your career growth or his relationship insecurity.
Being close to your family is something special. If you and your boyfriend are serious, then you’re probably interested in combining your families. Differences in how the two of you were raised might come up, but overall, this is an exciting time.
Is he making hostile comments about your parents? Does he complain when you take time to spend with a sibling or cousin? Is he constantly pointing out how they “hate” him, even when everyone does their best to include him?
Merging families by starting your own takes work, even when everyone gets along. Is your boyfriend standing in the way of that because your family makes him feel insecure?
It’s not wrong for you to want your partner to see you as “their person,” and them as “your person,” if you’re talking about a partnership. It’s another thing altogether if you feel like an object that he doesn’t want to share.
Possessiveness in relationships can be a sign of jealousy. Separating you from your support network to “protect” you can be a sign of insecurity.
Does he take your attention from people in your life? Have you noticed that you spend significantly less time with friends than you used to? Does that coincide with spending a lot of time with him, alone or with his friends?
You are still your own person, even in a relationship. Do you believe your partner agrees with that?
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)5 is a therapy modality specifically created to address severe emotional ups and downs. The guiding theory is that a combination of environmental factors and biological factors results in dysregulated emotions.
Some mental health professionals point to self-abandonment6 as a source of emotional distress.
People who experience self-abandonment are disconnected from their own feelings7. Because of this, they often look to others for validation. In a relationship, they make their partner responsible for their emotions, while simultaneously judging themselves for their needs and feelings.
This is, essentially, when a person rejects a part of themselves so completely that they will actively work against the things they want.
This often results in - you guessed it - uncontrollable emotions.
An emotionally volatile boyfriend cannot tolerate the distress of his partner not choosing them. He may see his girlfriend as an essential part of his ability to regulate. If she’s not with him, his sense of self-worth can be destabilized.
Sometimes overprotective behaviors come from an inability to understand and control emotions. A perceived threat to the relationship feels like it needs to be resolved immediately. When people don’t have distress tolerance skills8, they are reactive and often act in ways that are destructive to them.
Does your boyfriend often get into fights because he is “protecting you?” Do you worry that your partner will escalate situations unnecessarily? Does it seem like they can’t control themselves when they are angry?
Impulsive actions often have unintended consequences. Are you suffering because of his out-of-control reactions?
For an emotionally volatile person, how they feel about something is more important than what actually happened. Emotional reasoning blocks out anything that doesn’t confirm how that person feels.
Honest mistakes may be taken as deliberate attacks, even with evidence to the contrary. Your partner may justify their reactions with how they felt, even if it’s out-of-proportion to the situation.
Have you felt that, no matter how much you try to “prove” that you value your relationship, he feels insecure? Does he lash out for reasons that seem illogical?
Many people are emotionally volatile because their environment reinforces outbursts. An example would be a family that ignores spoken requests but responds to shouting.
This reinforcement can result in more and more violent or dangerous behavior. For some, this is aimed outward. Broken electronics, torn pictures, or even punching walls are potential examples.
For others, that harmful behavior can be aimed inward. This person could threaten to hurt themselves or others, engage in problem-drinking behaviors, or put themselves in harm's way.
Do you find yourself worried that something or someone will get hurt if your boyfriend is acting “overprotective?” Do you feel responsible for his safety in these situations?
Guilt is a strong motivator. The unpleasant feeling comes from having done something wrong and urges us to fix the problem we created. But what if you haven’t done anything to feel guilty about?
Your overprotective boyfriend might make you feel guilty for things that you aren’t responsible for. When that happens, it can feel impossible to get on his good side. You might feel confused and anxious trying to restore the relationship.
Assertive communication focuses on resolving conflict with respect, honesty, and care. Even if you’re angry, when you are communicating assertively you are responsible for your emotions and focused on a resolution.
Passive-aggressive communication is all about avoiding saying what you really mean, leaving the other person guessing. It’s easy to feel like you’re making mistakes if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be fixing.
Do his comments make you feel like you should change who you hang out with? Does he communicate with eye-rolls and sighs? Does your partner expect you to know why they’re upset without telling you?
