Hi, Carolyn: I'd like your perspective on a certain behavior my new boyfriend is exhibiting that I find very irritating. I'm not even sure how to describe it, and I would like to have an intelligent conversation with him about it before the behavior becomes ingrained.

First scenario: A friend who was moving offered to give me some furniture, and I asked my boyfriend to come along with me to help. As we were working in her home, she was looking for a certain tool, and before I could even offer to help her, he admonished me in front of everyone there to help her out.

Second scenario: We were riding bikes and I accidentally veered into another biker's lane. My boyfriend asked me to watch out. Then he said, "SORRY," very loudly to the other biker, before I had a chance to say it myself, which I would have done.

I know these seem like little things, but I would've done the right thing without prompting, and need to be given the time and space to do so. Is he being annoyingly paternalistic? Am I being too sensitive? Am I making a big deal of nothing?

— C.

C.: This is not nothing, and you are not making a big enough deal of it. Yet.

He is treating you as if you’re his child or his pupil — and not only that, he’s putting on a performance of his superior virtue for bystanders. That’s either insufferable in its own right or insufferable with the promise of much worse to come.

Someone who does this to a supposed peer is certainly not guaranteed to be an abuser, but the behavior is consistent with early warnings of controlling tendencies. “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker is a fast and absorbing read and an eye-opener on these signs.

When controlling people see you accept this dominant behavior from them without significant resistance, then that’s an invitation for them to escalate those dominant behaviors, wittingly or un-, to test whether you do in fact have a resistance point. Abusers also count on their victims to second-guess and censor themselves (“Maybe I’m just being too sensitive . . .”) out of resisting such control.

But you don’t need to get into all this. Instead, you can say, “Stop scolding me, I can act and speak for myself,” and see how that flies. See if he course-corrects (doubtful). If his response is anything less than “Sorry, you’re right,” and never doing it again, then break up.

Or you can just skip to the breakup. That someone regards you and treats you as an equal is the first square on the board of finding a partner or friend. Without that — if someone demeans or embarrasses you, or is paternalistic or maternalistic to you (and you aren’t deliberately seeking that trait) — then quit the game on the spot. Utterly your prerogative.

So is breaking up just because you find someone annoying, to the extent you find yourself reaching for the right words to express how annoyed you are, already, when the relationship is still “new.”


If these basic acts of self-determination and -protection elude you, if historically you freeze around dominance, then break up and consider therapy — to learn to spot the next one from many miles away.

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at wapo.st/haxpost.