We often talk about dysfunctional relationships in terms of one of the partners being narcissistic. I have known many new clients who do this and it is a popular term that is consolidated by self-help literature, blogposts and so-called narcissist recovery programs and coaches. My feeling is that if you have got to the point where you are calling a partner this, then you have probably overlooked or not recognised a lot of manipulation that has gone before. In all likelihood, it was probably noticed but nothing was done about it. Just how do you recognise a manipulative partner. It is not as easy as you think and is often quite subtle.
People who are easily manipulated tend to have abandonment issues and feel the need to make the relationship work under all circumstances. The manipulator often senses this and uses it for advantage. This is consolidated in the language they use towards their victim and various tactics employed to destroy the self-worth of the person concerned. Psychologists say the root cause of manipulative behavior can often be toxic cycles of violence, narcissism or unhealthy relationships in the manipulator’s own childhood. Manipulation can happen in any relational context, including family, friends, professional, romantic, or sexual relationships.
When used in relationships, the term “manipulation” describes activities undertaken by an individual to try to exert influence over others, frequently in a damaging or deceitful manner. Psychological manipulation is the application of deceptive or distorted pressure to alter behaviors or beliefs. The same techniques are used in emotional manipulation to purposefully elicit strong emotional responses in an effort to deplete another person’s energy or undermine their emotional stability. Here is what to look out for:
- Gaslighting. One of the most significant aspects of manipulation is gaslighting, a conversational technique used to disconnect you from your gut feeling or rational assessments of your world. When you start to doubt your morality or sanity, that’s a clue that something is off and that manipulation might be taking place. It is simpler for a manipulator to persuade you to align with their vision when you have doubts about your reality. The only purpose of gaslighting is to detach a victim from their path and sow doubt in the victim’s or other people’s thoughts so that the gaslighter may get away with something or maintain the upper hand. Typical phrases used include: “You are crazy”, “That’s not true”, “You are too sensitive”, “Maybe that’s what you heard but that’s not what I said”, “You need help, there’s something wrong with you”.
- The Relationship Is Emotionally Intense. In order to keep control, manipulation in romantic relationships frequently entails fostering a strong, passionate attachment as a foundation for control. Intensity, turmoil, and love bombing are regular and fundamental components needed for effective manipulation. An effective way for manipulative and abusive spouses to control their partners in a relationship is to keep them confused, bewildered, and preoccupied with visions of the future or happy times that have already occurred.
- Lying And Blaming. A manipulative person will probably try to avoid accepting responsibility for their actions. To present themselves in a better light, they could lie or exaggerate. They might even shift the blame onto you , which would make you question what truly happened and yourself (this is another example of gaslighting). Despite the fact that many of us tell what we believe to be “white lies,” or lies that are innocuous, someone who is trying to manipulate your emotions is more likely to deceive you. Many clients that I deal with have stated that the constant blaming and criticism aimed at them was linked with their partner never taking responsibility for their actions. They often felt the need to be always right and the issues were always with someone else, never with them. You are always going to be the fall guy for a manipulator. Everything will somehow be your fault. These people will find any opportunity to make themselves into the victim. You’ll find yourself in the role of antagonist because of their manipulative ways
- Threats And Withdrawal. Someone who coerces you—using threats to get you to do something—is being emotionally manipulative. For instance, your partner might threaten to leave you because you won’t go along with exactly what they want you to do. Another sign of emotional manipulation is if your partner withdraws from you. Maybe they give you the silent treatment if you are doing something they don’t want you to do. They might withhold information, affection, or even sex to “punish” you, even for something insignificant. They might refuse to stop withdrawing or withholding until you do what they want or until you admit blame for something that isn’t your fault.
- Constant Criticism And Degradation. If your spouse consistently criticizes you for doing something that makes you feel good about yourself, such as exercising, practicing self care or otherwise bettering yourself, this is a clue that they are manipulative. Your partner is probably attempting to lower your self-esteem if they make derogatory comments or use covert flattery. This is a strategy that manipulators frequently employ to undermine their victim’s self-confidence. It’s simpler to take advantage of a victim once they begin to doubt their own judgment.
- Walking On Eggshells. Perhaps you consider fear to be a strong feeling or a natural response to danger. However, fear can also appear as a reluctance to do or say something in order to prevent confrontation or commotion. You might not even be conscious of how you’re feeling; you just instinctively steer clear of particular subjects or activities. Anger can be used as a manipulative strategy by some people. Their outbursts may cause others to withdraw or alter their actions in an effort to mitigate the impact. As an adult, you could also develop hyperawareness of your actions or show symptoms of worry without a known cause. Every choice you make could be weighed against what the other person might do.
