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Business man squeezing globe stress ballManipulation is the practice of using indirect tactics to control behavior, emotions, and relationships.

What Is Manipulation?

Most people engage in periodic manipulation. For example, telling an acquaintance that you feel fine when you are actually depressed is a form of manipulation because it controls your acquaintance’s perceptions of and reactions to you. Manipulation can also have more insidious consequences, however, and is often associated with emotional abuse, particularly in intimate relationships.

Some examples of manipulative behavior include:

  • passive-aggressive behavior
  • implicit threats
  • dishonesty
  • withholding information
  • isolating a person from loved ones
  • gaslighting
  • verbal abuse
  • use of sex to achieve goals

Manipulation and Mental Health

While most people engage in manipulation from time to time, a chronic pattern of manipulation can indicate an underlying mental health concern. Manipulation is particularly common with personality disorder diagnoses such as borderline personality and narcissistic personality. Munchausen syndrome by proxy, during which a caregiver makes another person ill to gain attention or affection, is another condition that is characterized by manipulative behaviors.


Long-term manipulation can have serious effects in close relationships. Manipulation in marriage can cause one partner to feel bullied, isolated, or worthless, and parents who manipulate their children may set their children up for guilt, depression, anxiety, eating issues, and other mental health conditions.


Victims of chronic manipulation may feel depressed and anxious, and may develop unhealthy coping patterns such as constantly trying to please the manipulative person, lying about their feelings, or putting another person’s needs before their own. In some cases, manipulation can be so pervasive that it causes a victim to question his or her perception of reality. The classic movie Gaslight illustrated one such story, where a woman’s husband subtly manipulated her until she no longer trusted her own perceptions. For example, the husband covertly turned down the gaslights and convinced his wife that the dimming light was all in her head.



  1. Eight ways to spot emotional manipulation. (n.d.). Cassiopaea.com. Retrieved from http://www.cassiopaea.com/cassiopaea/emotional_manipulation.htm
  2. Gass, G. Z., & Nichols, W. C. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome. Contemporary Family Therapy, 10(1), 3-16. doi: 10.1007/BF00922429


Last updated: 05-5-2014

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