Have you ever had a partner who was so in your head that all of a sudden, you woke up and realized you were willingly doing things you'd never usually agree to? Odds are you fell prey to a master manipulator. Manipulation in a relationship is a serious problem because it's sneaky. Master manipulators can twist your words and actions so that it seems like every mistake you've ever made was your idea. It can make you feel crazy, like you're not in control of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. And it can go on forever before you realize it's happening.
When I worked with couples as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator, manipulation was a huge topic of interest. It's a common weapon used by abusers and controlling partners because it's hard to prove, it makes the abuse feel like it's your own fault, and it's easy to get away with. Most people don't even realize they're being manipulated until it's too late. And then the trust issues mount.
While you might not catch it every time (some manipulators are just that good) there are some signs that your partner is in your head. If you spot them, it can help you train yourself to better recognize when you're being manipulated. And hopefully empower you to find a partner who doesn't need to use shady control tactics to feel secure in your relationship.
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1. Plain Old Bullying
This is one of the less subtle (and easier to recognize) forms of manipulation. Say, for example, your partner asks you if you want to clean out their car. You don't. You want to say no. But the look on their face and the tone in their voice says you better clean out their car or something bad is going to go down. So you say "I'd love to!" and then you do it. This is a person using the threat of violence to control you and get you to agree to do something you don't want to do. Later they may say things like, "You didn't have to do that. you could have said no." This makes the look like the good guy, like it's your fault you didn't get your work done because you were too bust leaning out their car. Sneaky and mean.
What to do: This is a tough answer because sometimes it's safer to just do what the manipulator wants at the time and then figure out how to escape later. Some abusers will use real violence to get what they want. But in some cases (non-abuse situations), you can begin to assert your "no" and mean it. If you cant say "no" in a relationship without fearing for your safety, you need to get out.
2. Home Court Advantage
Manipulations is all about control. One of the tactics used to gain control is to take a person out of their element. Think to yourself about where you live, where you hang out, whose friends you visit, and where you go on dates. Are they all your partner's favorite spots? Do you live in your partner's life but they don't live in yours? This could be a manipulation tactic designed to make your partner feel more in control. You're easier to control when you're not comfortable in your surroundings.
What to do: Equal home court advantage. 50-50. You both live in each other's lives. You both chose places to go on dates. You both only go places where you feel comfortable. It's part of being in a healthy, equal relationship.
3. Tugging On Your Heart Strings
Let's say your partner finds a kitten. The non-manipulative approach would be to ask you how you felt about getting a kitten, discussing if you could afford the vet care and food, finding out how your landlord feels about kittens, and determining if it was the best choice for both you and the kitten. The manipulative approach aims to tug on your heart strings and make you feel like a bad person if you say no. It goes something like, "Look at his little face! He's homeless! Do you want him to die cold and alone on the streets? Do you even have a heart?" There's a big difference. See also: Puppy dog eyes.
What to do: Don't let someone make you feel like making the best choice for you makes you a bad person. In this situation, you don't have to take the kitten home to ensure it's survival. You can find it another home or take it to an adoption shelter. Most of these types of manipulations can be met with reasonable alternatives.
4. If You Really Loved Me...
This one's the worst. This manipulation basically asks you to prove your love over and over again by giving your partner what they want. "If you really loved me, you'd go to the store and get me some ice cream!" Or even, "If you really loved me, you'd change your mind about having a baby." This one uses guilt and emotion to try to prod or shame you into doing something. It's a form of manipulation no matter how innocent it sounds.
What to do: Shut it down. Say something like, "I can still love you with my whole heart without going to the store to get you ice cream." You can also ask for more direct communication. Like, "You know you can just ask me to go to the store. You don't have to stake my love for you on it.
5. Emotional Blackmail
Emotional blackmail is ugly and there are not many ways it can result in a healthy relationship. It looks like, "I'll kill myself if you leave." Or, it can also look like, "I would die without you." It can be dramatic or casual. It's basically a tactic that uses fear, guilt, and shame to keep you under your partner's control. And do you really want to be in a relationship where you're only there because someone threatened to kill themselves? No other person's life or total well-being are your sole responsibility.
What to do: Don't fall for it. It's almost always a manipulation and never a real threat of suicide or self harm. But just to be on the safe side, say, "If you're feeling suicidal, I'll call the police or an ambulance for help, but I'm not going to deal with it." It sounds harsh, but it's often the best (and only) thing you can do.
