Healthy relationships are based on trust, mutual respect, and security.
Each person must feel they are valued and loved unconditionally, accepted for who they are, and safe to expose their vulnerabilities and flaws.
This is the ideal foundation for a good relationship, but of course all of us fall short of this ideal from time to time. We might use passive aggressive tactics to express our pain or get our way in a disagreement. We might tell white lies or throw out hurtful barbs to protect ourselves and cope with our own pain or anger. I’ve done this myself, and I always feel regretful as soon as the words escape my mouth. I know this behavior does nothing to foster intimacy and trust.
We are all self-centered to a certain extent, but emotionally mature, healthy-minded people generally recognize when they behave this way and can correct the behavior, offer an apology, and begin again with a more loving and healing approach to conflict resolution or negotiation.
This foundation of respect, trust, and security is necessary in all personal relationships — your marriage or love relationships; your relationship with your family members; and your close friendships. Both people must be committed to the health of the relationship and possess a strong emotional intelligence in order for the connection to thrive.
However, you’ve likely encountered people who are emotionally manipulative and controlling. They use passive aggressive behaviors to get their way or keep you from saying or doing anything they don’t like. Emotional manipulation can be subtle and deceptive, leaving you confused and off-balance. Or it can be overt and demanding where fear, shaming, and guilt-trips leave you stunned and immobilized.
Either way, emotional manipulation is not acceptable, and the longer you allow it to continue, the more power and confidence the manipulator gains in this one-sided relationship. Eventually, any remnant of a healthy connection is destroyed, as the foundation of trust, intimacy, respect, and security crumbles under the hammer of manipulation.
If you recognize yourself or your partner in this scenario, here are 8 signs of emotional manipulation:
1. They turn your words to benefit them.
A manipulator has trouble accepting responsibility for their behavior, and often if you call them on it, they’ll find a way to turn it around to make you feel bad or guilty.
For example, you might make a legitimate complaint like, “It really bothers me you didn’t help me clean the house when you promised you would.” Instead of apologizing, acknowledging his or her actions, and correcting the situation, a manipulator will say something like, “You would never have asked me to help you if you knew how overwhelmed I am. Why don’t you think about me for once?”
Or they might offer a quasi-apology like, “Well I’m really sorry but I was working until midnight last night. I know I should have told you about all the stress I’m under and how tired I’ve been. I may be coming down with something.” This kind of manipulation is almost worse than no apology at all, because it makes YOU feel bad for even asking and expecting them to follow through on something they promised.
Your response: If an apology feels false or if the other person replies with defensiveness or guilt-trips, don’t allow them to get away with it. If you do, it will just empower them to do it again. Make it clear that a real apology is unconditional and followed by a behavior change.
2. They say something and later deny it.
A manipulator may say yes to a request or make a commitment to you, and then when the time comes to follow through, they conveniently forget they ever said anything.
Unless you have a recording of them making the promise, you can’t really prove anything — so it’s your “bad memory” against their lying words. A good manipulator has a way of twisting a previous conversation or replaying it to suit their needs and make you look forgetful, demanding, or ridiculous. You begin to question yourself and even feel bad or guilty that you challenged the manipulator.
Your response: If you experience a pattern of these bait and switch situations in your relationship, begin to write down exactly what the manipulator has promised. Date it and post it in your kitchen or email it to yourself and the other person. This may anger the manipulator, and they may question your trust or faith in them, but it will make it much harder to deny the conversation later on.
3. They use guilt trips to control you.
“You go ahead to the movies without me. It’s fine. I’ll stay home and finish the laundry.”
“It’s always about your needs. If you knew what kind of childhood I had, you’d never ask me to do that.”
“If you really want to go on the girls weekend, go ahead. I just don’t understand how you could leave the kids for that long.”
“I know we can’t afford to by a new car. But I’ve never had a new car in my life. I guess I’ll just live with this crap car forever. I don’t deserve nice things.”
The emotional manipulator knows how to play the victim role to perfection. They stir up a pot of guilt and sympathy and serve it to you in heaping ladlefuls. They will say just about anything to get their way — especially if they see a kind-hearted, sensitive victim.
Your response: You are not going crazy. They are playing you for all it’s worth. Don’t fall victim to these manipulative, guilt-laden shenanigans. Don’t give in to their passive demands or requests for sympathy. This person is an adult. Remind them of that, and how they are perfectly able to cope with your decision or actions.
4. They diminish your problems or difficulties.
Emotional manipulators don’t care much about your problems — unless they can use them as a platform to highlight their own.
“You think you had it bad sitting in traffic today? Did you ever think about how I have to deal with traffic every day? It takes years off my life. Be thankful you only had to deal with it today.”
