We are all vulnerable to manipulation in relationships, whether between friends, parents, children, employers, coworkers or neighbors. When we let someone manipulate us we are allowing them to control our thoughts, feelings, behavior and our motives through their deceptive, exploitative and unfair means.
A manipulative relationship is one-sided and unbalanced and is not the same as influence. The manipulator achieves their goal at the expense of the person being manipulated. For those of us who aren’t sure we’re being manipulated or want help help dealing with a manipulative partner, talking to a professional therapist is often helpful.
Are You in a Manipulative Relationship?
Answer “True” or “False” to the following questions:
- I sometimes feel confused about what my partner really wants.
- I feel that my partner frequently takes advantage of my giving nature.
- Even when I do something that pleases my partner, the positive feelings never last very long.
- With my partner I feel that it’s hard to just be myself or do what I really want to do.
- Around my partner I feel taken for granted.
- I seem to work harder on this relationship than my partner does.
- My partner has a very strong impact on what I think and feel.
- I sometimes feel that I am trapped in my relationship and there’s no way out.
- I feel that I need my partner more than my partner needs me.
- No matter how much I’ve done, I feel that it’s not good enough for my partner.
- I feel that my partner does not understand who I really am.
- I don’t feel as good about myself in my relationship as I once did.
If you answered “True” to more than half the questions you might want to consider exploring whether or not you’re in a manipulative relationship.
Dealing with Manipulation
If you’re in this kind of relationship and want to change it, there are effective ways to stand up against manipulation and bring your relationship back into balance. Here are things you should know and some ways that you can help yourself.
Step 1.0: How to spot manipulation.
- Manipulators watch and learn the other person’s vulnerabilities and how to exploit them for their own purposes.
- Manipulators use two basic tactics to exert control. They promise to change if the other first goes along with what the manipulator wants. “I promise I’ll help you at home if you’ll stop spending time with your friends at work.” Or, they threaten loss. “I’m going to stay out every night unless you clean this house so it’s spotless when I get home.”
- Manipulation usually progresses over a long period of time during which the manipulator learns how far they can go. While they have a strong need to control, they’re unlikely to try manipulating the other person at the beginning of a relationship since this would quickly end the relationship.
Step 2.0: Know yourself.
Here are some common traits of those who are vulnerable to manipulation:
- You feel useful and loved only when you can take care of the needs of others.
- You need to have the approval and acceptance of others.
- You fear expressing negative emotions.
- You can’t say no.
- You lack a firm sense of your own self.
Step 3.0: Change yourself. You cannot change the manipulator.
You won’t outsmart them. Remember, they’ve probably had years of practice. Telling them how their tactics affect you seldom works. Manipulators usually lack empathy and they’ll eventually use what you say about them against you. Begin changing how you respond to the manipulator. If you stop cooperating, this will instantly change the relationship. Manipulators don’t like to work too hard at their trade so they soon give up and may even leave the relationship.
Step 4.0: Should you stay or leave?
Depending on the damage done and your sense of happiness, you may need to consider whether it’s worth it to stay in the relationship. Of course, there are many situations in which a partner must stay in the relationship, including a parent/child relationship; a business partnership or boss/employee relationships. In such a situation you can at least get clarity about how the relationship adds to or reduces your potential to reach you personal goals.
Step 5.0: Self-control
Buy some time to think about each situation as it happens. If you get hurt or angry or afraid or you need time to rehearse what you’ll say back to the manipulator, firmly and gently say something like “I‘ll get back to you when I’ve had time to think about it.” Now, you’re in control. Don’t answer them if they ask you why you need more time to think – if you do, you risk giving up your control of your actions.
Without explanation and remaining firm, simply repeat as often as necessary something like “I need more time to think about it.” Then take as much time as you can to gather your thoughts and to prepare your response.
Step 6.0: Manage your emotions.
Face you fear. Manage your anger. Stop feeling guilty. Fear, guilt and anger are normal emotional reactions to manipulation. Once you learn to cope with and mange these feelings you’ll be more able to stand up to a manipulator and other difficult people. Doing this is hard work and is best accomplished with the help of a professional psychotherapist. For example, during individual counseling you’ll take a deep look inside yourself; learn where these feelings come and how to manage them, and you’ll have more strength to face the manipulator.
If you wish to, you may be able to convince the manipulator to join you in couples counseling by saying something like “The therapist will probably need your help with me” or “I need your help with the problem I have of not giving you what you want.” A psychotherapist can also help you deal with your codependency if you have these traits, and could be available to you by phone between therapy sessions if you need support.
Step 7.0: Self-assertion.
An example of self assertion would be you saying, with a calm voice and with direct eye contact something like: “When you threaten to leave me I feel afraid. If you simply tell me what you want and show me respect I’ll be more able to listen to what you want.” At some point it will be time for you to set firm boundaries. For example, say something like “We both understand that you have a pattern of playing on my fears, and now you know how I feel about that and that it’s not going to work any longer.”
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