“I’m doing this for your own good” is a saying unruly kids know quite well. Parents love to pull it out to justify a punishment for misbehavior, as if a child will appreciate learning that they’ll eventually appreciate the fact that you loved them enough to their Xbox taken away for a week.
But when it comes to adult relationships, the phrase is often used to absolve one party of blame in a dispute, and in practice, justify unfair forms of ostracism or abuse. It presents the rationale that anything one person does or says is excusable because it is meant to benefit their partner, family member, or friend — when in reality, the result may be the opposite.
Here’s why telling someone “it’s for your own good,” doesn’t ever benefit anyone, and how to respond when someone says it to you.
It’s “more covert than overt”
Covert forms of abuse are innately psychological, and often take insidious forms that don’t outwardly appear abusive: for example, someone gaslighting you or giving you the silent treatment. Insisting that a form of punishment is for someone’s “own good,” and therefore inherently benevolent, is another of these tactics. In reality, it’s a manipulative ploy that can be used to justify ostracism or ridicule, usually deployed with the intent of controlling another person.
As Dr. Heather Stevenson, a psychologist in New York tells Lifehacker, it’s something to take seriously — especially if it’s a recurring them in your relationship:
Things like attempts to control or dictate someone’s behaviour and actions, sometimes under the premise that “it’s for your own good” or “I’m just looking out for you,” are red flags that should not be ignored.
These forms of controlling behaviour can be unconscious, and it might not be obvious to the person claiming to represent your best interests that they’re actually being condescending, or possibly even abusive. Generally speaking, abusers tend to suffer from a range of psychological maladies, including insecurity and depression, so it’s possible that they’re hurting you unwittingly.
Relatedly, if a significant or friend is pinning responsibility for their own emotional wellbeing on you, it’s also a sign of abusive behaviour, says Stevenson:
Similarly, if a significant other or family member tries to prod you into a certain thing claiming “if you don’t do X, it will hurt me,” this is actually a subtle form of manipulation that can be indicative of an abusive dynamic.
What to say if this happens to you
First, if you’re able to safely question the logic of how whatever is being done to you can possibly be for “your own good,” simply ask your partner or friend how that is the case. For example, if someone is ignoring you, insisting you’ll recoup some benefit from their stonewalling, it might be productive if you ask them how that is actually the case. If you are able to poke holes in their logic, if they’re amenable to such a challenge, it could be helpful in encouraging them to find other ways to communicate with you — even when they are upset with you.
Moreover, it’s important to note that you are your own best advocate, and that you understand what’s in your best interest better than your partner does. They’re entitled to make suggestions, sure, but they definitely don’t have sole discretion over how you live your life. They can definitely explain their logic, especially if they think something is “for your own good,” but you’re more than entitled to express disagreement.
Above all, Stevenson says to trust your instincts and to seek outside help and perspective on resolving the issue. She writes:
If you experience this in a relationship, tune into your gut reaction that might feel put off by the request or demand, and don’t ignore it. Seek outside input, especially from a trained therapist or specialist, on how to identify these patterns in behaviour and how to maintain your boundaries and sense of self.
Most importantly, if your relationship dynamic continues down this path, it might time you seek couples counseling together, or consider calling it quits.