When you want something in a relationship, it’s good to exercise honesty. However, if your partner can’t be direct, they may cross into boundary-crossing behavior like manipulation to get you to do what they want.
What is manipulation?
“Manipulation is the act of purposefully exerting psychological control over an individual for personal gain,” defines Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart. “Manipulation is inherently unfair and, although often subtle and indirect, manipulation can also be very explicit.”
Because of its ambiguity, manipulation can be a slippery concept to get a hold of because it exists on a spectrum. On its less-extreme side, you’ll likely experience confusion as your life is subtly rearranged to match your partner’s preferences. On its most extreme end, the manipulation takes on a dark, insidious tone if they’re covertly pushing you towards a specific outcome. In the process, you may lose your sense of self which prevents you from recognizing the psychological disorientation.
According to Manly, manipulation from your partner could take the form of unnecessary white lies, rude comments disguised as jokes, and general incongruities with what they say–as if they’re changing the facts in certain stories to make themselves look better and affect the way you perceive them. “It’s critical to be on the lookout for overt manipulation tactics that include shaming, blaming, and avoidance of personal responsibility,” she adds.
Stages of manipulation.
There are several common types or stages of manipulation you need to know. Raja explains what to watch out for and how these behaviors can escalate:
- Intense displays of affection–things like love bombing, charisma and charm, intense flattery, and extravagant gifts—to gain your trust and establish control and emotional dependence. After you become used to the flattery, one day you’ll be knocked off your pedestal, which leaves you vulnerable to doing whatever necessary to get back in their good graces. You might believe you’re the problem and not notice the disrespect.
- When you bring up concerns about their behaviors, they gaslight you, which leaves you feeling unsure about your true feelings. Let’s say your partner wanted to move in with you as a major milestone. But when your lease is up and you start looking at apartments, they tell you that they never agreed to take such a big step, make you feel bad, and work the conversation in a way where you question your reality.
- As manipulation progresses, the manipulator may use subtle criticisms, jealous suggestions, and other controlling attempts to isolate you from loved ones to exert control. This can eventually escalate into emotional blackmail, coercion, and even physical violence.
Raja points out it’s important to note that not all displays of love and affection are inherently manipulative. As well, not all relationships involve manipulation, and not all manipulators follow these exact stages. However, manipulation is a serious problem because your partner is controlling your actions and decisions without your consent. And when you feel like you can’t trust yourself, you won’t listen to your gut–which may sink you deeper into the toxic partnership.
Signs you’re being manipulated:
To quickly recognize manipulative behavior, Manly recommends confiding with a trusted friend or talking to a therapist to keep track of potential manipulative patterns. But above all, she suggests keeping a journal as soon as you realize something is off.
“Trust your gut when you feel manipulated, and then write about the experience in a journal. Journaling is a terrific way to gain objectivity—especially when you can objectively assess patterns that you’ve journaled about over time,” she advises. “Within a week or two, you’ll likely detect patterns that help you objectively notice whether or not you’re in the midst of manipulative strategies.”
Here are some signs of manipulation that’ll likely be present in your relationship:
You’re not your full self around them.
“You’re feeling like you're walking on eggshells,” says clinical psychologist Annia Raja, Ph.D. “If you’re afraid of setting off your partner's anger or displeasure, and you’re constantly monitoring yourself around them, you may be dealing with a manipulative partner.”
You feel the need to apologize for everything.
On that note, Raja says you may feel like you have to constantly apologize for your actions because you never know what your partner will be upset about. If you’re assuming responsibility even when you’re not in the wrong, this indicates a bigger problem. “If you notice the urge or pressure to constantly justify every big and small decision, it could be a sign that you’re being manipulated,” she says.
Your expectations feel too high.
It’s normal to want your partner to show up for you the way you hope. If you’re in a relationship with elements of manipulation though, the opposite will happen. Instead, Manly says you may start to harbor doubts, wondering if your expectations are too high. Your manipulating partner may make you feel like your needs are too much and unrealistic, which could have you expressing less and ignoring what you care about.
For example, maybe you want to celebrate your birthday with a special date, but your partner is too consumed with work to meet your request. Instead of thinking about how they can make your day special, they may reverse it by minimizing your feelings. The end result is you pulling back the request and believing you are too much.
Their manipulative words might sound like this: “I can’t believe you’re stressing me out about your birthday when I have this much on my plate. If you really loved me, you would appreciate everything I already do for you and not focus on such a frivolous thing."
You're losing your community.
Raja says if you’re feeling isolated from your friends and family because of your partner, that’s an indicator that something is amiss. Your partner shouldn’t be controlling who you see, when you see them, or actively trying to keep you from spending time with people. In healthy relationships, they want to be a part of your inner circle.
On the flip side, they may use your friends and family against you if they’re manipulative. They may charm your loved ones with the intention of getting them on their side. If you try to address a conflict or leave them, they may have your inner circle convince you to give your partner another chance.
Your worth is at an all-time low.
When you’re being manipulated, there’s no room for what you want in the relationship. “You start wondering if you’re worthy and lovable; as if your self-esteem is taking a hit,” Manly says. It’s all about your partner, their needs, their desires, and what they’re comfortable giving. After a while, it can feel like nothing you care about matters–even you.