6. Playing The Victim
Let me pain a scenario for you. You and your partner get into a fight. No matter who was in the wrong, what was said, or what actually went down, your partner is just heartbroken and can't believe you'd hurt them like that. Even if your partner is actually the one who did something wrong, and no matter how you reacted. You're always apologizing Your partner is always hurt and helpless and in need of attention and extra love. It's a way to make you feel like you're a bad, unworthy partner and for them to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions.
What to do: Apologize for what you feel you need to apologize for. Don't give in to your partner's constant attempts to shame you into falling on your sword. Say things like, "I am really sorry I got upset and raised my voice. That was uncalled for. But I won't apologize for being upset about what you did. Here's how that made me feel." Prepare for water works.
Gaslighting is the form of manipulation most likely to make you feel like you're losing your dang mind. Your partner does shady things on a consistent basis, like pretend they didn't say things, pretend you did't say things, leave out information, twist the truth, re-invent the past, make you think your forgot things, and make you feel like you're losing it in general. When it's done enough, you'll feel like you can't trust your own brain, so you must need your partner to keep you in check.
What to do: Get away. Gaslighting is a serious form of abuse, plain and simple.
8. Convenient Neediness
When things don't go your partner's way, are they sick or weak or in need of care and support? This is actually a form of manipulation, even if your partner is really sick. Some examples: Your partner doesn't want to have a serious conversation with you so they feel faint. Your partner doesn't want to go somewhere and suddenly you can't go either because they need you to help them through their anxiety (which is conveniently fine once you agree to stay home). Your partner can't help you with the housework because they have a headache or don't have the energy. Your partner doesn't want you to leave them because who will take care of them? Or maybe they fake illness so you'll feel sorry for them and give them extra attention.
What to do: This is not a healthy relationship, and it's one you probably want to think about leaving. But in the moment, you can make a plan for how you partner can be cared for while you go do what you need to do. Odds are, they'll be fine.
9. Killing Them With Kindness
Kindness as a manipulation is especially damaging because it makes you question people's motives every time they're nice to you. An easy example of this is the classic scenario where someone gives another person a gift or a string of compliments and the other person says, "OK, what do you want?" A more damaging form of this manipulation is something like, "you're just so smart, I don't know why you don't go to school" when the real motivation is to have a partner who makes more money and not their happiness. Or, "I did all of this nice stuff for you, it's the least you can do" when confronted with something you don't want to do.
What to do: Kindness with an ulterior motive is not really kindness. You can say thank you for the kindness, but still not give in to the controlling aspect of the manipulation. If you spot it. Remember, no shame if you don't catch it. Manipulators are sly like that.
10. They Are Calm, Cool, And Collected
Women something bad happens, there's conflict, or things seem to be in chaos, is your partner super calm? This can be a manipulation that makes you feel like you're overreacting. It can make you feel like you can't trust your own emotional reactions. It's a way your partner controls your emotional responses. They determine when a situation warrants an emotional response. Otherwise, you're just being dramatic, or silly. Because they're super calm. They can call your mental health or maturity into question, and over time, you might not even realize you're looking to them for how to respond when something happens.
What to do: If you're a person who falls for this manipulation often, you might need therapy to help you get back in touch with and trust your true emotional responses. That's how damaging this manipulation can be. In the moment, the best thing you can do is go with your gut and remember that you don't have to justify your feelings to anyone.
11. They're Always Just Joking
This is a manipulation in two parts. The first part is the one where they say hurtful things or criticize you, but it's you're fault for getting upset because they were totally just kidding. It doesn't matter how cruel they were, it only matters that you're too sensitive and can't take a joke. The second part involves making jokes about you in public and in front of others. If you respond negatively in front of others, you're making a scene or ruining the fun. This is a way to get their digs in and grind you down without having to take accountability.
What to do: You don't have to worry about ruining the fun or being too sensitive. It can be a difficult thing to confront your partner when they hurt you, and to risk looking like the bad guy, but standing up for yourself is important. Even if the manipulator will likely try to shame you for it.
The more you recognize manipulative behaviors, the more you'll be able to shut them down. If you're dealing with a serious manipulator, though, adds are your best bet is to split.
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