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This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Manipulation in Relationships

The manipulator’s tactics

Manipulation in a relationship usually progresses over a long period of time. Manipulators learn over time how far they can go. They are unlikely to attempt to manipulate the other person at the beginning of a relationship since this could bring things to an immediate end. They observe the other person’s vulnerabilities and learn eventually how to exploit them for their own purposes.

There are two basic tactics that are used to exert control, and they usually go hand in hand. The first is a promise of gain. That is, the manipulator will promise to provide something if the partner goes along with what the manipulator wants. “I promise – no arguments for a week if you’ll end your friendship with Pat.” The other tactic is the promise of avoiding loss.

In this case, the manipulator threatens the partner with the loss of something if the partner does not go along with the manipulator’s desires. “I’m going to stay out with my friends late every night unless this house is cleaned spic and span by the time I get home.” (Of course, these two examples are obvious manipulation attempts. Most manipulators use more subtle methods than we see in these examples.)

Manipulators need to be in control

Manipulative people have a strong need to be in control. This may derive from underlying feelings of insecurity on their part, although they often compensate for these feelings with a show of strong self-confidence. Even though they may deny it, their motives are self-serving, and they pursue their aims regardless of the cost to other people.

They have a strong need to feel superior and powerful in their relationships – and they find people who will validate these feelings by going along with their attempts at manipulation. They see power as finite. If you exert power over them, they will retaliate in order to gain back the control they feel they are losing. They cannot understand the idea that everyone can feel empowered or that everyone can gain. When they are not in control – of themselves and over other people – they feel threatened. They have difficulty in showing vulnerable emotions because it might suggest they are not in control.

Manipulators don’t always plan their moves

Those who are manipulative usually don’t consciously plan their maneuvers. They emerge from the manipulator’s underlying personality disorder, and are played out within the context of a victim who colludes with, and unwittingly encourages, the manipulation. There is a wide range of tactics used by manipulators ranging from verbal threats to subtle attempts to arrange situations to suit the manipulator.

For example, one of the more common forms of manipulation is called splitting – turning two people against each other by talking to each one behind the back of the other, getting them to dislike or distrust each other, and leaving the manipulator in a position of control. They may use active techniques like becoming angry, lying, intimidating, shouting, name-calling or other bullying tactics. Or they may use more passive methods like pouting, sulking, ignoring you, or giving you the silent treatment.

Some ground rules for dealing with manipulation

  • Focus on changing yourself, not the manipulator. It is not helpful to try to outmanipulate a skillful manipulator – you are simply making yourself vulnerable to further manipulation. You will not change a manipulator by focusing on his or her imperfections and trying to work toward their achieving insight. You may think that it would be helpful to share with the manipulator how you feel and how his or her behavior has an impact on you – but this is generally not helpful since most manipulators are not capable of empathy and may use this information against you in the future. The only effective method of changing manipulative behavior is to disable it by making a change within yourself, thereby changing the dynamics of the manipulative relationship. If you cease to cooperate with the manipulative tactics, you will alter the nature of the relationship. If manipulators have to work hard to maintain control in the relationship, they usually give up – often by leaving the relationship and finding someone else to control.
  • Assess the worth of this relationship to you. Depending on the severity of the manipulation and the damage it has done to your sense of happiness and integrity, you may need to consider whether it is worth it to continue the relationship. Of course, there are many situations (parent/child, for example) when you must stay in the relationship, so it is helpful at least to achieve some clarity about what you want in your life and assess how the relationship has the potential to lead you toward your personal goals.
  • Use assertiveness techniques to change the nature of the relationship. You might be so accustomed to complying with the manipulator’s tactics that you automatically do his or her bidding without thinking about it. First, you need to stop your automatic compliance. You do this by buying time to think about each situation as it arises. “I’ll get back to you on that when I have the time to think about it.” At this point you are now in control of the situation. It is not helpful to let the manipulator ask you why you need time since this invites your loss of control. Simply repeat the same thing over and over again without explanation. “I need more time to think about it.” Next, you need to confront the fear, anxiety or guilt that has driven you to comply in the past with the manipulator’s demands.

This requires a deep look within that may be achieved by working with a relationship coach or therapist. Exploring your own personal feelings, why you react as you do, and how to use alternate responses may be a challenge, but the benefits are far-reaching – and they may save your relationship, or at least prepare you for healthier relationships in the future.

See manipulation for what it is

Finally, you might label the manipulation for what it is. “When you threaten to leave me I feel afraid. If you would simply state your wishes and show me respect, I would be more able to listen to what you want.” In a calm voice and with direct eye contact, it may be time to announce that the old manipulations have come to an end. “We both understand that you have a pattern of playing on my fears, and now you know how I feel about that. Your way of threatening me is not going to work any longer.”

In making these types of assertive statements, you are defining your boundaries. There is no need to make threats. Simply state that you will no longer participate in their manipulations. Make it clear that by setting limits and enhancing your own personal integrity, you expect a better relationship in the future. Learning to assert yourself in the face of a manipulative individual who feels threatened when not in control is a challenge, and doing this with the help of a relationship coach or therapist is recommended.

Quiz – Are You in a Manipulative Relationship?

Answer the following questions with a T (for true) or an F (for false).

