If you’ve entered into a new relationship, and you suddenly begin to feel less good about yourself and start to develop any of the following symptoms: depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt, frustration, or your self-confidence diminishes, you might be in a relationship with a master manipulator.
Emotional manipulation isn’t something we consider is happening in our relationship when we develop feelings of depression or a sudden decrease in our self-esteem. Why would we suspect our partner is toying with our emotions when the act of manipulation, by its very nature, is designed to be invisible and undetectable? Nope, we assume only the best intentions, and unwittingly collude with the manipulator by accepting blame for things that aren’t our fault, apologizing when we’re not wrong, censoring ourselves, especially when we have a differing opinion or perspective, doing things that we aren’t comfortable with, working harder to fix the problems in the relationship, and doubting our own judgments. And every time we do, and the longer we stay, the manipulator tightens his/her grip of control over us, until we are left feeling exhausted, demeaned, exasperated, depressed, anxious, demoralized, misunderstood, and confused.
View From The Inside
The relationship started off great. I thought I had met the perfect guy for me. But after about three or four months, I started falling into a serious funk, and couldn’t put my finger on why. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. I had no reason to feel down. My life was going great. So, why was I was feeling blue all of a sudden?
As the months passed, I started developing feelings of inadequacy. I wondered why I suddenly could never seem to please my boyfriend for any length of time. In the beginning of our relationship, without much effort on my part, he seemed so happy, and I was the perfect partner in his eyes. Naturally, the more my feelings grew for him, the more I wanted to do things to show my love, but oddly, the more effort I put into the relationship and the more loving gestures I did for him, the less happy he became, and the less of a perfect partner, in his eyes, I became.
It seemed like nothing I ever did was quite good enough or satisfied him for very long. And, if I failed to do something or mindread his needs, he would have a way of making me feel guilty, selfish, or inadequate, and would accuse me of not loving him enough, not being in tune with his needs, or not understanding what real love was, the way he did.
About midway through the relationship, I noticed I wasn’t acting like myself. I felt on edge and anxious most of the time, never knowing if what I said or did would upset him or land us in an argument. So, I shut down and censored myself constantly. I stopped expressing my needs, wants and opinions, especially if they differed from his. But things only got worse. When he would come home, and I would hear the sound of the garage door open, I would feel a rush of anxiety, and quickly begin to go through my mental checklist of everything that could potentially upset him.
Did I leave any utensils in the sink?
Are the trash cans too full?
Are the dog’s bowls full enough?
Did my daughter leave any crumbs on the counter?
I felt like Julia Robert’s character in the movie, Sleeping With The Enemy. If you can recall the scene where she makes sure to straighten the hand towel hanging on the towel bar and checks that all the canned goods are placed on the cupboards shelves, labels facing front. Only, I wasn’t a character in a movie. I was an adult who was emotionally manipulated into feeling like I was failing if I didn’t measure up to his ever-increasing, hypocritical standards.
Fast forward about six months later, as I was getting ready for work one day, I was looking at myself in the mirror and I didn’t even recognize the woman staring back at me. What happened to me? I had always been a strongminded and independent woman, but I had turned into a total, pathetic doormat. I hated who I had become. On the outside, I pretended like I had it all together, but on the inside, I felt like a fraud and I was miserable. I knew that if I stayed in the relationship, I would lose every ounce of self-respect I had left, and I might never leave.
After reflecting on my experience, I was furious with myself for staying in the relationship as long as I did. Then it hit me.
I would have never stayed with anyone who I believed was the cause of my misery. I stayed because he had a way of manipulating me to feel like I was the cause of my misery.
Through covert manipulation, he had me pretty convinced that everything that was wrong in our relationship was somehow my fault, and if I only tried a little harder, was more loving, and gave a little more, I, we, would be happy again.
If this story sounds familiar and echoes the same patterns as the stories you’ve heard about narcissistically abusive relationships, it’s because the dynamics of manipulative relationships mimic the dynamics of narcissistically abusive relationships. If you’re in a narcissistically abusive relationship, you’re most definitely being subjected to emotional manipulation. Both types of relationships are interpersonally exploitive, are characterized by an imbalance of power, and are sustained through deception. All manipulators aren’t narcissists or sociopaths, but I believe many of them fall somewhere on the spectrum.
Am I Being Manipulated?
Many people are under the false assumption that strongminded and independent people are immune to the tactics of manipulators and only fragile, passive individuals with low self-esteem are in jeopardy of being manipulated. One thing about manipulation is that it can happen to you without you realizing it. It happens gradually and occurs right outside the realm of our conscious awareness. Since manipulation is sneaky and covert, and we usually can’t detect it when it’s happening unless it’s already on our radar, it’s important to understand how it works, as well as, our own vulnerabilities that put us at risk. Just like anything else, the more knowledgeable we are, the more we’re able to develop an internal alarm system to identify it when it’s being done to us.