Your relationship is a partnership. Speaking directly about concerns about the relationship is healthy. Do you think he can do that?
No one likes to have their mistakes pointed out. That being said, it’s important to address problems in a relationship. Talking about it right away without attacking each other is a sign of healthy communication habits.
It can be difficult to bring things up when someone makes you feel guilty for expressing yourself. If he cries, withdraws, or gets defensive, it can be difficult to get a word in edgewise9. You may even wonder if you should just avoid talking about the problem altogether.
Does your partner respond as if you’ve attacked them if you confront them about overprotective behavior? Does he worry that you’ll dump him whenever you’re upset? Do you have to comfort him even when he repeatedly crosses your boundaries?
You need to be able to talk to your partner to solve problems. Does your boyfriend make you feel bad for even thinking about it?
When we recognize that other people have made an effort, there is social pressure to be grateful for what they’ve done. But if your boyfriend is creating more problems for you in the name of being “overprotective,” he’s not really helping you.
Overprotective boyfriends may make their girlfriends feel guilty by deflecting responsibility because he “did that for you.” But you don’t have to be grateful if something done “for you” has made you uncomfortable or put you in a bad spot.
When you confront him, does he call you ungrateful? Does he imply that the things he does are for your well-being, even when it doesn’t benefit you?
Does your boyfriend really have your best interests at heart? Or does his behavior hurt you and your relationships more than it helps?
Manipulation is when someone tries to exert control over others, directly or indirectly.
Guilt-tripping could be classified as a type of manipulation. But I think it’s important to separate these categories according to their impact.
Guilt-tripping makes you feel bad about something that did happen, even if you’re not responsible.
Manipulation often makes you question what happened altogether.
If you’re on the receiving end of these behaviors, you may notice that you feel depressed, less confident, or anxious. You may find yourself looking to your boyfriend to confirm what’s really going on.
Gaslighting refers to manipulation specifically to make you question your reality by denying what’s really happening10. The term comes from the 1938 film, Angel Street, later adapted as the 1944 psychological thriller, Gaslight, in which a man manipulates his wife into believing she is losing her grasp of reality.
Imagine you have a conversation with your boyfriend about going out on Friday, and he later denies that conversation took place. You’re sure that you told him, because you put a reminder in your phone, then marked it done.
If he insists you’re wrong, you may question yourself. Did you mean to mention it and forget? Are you remembering another conversation altogether?
The more these types of situations go on, the harder it might become to trust yourself. You may find that it’s hard to trust people other than him, as well.
Do you constantly second-guess yourself? Do you doubt your own memory and judgments? Do you find that you’re often looking to him for confirmation of what’s real?
DARVO11 stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.
This unique form of gaslighting gets its own entry because it’s a specific response to being held accountable for one’s own actions. The perpetrator turns the tables. The person confronting them is put on the defensive.
Say you confront your boyfriend because he interfered in a friendship inappropriately. If he turns around and accuses you of forcing him to act that way (and throws in some character attacks, for good measure), that’s DARVO.
Are you apologizing all the time, even when he’s in the wrong? Do you usually feel confused and anxious about confronting him?
I will admit, I had difficulty categorizing this manipulation tactic because it’s really hard to see. After all, this is an absence of behavior. Why would this be as bad as a verbal or physical attack?
Dr. Tronick, in his “Still Face Experiment” demonstrated how a lack of response causes significant distress in a short amount of time. This distress prompts escalating attempts to reconnect.
Withholding affection preys on feelings of unworthiness. By refusing to speak to or touch you, your boyfriend is denying communication and connection. Losing connections inspires intense feelings of grief and anxiety. To avoid this, you might go against your own values and interests.
Does your “overprotective boyfriend” refuse to speak to you until you do what he says? Do you have to agree to his rules for him to hug or kiss you? Does he periodically decide to punish you with the cold shoulder for hours or even days?
An overprotective boyfriend might do something that seems counterintuitive and threaten to break up. By threatening the relationship, he completely derails any other conversation.