Manly previously mentioned, the manipulation of your worth could be more explicit. They may use your history, fears, and insecurities against you to bring you down and create a culture of codependency through emotional manipulation tactics like negging.
This common manipulative tactic comes with phrases like: “You’re lucky I love you so much when you’ve gained some extra pounds. Don’t worry, I love you exactly as you are.”
The relationship has a double standard.
"You feel as if there are two sets of rules—one for you and one for the person you’re dating,” Manly says. From their perspective, they can do no wrong. If they do something that hurts your feelings, it’s because of X reason so you should cut them some slack. But if you’re going through a tough time and not able to step up, they’ll guilt you to do it anyways.
When you say no, they don’t respect your boundary and try to get you to change your mind. They demand you pay attention to their inclinations and needs, but consistently disregard yours. When you bring up something they did to hurt you in the past, they turn it back on you to escape accountability.
It’s all about them and their needs.
“Manipulative people tend to monopolize conversations—it’s rarely about you, and when it is, you either feel like they’re not really listening or they somehow find a way to turn the conversation back around to themselves,” Raja points out.
Manipulative behaviors don’t just take place romantically, too; these qualities can also occur in friendships. “Manipulative friends may always want to be in charge, or want to control who else you hang out with, or make you feel reliant on them for your social needs,” she says. “Another sign of manipulation can be when the friend really only gets in touch with you when they need or want something from you. Outside of that, it’s crickets.”
The relationship is tilted in their favor.
It’s all about your partner and their comfort levels. If you ask them for more than they want to give you, they resist and deflect any attempt at a constructive conversation. “You're feeling like you're constantly making sacrifices or compromises to please the manipulator, but not getting anything in return,” Raja explains. “The relationship feels one-sided, leaving you feeling drained and exhausted.”
Common phrases manipulators use:
Manipulative phrases tend to be centered on garnering a particular reaction from you, escaping culpability, and making you feel bad for displaying your needs in a relationship. Here are some examples:
- This isn’t my fault. You made me do this
- You’re too sensitive
- I don’t know why you put up with me, maybe you’re better off alone
- Don’t exaggerate, that’s not what happened. This is what really happened…
- I said I was sorry, just drop it already. It’s all in the past
- I don’t get why you won’t let this go, you’re overreacting
- If you really loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to do that
- After everything I’ve done for you…
- I’m sorry you feel that way
How to overcome manipulation.
If you believe you’re being manipulated, it’s important to call out their words, actions, and motives in real time so you can prevent additional emotional violations. When manipulation goes too far, you may question yourself instead of recognizing the root of the problem–your partner.
“Overcoming manipulation takes a combination of self-awareness, other-awareness, and strong boundaries,” Manly says. “As you become more in touch with your own responses to another person’s manipulative dynamics, you can begin to create strong, healthy boundaries that put a halt to the toxic patterns,” Manly says.
Manly lays out a potential scenario. Let’s say you’re being manipulated into paying for the bulk of expenses, and you want to put healthy boundaries around finances. “You might say something like, ‘I’ve noticed that you don’t seem to have money to cover dinner when we go out. I realized I’m paying for most expenses, and that doesn’t feel right to me. In the future, please make sure you have cash with you before we head out. Otherwise, I’ll plan on staying in.’”
Raja agrees on the importance of practicing assertiveness so it can help you build an equal and respectful dynamic with your partner. This also has the positive benefit of developing a more positive self-image when you know how to say no and speak up in situations where you’re being taken advantage of.
A caveat: Raja notes it’s possible your partner could be manipulating you without realizing the impact their words or actions have on you. “They may use guilt-tripping to get you to do what they want, without realizing that they are putting excessive pressure or emotional burden on you,” she says as an example. “Or they may use passive-aggressive behavior, such as giving you the silent treatment, without realizing the hurtful and anxiety-provoking impact it has.”
Even if this is the case, that still doesn’t make it OK, and it still needs to be addressed. If they’re unwilling to change their behavior, you have the power to shift the power dynamic by taking care of yourself. “If the relationship is causing you significant distress or harm, or if the relationship is abusive in any way, it may be necessary to consider ending the relationship,” Raja advises.
How do manipulators choose their victims?
Raja notes if you have a history of people-pleasing and toxic parent dynamics, this may make you more vulnerable to manipulation. If you grew up ignoring your needs, you may prioritize keeping others happy over standing up for yourself. These childhood patterns could carry over into your other relationships. When you have weak boundaries, it’s easier for manipulators to take advantage of you and for you to be attracted to people that would treat you that way.
How to overcome manipulation?
You can overcome manipulation by educating yourself about manipulative behaviors, understanding your desires and limits, communicating your needs in a clear manner, building your self-esteem, saying no, surrounding yourself with people who are supportive, and going to therapy. When necessary, you may have to consider ending the relationship if there’s been no improvement.
Healthy relationships are predicated on mutual love, respect, and trust. When manipulation is in the picture, these core tenets can’t exist because the manipulator is taking away what makes you unique: your autonomy and personhood. They’re not seeing you for who you are, but what they want you to be. That isn’t love.
If you’re being manipulated by your partner, the good news is you can take back control by doing what’s best for you. No matter what, you deserve to be with someone where your thoughts, feelings, choices, and boundaries are not only tolerated but sought after and celebrated.
Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.