But we don’t necessarily have to know how manipulation works or the different tactics to know if we’re being manipulated. Harriet Braiker, author of the book, Who’s Pulling Your Strings? describes how victims of manipulation share a common set of thoughts and internalized feelings about themselves that can reveal if they’re in a manipulative relationship. If some of the following thoughts and feelings resonate with you, there’s a good chance you’re being manipulated: Although this is written from the perspective of a romantic relationship, it can apply to any type of interpersonal relationship.
- You’re once perfect relationship, that used to bring you so much joy, has you feeling anxious, depressed, and desperate most of the time.
- You feel like you’re walking on eggshells.
- You feel like the problems in the relationship are all your fault.
- You feel like you can never measure up to your partner’s standards. No matter how hard you try, you can never seem to please your partner for very long.
- You often feel guilty or to blame for all the problems in the relationship.
- You frequently feel resentful and angry.
- Since the relationship started you seem to have developed feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, poor self-esteem, and/or jealousy, in ways you’ve never felt before.
- You find yourself censoring your words and actions. You don’t feel free to express any negative or differing thoughts or opinions.
- You find yourself doing things that you’re not comfortable with or that goes against your values and morals.
- You don’t feel secure in your relationship.
- You feel on the defensive much of the time and feel the need to explain yourself constantly.
- You feel like the child in the relationship.
- You feel like your relationship is complex.
- You feel trapped or stuck in your relationship.
Manipulation vs. Influence
We all engage in some form of manipulation from time to time to sway others into our way of thinking. This is commonly referred to as influence which has a more positive connotation because unlike manipulation, it takes the other person’s feelings and needs into consideration. We may use influence to try to persuade someone to make a purchase, to choose the restaurant or vacation destination we want to go to, or to grant us a special favor. Sometimes we may use this benign form of manipulation to sweet talk someone by showering them with compliments and flattery before asking them for something. Influence is different than manipulation because it’s on the surface. It’s more persuasive in nature and there’s no, implicit or explicit, threats of loss, rejection or emotional harm, should the person decide not to go along with the request or suggestion.
While influence is on the surface, manipulation is underhanded and deceptive. Manipulators deliberately hide their self-serving agendas because they know that the better they can disguise their true intentions, the less of a chance there is of you figuring out their motives and refusing to go along with them. Manipulation is extremely harmful because the manipulator isn’t concerned about the rights or feelings of the other person, or in having a healthy, authentic, reciprocal relationship, and especially not in hearing the word “no”. So, if they hurt you in the process of achieving their objective, no biggie.
In my opinion, to repeatedly and successfully manipulate someone requires a significant amount of skill and practice, but no amount of skill or practice matters if the manipulator doesn’t have something you want (i.e.: their love, attention, approval, or the desire for the manipulator to see you as a good or kind person, etc…), or if the manipulator doesn’t have something to leverage against you (i.e.: the threat of abandonment, loss, rejection, disapproval, fear of conflict, a desired tangible object, etc..) Braiker describes how manipulation works in this way. “All manipulative relationships depend on certain levers of control that are used to hold out the promise of gain or the fear of loss or the means to avoid something that is undesirable.” Basically, manipulators gradually increase their control by creating an atmosphere of uncertainty by unpredictably shifting between presenting promises of gain and threatened losses. If this sounds a lot like intermittent reinforcement to you, it’s because it is.
The manipulator must also select the “right” type of manipulation tactic to use on you. The better the manipulator knows you, the more accurate he/she will be at pinpointing your hot buttons and vulnerabilities and choosing the most effective tactics to manipulate you with. 
For example, one of the most commonly used manipulation tactics is called the E-card, or Empathy Card. Manipulators like to use this tactic to get you to feel worried or sorry for them. By playing on your empathy, they try to elicit feelings of compassion and concern, so you will be moved to want to help them, or excuse their bad behavior, or give them what they want. It’s easy to see how useless the E-card would be if a manipulator were to try to use this tactic on a person who lacked the capacity for empathy. The more intelligence data a manipulator can gather about what makes you tick, the more precision in which he/she is able to manipulate you with.
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References: 1. Simon, George K (1996). In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. ISBN 978-1-935166-30-6. 2. Braiker, H. (2003). Who's Pulling Your Strings? How To Break The Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life. NY: McGraw Hill Professional.
Bree Bonchay, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist with over 18 years of experience working in the field of mental health and trauma recovery. She specializes in helping people recover from toxic relationships and shares her insights about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and psychopathy in her blog FreeFromToxic. Her articles have been featured in major online magazines and she has appeared on radio as a guest expert.
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