This tactic makes resolving the issue urgent, which can lead to his girlfriend compromising her boundaries.
Does he threaten to leave whenever you argue? Do you feel responsible for holding the relationship together?
Controlling behavior can pop up in many areas of a relationship. What people consider to be overprotective boyfriend behavior is often more about domination than safety.
Some people consciously define dominance and submission as part of their relationship in very healthy ways. In these relationships, both parties agree to the power imbalance. That agreement includes a mutual ability to renegotiate or even eliminate aspects of control.
If you haven’t agreed to him exerting control on your own and without his influence, then it’s not mutual.
Do you feel like you don’t have a choice? If so, that’s controlling behavior.
Controlling behavior often manifests in control over your body and what you do.
You may be told what you’re allowed to wear or who you’re allowed to hang out with. There may be rules about when you are or aren’t allowed to go out. Sometimes, there are even rules about being able to drive.
This behavior can also extend to sexual matters. Your boyfriend may throw away your personal toys or hygiene products to “protect” your sexual relationship. He may tamper with birth control. He may even try to make decisions about when and how you are intimate, without your input.
Have you had to change your style because he doesn’t like the clothes you wear? Do you feel like he wants to control how you move throughout your day? Do you ever feel like you aren’t able to make decisions about your body?
Your support network is who you turn to when you need support. The girls you go to brunch with to decompress from the week. Your book club or soccer team. Your sister.
A controlling person will often isolate their partner to become their whole source of support.
This could begin with being suspicious about guy friends that he considers “threats” to your relationship. Often, the “overprotective boyfriend” begins interfering with relationships with everyone.
Does he try to keep you from going out, whether you’re with guy friends or girls? Does he make threats if you spend time with people he doesn’t like?
More than half of all the people in the world have social media accounts. Social media is a huge part of how people communicate. News, events, and updates on our lives - one of the most common ways to stay connected is to post and share.
Because of this, someone who is controlling will often do what they can to take over and dictate what their girlfriend can and cannot post and monitor the comment section for “inappropriate” responses. In extreme cases, they might take over their partner’s social media accounts and unfollow and block certain people.
Do you hesitate to post pictures because you think he wouldn’t approve? Has your boyfriend ever tried to guess your password to “fix” something he doesn’t like? Have you ever felt like you need to delete profiles to keep him happy?
Arguments are an important process in relationships. Positive changes in a relationship sometimes have to start with a conflict, and that’s an opportunity for growth. When I work with my clients, I encourage them to learn how to argue in a healthy and respectful way.
A protective boyfriend may argue to make a point about a concern but will listen to the other side. He’s willing to talk things out and find a solution, or agree to disagree.
Being argumentative, on the other hand, is usually a way to lash out, not solve a problem. By picking fights, they are able to vent their anger and avoid addressing the actual problem.
Generally, it’s good to say nice things to your partner. This is especially important during an argument. Being criticized all the time sets the stage for resentment to build up. That’s because criticism is based on blame, not problem-solving.
It’s easy to feel tired, anxious, and hopeless when someone is constantly picking fights and criticizing you. You might change your whole routine just to stop hearing him poking at you.
Is he always complaining about you as a girlfriend? Do you feel like you can never do anything the way he wants? Is it hard to stand up for yourself without inviting more trouble?
Someone who is looking for a fight will always find one. Insecure boyfriends sometimes pick fights about non-issues in order to keep attention on them. They might find something wrong with what you wear, how you speak, what you named your dog, etc.
This can make you feel defensive. It can have you constantly scrutinizing yourself for mistakes to avoid trouble. It can make you try to avoid your boyfriend, which might lead to even more fights.
Do you think “What now?” when he tells you he’s angry? Do you look for signs that he’s going to attack?
Contempt is saying truly mean things in an argument because you think you’re better than the other person. If criticism is an attack on what you do, contempt is an attack against who you are. It can be hard to believe your “overprotective boyfriend” even likes you when you’re on the receiving end.
Does he call you stupid, selfish, or other hurtful things? Does he imply that you would cheat on him at the drop of a hat? Do you sometimes wonder why he’s even with you?