____ 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 long.

____ With my partner I feel that it’s hard just to be myself or do what I really want.

____ 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 is no way out.

____ I don’t feel as good about myself in my relationship as I once did.

____ I feel that I need my partner more than my partner needs me.

____ No matter how much I have done, I feel that it’s not good enough for my partner.

____ I feel that my partner does not understand who I really am.

There are twelve questions in this quiz. If you answered more than half of them with a T, you might want to consider exploring whether you are in a manipulative relationship.



Series NavigationManipulation in Relationships – And How To Deal With It: Part One

written by Paul and Layne


13 Responses to “Manipulation in Relationships – And How To Deal With It: Part Two”

  1. 1. Nicole Bruce Says:

    thank you for these wonderful articles…i happen to be divorcing this type of person right now. i am very happy and am looking for the best ways to change myself in order to change the situation. you’re article confirms that i am on the right path…thank you, love & light

  2. 2. Ziyanda Says:

    I’m on the same path with Nicole. Some people are miserable and want those around them to be the same. I could see that my ex was angry everytime he saw me happy and went out of his way to make sure that joy did not last long. This article articulates the situation so well

  3. 3. Darlene Says:

    My answer to each was a resounding TRUE!! I know it is bad and my kids want me to leave. They want their mom back and want me happy again. I have an 18 year old daughter who is pregnant with my first grand baby who refuses to live with me bc of him–it is their step-dad. He has moved us an hour away from where we were so he could be closer to work and I now don’t have a job and he knows it makes it even harder for me to leave now! I have busted my butt to make things good and for him to see he has a wife that loves him…He has a daughter that he has kept out of our family and now blames me for not having a relationship with her along with everyone else blaming me. He has everyone fooled, especially his family. They want nothing to do with me or my kids either. I’m dying inside and find it almost impossible to leave.

  4. 4. mary eileen Says:

    I am so glad that you are dealing with this subject. I have been in this situation many times! This helps to clarify it for me!

  5. 5. Pamela S Says:

    The interesting part…silent treatments, pouting, non-communication, these passive aggressive methods are clearly manipulation as you have stated in the article. Thanks for posting these lessons!

  6. 6. Budget a Wedding Says:

    Great post! It is sad that there are so many manipulating relationships out there. I like that you said change yourself first and if you can’t then get out!!

  7. 7. Mary Says:

    I spent 25 years in a manipulative marriage and then got dumped. As can be expected I was devastated. My sense of worth was so tied to supporting my husband financially and emotionally at my expense that when the marriage ended I felt absolutely no feelings of worth towards myself. It has been a long road. Our life was a revolving wheel of him asking for help because “this new deal will be it” to “everything has fallen apart and I have nowhere to turn”. I even spoke of this to him but try as I might when he had nowhere to turn, he had the ability to turn my “no” into a “yes”.

    Thank you for this article as it helps me to see my personal tendencies more clearly and gives me concrete things to work on in myself.

  8. 8. Dean O Says:

    wow!! this is such a huge topic and such an amazing article!! Thanks so much. I notice that I am vulnerable to being manipulated.. and Iook forward to noticing this in my relationships and letting it go away! Please send me any further help you feel would be appropriate. DeanOzen@shaw.ca.
    Thanks you so much

  9. 9. Snoopy Says:

    It’s intresting to note that both I and my wife are both manipulators… though I recognise now that I am more or less the one being manipulated. This article has given me some huge insights, thank you. To everyone else out there dealing with this type of thing I wish you all the best of luck!

  10. 10. KJ Says:

    Is it possible if you do start to be assertive and show yourself worth to the manipulating partner, is it possible for them to change. I honestly believe that part of this person loves me, but I have let them manipulate me for a while and it has become the normal that I will just give in. But I have decided to set my boundaries and stick to them, I just really love him and hate to lose him, but I’m no longer going to lose myself. I was just wondering if they ever see the light and change are if they just that way. Thanks

  11. 11. Chris Says:

    what to do if the manipulator is your mother. I’m 30 and my sister is 19 and our mother still tries to manipulate us constantly. How do we escape this kind of manipulator?

  12. 12. Gianna Says:

    I’m Definitly in a manipulative relationship , my boyfriend is so manipulative that I have stopped going out with girl friends because he makes me feel as though I’m doing something wrong. Every single arguement we have he threatens to leave me, he says I’m not there for him, but when I advise him on something he doesn’t listen anyway. I love him and we have been together for 5 years , and he says I made him this way, that its my fault that he’s insecure and can’t trust me. He was married and fell in love with me and left his wife who he wasn’t happy with and blames me for his misery with himself. He will block my calls and my every way of reaching him with every argument and threaten to leave but then say he cannot live without me. He calls me Terrible names and belittles me if I don’t agree with him and then say he’s the bad guy and everything is his fault to make me feel bad . I love him but I don’t know what to do anymore, what do you think?

  13. 13. Paul Cutright Says:

    Thanks for your question, Gianna. In our thirty plus years of working with relationships we have seen the situation you describe countless times. Bottom line, I think that you are both running unconscious belief and behavior patterns from your respective childhoods. Until you each get help to understand what those patterns are and how they operate, and then make the effort to change them, you will both continue the way you have described until you either do something about it or until your relationship ends.

    Have either of you read any books or taken any classes about relationships? You need help to change things, you cannot do it alone. A good book to start with is John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

    I hope this will be helpful for you, Gianna.

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