Manipulation in Relationships – And How To Deal With It: Part Two

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.

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