“Gosh, that’s terrible you and your mom had a fight. But just be thankful you have a mom. My mom is dead, and even when she was alive, we fought much more than you and your mom do. It almost felt like I never had a mom.”
If you point out how the manipulator just turned the tables, they’ll likely try to make you look selfish and pitiful. They won’t acknowledge their narcissistic behavior or reframe the conversation around your pain or difficulty.
Your response: There’s not much you can do in these situations except walk away and find someone else who is more caring, compassionate, and mature. Don’t expose your vulnerabilities to someone who tramples all over them.
5. They use the emotional back door.
Rather than being direct and forthright, manipulators will sidestep honest communication and use passive aggressive methods instead. They might talk behind your back with others, or ask someone else to be their spokesperson so they don’t have to be the bad guy or girl. For example, they might have a friend tell you they want to break up, or mention to your best friend how unhappy they are in the bedroom.
They might use passive ways of letting you know they’re mad or unhappy by pouting, stomping, or giving the silent treatment. Or they might say something supportive, but behave in very unsupportive ways. For example, your spouse might say she’s happy for you to finish a demanding work project at home in the evenings, but then she goes out shopping, leaving you home with the kids.
Your response: For your own peace of mind, call them out on this behavior. More than likely, you’ll get a defensive, angry reaction, but at least the manipulator sees that you know what they’re up to. If this indirect, manipulative behavior occurs regularly, it’s time for counseling or to consider your exit strategy.
6. They suck the energy in a room.
Manipulators have a way of walking into a room and dragging a dark cloud along with them. They want the attention and focus to be on them, and they want to make sure everyone in the room notices if they are angry, unhappy, or discontented in some way.
People tend to scramble to accommodate the manipulator or to try to help them “feel better.” They might ask, “Are you OK? Is something wrong?” This is just the opening the manipulator needs to feed off the sympathy and energies of others. Being in the room with a manipulator, a sensitive person will feel drained and off-balance.
Your response: If possible, leave the room. Why give away your energy and good mood to a manipulator? If you’re stuck in the room, envision yourself surrounded by an impenetrable barrier that protects you from the negative vibes of the manipulator.
7. They use aggression or anger.
Manipulators often try to intimidate others with aggressive language, subtle threats, or outright anger. Especially if they see you’re uncomfortable with confrontation, they will use it to quickly control you and get their way.
The goal is to foster fear or extreme discomfort so you’ll belly up quickly. Maybe your wife has a temper tantrum every time you bring up her over-spending. Maybe your husband raises his voice and slams doors when you do something he doesn’t like. Over time the manipulator learns all he or she has to do is get a bit crazy and things will go their way.
Your response: Unless you fear physical violence, call them out on this behavior. If this escalates the anger or aggressiveness, leave the room or the house entirely. If anger and aggression is left unchecked, it can turn to more harmful behaviors. Demand counseling so the manipulator can see clearly what they are doing and how to change their behaviors.
8. They seek out the sensitive, insecure, or overly trusting.
Emotional manipulators seek out the vulnerabilities in people in order to exploit them. In fact, they may consciously or unconsciously create relationships with people who are the most vulnerable and willing to be controlled.
Manipulators can easily spot those who have a need to please or who’s insecurities drive them to put their own needs behind the needs of others. Manipulators may first come across as caring and sensitive, using these tactics to deflect their true motives. Over time, they subtly begin to exploit the more gentle sensibilities of the other person.
Your response: If you know you’re highly sensitive and giving, you are more prone to falling victim to a manipulator. Learn how to spot the traits of emotional manipulation early so you can avoid these relationships altogether.
If you’re already in a relationship with a manipulator, it may be more difficult for you to pull away, as sensitive people often have a mixed bag of anger, loyalty, guilt, and insecurity tied up in these relationships. You may need the support of a counselor to sort through your feelings and find a way to break free of this destructive situation.
Manipulative people need to be in control, and this desire for control often masks underlying feelings of insecurity. Manipulators often compensate by appearing to be self-confident and powerful. Their motives are almost always self-serving, and they have little regard for how their behaviors impact those around them. They need to feel superior and powerful and seek out people who will validate them by accommodating their manipulative, passive aggressive behaviors.
Your own emotions are your best tool for recognizing the problem between you and a manipulator. Examine your emotions to see if you feel defensive, shamed, guilty, angry, or sympathetic toward the other person. Do you find yourself making excuses for their behavior or compromising your own beliefs and choices to accommodate them? You may not recognize these negative feelings in the immediacy of the moment, but later when you revisit the situation, these emotions might emerge.
If you suspect you’re involved with an emotional manipulator, then now is the time to do something about it. Speak with a counselor to validate your suspicions and to see if there’s any hope for the relationship. The longer you remain in this unhealthy dynamic, the more of your authentic self you give away.
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