- Guilt Inducing. Guilt is usually where manipulation starts. Do you that frequently downplay your own needs and desires out of concern for your partner? Do your partner’s comments frequently make you feel guilty for wanting to take a certain action that you view as important? You might need to pay attention if this occurs regularly to see whether a pattern is emerging. Manipulators are often very good at crying and playing the victim when they need to. Most manipulators use a combination of shame, your altruistic intentions and emotional vulnerabilities to play up your insecurities and make you more dependent on them for support and approval.
- Control. Manipulative people will attempt to control everything in a relationship from who their partner interacts with to finance and spare time activity. They will often isolate their partner from people who might help them see what situation they are really in. This might be done with threats or silent treatment.
- Abrupt Mood Changes. Manipulators experience sudden emotional swings. Their fury can erupt unexpectedly if they feel threatened in some way. They frequently lack empathy, making it difficult for them to grasp your emotions and why you can become disturbed by their erratic mood swings. If that fails, the victim may be given the silent treatment. When someone chooses not to interact with you and blatantly ignores you in spite of your plainly expressed feelings, this is known as silent treatment but is in effect punishment. It sends you the message that you don’t matter and you should think about what you did. On the other end of the spectrum, someone can be more overtly manipulative by shouting at you and preventing you from responding in an effort to frighten you into submission or apologizing.
- No Conflict Resolution. It’s conceivable that manipulative behaviors are at hand when you feel like you’ve been discussing the same topic for weeks or even months without coming to a resolution. You might even have agreed to something you weren’t truly comfortable with when your partner broke off the conversation. Conflict resolution is near impossible with a manipulator who will gaslight, blame, talk over and not listen. They are actually not interested in resolution, needing to have ammunition to hold over their partner.
What do you do if you are being subjected to some or all of the above? Find the courage to leave as soon as possible and close the door tightly. Manipulators (who could also be undiagnosed sociopaths or narcissists) will likely never change and you will continue to enable their behaviour by accepting what they dish out. The price to pay will be your self-esteem, your identity and you will learn that your needs are not important.
Codependency And Manipulation
I have seen many times a situation that is very frustrating for me as a therapist. Working with codependents, it is often advisable to ensure their recovery is not hampered by contact with an abusive, manipulative ex-partner. As we know, moving away from such a relationship is hard for many codependents but maintaining that stance is the next big challenge as they struggle to move on and avoid becoming supply.
If you have been in this situation and have managed to get “that” person out of your life, there is no earthly reason to be found for allowing them back in. However, this is exactly what I see too often. Women (especially but can be men) who are finally free of abuse, constant criticism and manipulation refusing to block social media and telephone numbers, sometimes even lying about doing so. There are many creative reasons given for this:
“I want to check my progress by exposing myself to his/her social media” (In truth, I want to stalk him/her constantly to see what he/she is doing and with whom)
“I want to keep him in my phone in case his mother/children/sister/dog needs me” (reads, I can’t let go and hope he needs me)
“I had a bad week” (usually means I have had contact with him/her and it’s my/our secret)
“I don’t see the point in no-contact, I am recovered” (says, I am going through the motions and as soon as he contacts me, I will go running)
“He needs me and he is not as bad as I have reported (means I need him and I fear being alone)
These relationships mirror childhood experiences with caregivers who were emotionally distant, neglectful or abusive. They may have been caregivers for addicted or sick parents or had to take on a parental role for parents who had no idea how to parent. The result was that they learnt that they must give and continue to give to gain validation and attention, giving them the idea that their needs are not important. This developmental trauma is at the root of the cause of codependency.
Fast forward to adulthood and the same process and attitude drives them into relationships with similar people as the quest for validation and security goes on. The chase to “fix” someone to find security is a never-ending quest that is aimed at emotionally distant individuals and manipulators and no good can ever come of it. This quest leads many codependents to feel insecure when the chase is finally brought to a halt. This leads them to being vulnerable to contact and the consequences that follow.
Sometimes, even if a good period of recovery has been maintained, one call or text from the manipulative ex can send a codependent into a tailspin that would take some time to recover from. This is mainly because this contact mirrors the initial adulation stage that “hooked” the codependent in the first place. Being “supply” after the fact will mean that once the money/sex/boost in self-esteem is over, the manipulator will disappear, leaving chaos behind.
For this reason, it is always strongly advisable to go complete no-contact and block the manipulator everywhere and lock every door that might lead to them getting back in.
In the long run, you will be glad you did.
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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.