Stalking is a serious violation of privacy, and often escalates. Stalking refers to actions specifically done to cause feelings of fear. Often these actions don’t result in direct contact, which can make classifying and identifying stalking difficult.
If “overprotective” crosses this line, you may feel like you are being constantly monitored. You may feel anxious, depressed, or trapped. You might get frustrated if others don’t understand how his behavior affects you. You may feel like you don’t know who to trust.
Have you asked your boyfriend to respect your privacy, but suspect he hasn’t been? Do you feel anxious about unwanted calls, texts, or gifts? Do you ever feel afraid to go to work, school, or other locations because he might see you, or you might see him?
Stalking goes way beyond overprotective behavior, and needs to be taken seriously.
If you believe you are being stalked or feel unsafe, research national and local domestic violence resources. Many of their websites have functions to quickly exit the site and erase browsing history.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has resources for those in the United States. If you feel unsafe visiting the website, you can call them at 800.799.SAFE (7233).
The HotPeach Pages provides directories for resources outside of the United States.
Now that I’ve given you all of these signs to look out for, I want to reassure you, again. If you see your boyfriend doing some of these things, it doesn’t mean he’s absolutely toxic.
If he is being overprotective in ways that make you uncomfortable, anxious, or hurt, talk to someone you know will listen. This may be a girlfriend, mentor, or even a therapist. Being validated for your concerns can go a long way to help you stand up for yourself.
He needs to do the work to change. You can bend over backwards, do what he wants, and try to become the girl he wants, but you can’t make him happy. He has to be able to make himself happy.
He doesn’t have to do the work alone. Just like you, he can lean on his support network or work with a mental health professional. He can gain the skills to communicate his needs in ways that respect both of you, and learn to trust himself and you.
If you’re feeling that your boyfriend is crossing the line, you have to ask yourself: Is it safe for me to talk to him about this?
Write down the issues that you want to address and write down your talking points. Having a list and a script will help you to stay focused.
Pick a time and place to discuss these issues with him. Bring things up when the two of you are calm. If things start to get heated or emotional, take a break, or end the conversation and pick it up again when things calm down.
Ask him how he feels, and what he thinks makes him feel that way. Why is he feeling anxious, angry, or insecure? What has he been seeing, hearing, or experiencing that makes him feel that way?
Consider working with a therapist.
I would recommend reaching out to friends, family, community members, and a local domestic violence organization. Even if you don’t want to leave, they can support you. They can help you feel safe enough to talk to your boyfriend.
Consider talking with a therapist about how you have been feeling12.
There are many sources through which you can seek professional help. With platforms like Relationship Hero, you can get matched with a therapist who specializes in the specific issue that’s bothering you. Take their short 2-minute quiz to get started.
There is an important difference between being protective and overprotective. Protectiveness is based on what is best for both of you. Being overprotective can be bad for a relationship, because it usually stems from insecurity.
Being protective can be good in a relationship, as long as your boyfriend is keeping your wants and needs in mind. A protective and loving boyfriend will talk about his concerns directly. He will make a plan with his partner and trust them to be faithful.
An overprotective boyfriend crosses your boundaries. Some of the warning signs of crossed boundaries are feelings of anxiety and guilt and a lack of trust in yourself. He acts on his insecurities and doesn’t listen to his girlfriend.
Being overprotective in a relationship makes everybody tense and frustrated. Your boundaries are being crossed. He only gets more frustrated when you don’t “listen” to him. Only one of you can be happy at a time, and usually, that’s temporary.
Not necessarily. If you see warning signs that your boyfriend is crossing your boundaries, there is an opportunity to address it. Communication, and possibly the assistance of a therapist, can address sources of insecurity and reduce concerning behavior.
An overprotective boyfriend is usually an insecure boyfriend. He might not know how to talk about it, so he acts on his emotions. There may be signs of him crossing your boundaries. Talk to him first, but if he’s still overprotective, you might both benefit from some help.
Please join us in the comment section to share stories and resources to address signs of an overprotective boyfriend.