Emotional manipulation can undermine close relationships and leave the manipulation victim feeling powerless, confused, and frustrated. Yet all people manipulate others from time to time—often without intending to. And some definitions of emotional manipulation are so broad that they can apply to any behavior, even something as innocuous as a baby crying for food.
So when is an attempt to get one’s needs met or to achieve one’s goals actually a form of manipulation? And when does manipulation cross the line into emotional abuse? Here are some red flags that may signal a serious relationship problem.
What is Manipulation?
Manipulation is any attempt to sway a person’s emotions to get them to act in a specific way or feel a certain thing. While it’s common in interpersonal relationships, it also frequently happens on a broader scale. Advertisers routinely attempt to manipulate people’s emotions to get them to buy a product. Political candidates manipulate voters to win votes, convince voters of untrue claims, or change a voter’s opinions about a given issue.
“We’re all manipulators,” says Melissa Stringer, LPC, NCC, B-TMH, a Texas therapist who works with many clients to handle a wide range of individual and interpersonal concerns. “Socially acceptable manipulation, such as smiling and making eye contact, are considered healthy ways to increase the chances of human connection. But when manipulation is used to avoid vulnerability and establish power over others, it becomes unhealthy.”
People who are deliberately manipulative often do so in an attempt to avoid healthier strategies, such as direct communication of their needs or mutual intimacy and vulnerability.
Twelve Common Manipulation Tactics
People can manipulate others using hundreds of tactics. Some of the most common include:
- Using intense emotional connection to control another person’s behavior. For example, an abusive person may try to manipulate a person by moving very quickly in a romantic relationship. They may overwhelm their victim with loving gestures to lower their guard or make them feel indebted.
- Playing on a person’s insecurities. This is a popular tactic among advertisers, such as when a cosmetic company makes a person feel unattractive or “old.” It also works well in interpersonal relationships. For instance, someone may make their romantic partner think no one else could ever possibly love them.
- Lying and denial. Manipulators may bombard their victims with lies. When they’re caught, they may deny the lie or cover it up with another falsehood.
- Hyperbole and generalization. It’s difficult to respond to an allegation of “never” being loving or “never” working hard. Specific details can be debated, while vague accusations are often harder to dispute.
- Changing the subject. In an argument about one person’s behavior, the individual may deflect attention from themselves by attacking their critic. The deflection often takes the form of, “Well what about [X]?” For example, when one spouse expresses concern about their partner’s drug use, the partner may attack their spouse’s parenting skills.
- Moving the goalposts. This happens when a manipulative person constantly shifts the criteria one must meet in order to satisfy them. For example, a bully may use their coworker’s clothes as an excuse to harass them. If the individual changes outfits, the bully may claim the person won’t “deserve” professional respect until they change their hairstyle, their accent, or another miscellaneous trait.
- Using fear to control another person. For instance, a person may use threats of violence or physically intimidating body language.
- Using social inequities to control another person. For example, a neurotypical person might attempt to use a cognitive disability to demean another person or dismiss their experiences.
- Passive-aggression. This is a broad category of behavior that includes many strategies such as guilt-tripping, giving backhanded compliments, and more. Passive-aggression is a way of voicing displeasure or anger without directly expressing the emotion.
- Giving a person the silent treatment. It’s fine to ask for time to reflect on an argument or to tell someone who deeply hurt you that you no longer wish to speak to them. But ignoring a person to punish them or make them fearful is a manipulative tactic.
- Gaslighting. Gaslighting involves causing the manipulation victim to doubt their own understanding of reality. For example, an abusive person might deny that the abuse happened, telling the victim there’s something wrong with their memory.
- Recruiting others to help with manipulation. For example, an abusive parent might ask family members to remind a child how much the parent has sacrificed for the child. The social pressure may convince the child to stop complaining about abusive behavior.
A manipulative person may combine these tactics or alternate between them depending on the context.
Why Do People Manipulate Others?
Not all manipulation has malicious intent, even when it causes immense harm. Some common reasons people engage in manipulation include:
- Poor communication skills. Some people may be uncomfortable with direct communication. Others may have grown up in houses where manipulative communication was the norm.
- A desire to avoid connection. Some people treat others as means to an end and use manipulation to control them. This is sometimes a symptom of a personality disorder such as narcissistic personality.
- Fear. People may engage in manipulation out of fear, especially fear of abandonment. This often happens during breakups or relationship fights.
- Defensiveness. Manipulation can be a way of avoiding blame. While some people avoid blame as a way to control or abuse another person, others do so because they fear judgment, have low self-esteem, or struggle to face their own shortcomings.
- Social norms. Some forms of manipulation are normal, and perhaps even beneficial. For example, most people learn that it is important to be friendly and cheerful around work colleagues in order to professionally advance.
- Marketing, advertising, and other financial or political incentives. Entire industries are dedicated to manipulating people’s emotions to change their minds, convince them to buy products, or urge them to vote a certain way.
“In many cases, manipulative individuals were not taught effective communication skills. Or worse, they were punished by an influential figure for expressing needs or wants. As a result, the original means for connecting gets overridden and replaced by strategies centered around avoiding any sense of fault. This is adequately achieved in two primary ways: indirect communication and a refusal to be accountable for actions,” Stringer emphasizes.
Protecting Yourself from Emotional Manipulation
If you have fallen for manipulative tactics in the past, know that you are not at fault. Nearly everyone is manipulated at some point. There’s no way to prevent all manipulation.
However, a number of strategies can reduce the impact of emotional manipulation and help you set clear boundaries. These include:
- Communicating in direct, clear, and specific ways. Direct communication models the behavior you hope for in your relationships and can make it easier to identify manipulation.
- Understanding when manipulation is normal and when it’s not. Most people occasionally make passive-aggressive or manipulative comments. Manipulation is more problematic, and may even be abusive, when it is part of a systemic attempt to control or harm another person.
- Setting clear boundaries around manipulation. When a person attempts to manipulate you, tell them how you want them to treat you and then follow your own guideline. For example, “Mom, I understand that you sacrificed a lot for me, but that doesn’t mean you get to belittle me. I can’t talk to you about this until you’re willing to stop changing the subject.”
- Asking for insight from trusted third parties. This can be risky, since manipulative people sometimes recruit outsiders. But if you have a spouse, friend, or family member whom you can trust to be objective, they may offer helpful insights.
Victims of chronic manipulation and emotional abuse may find relief in therapy. A therapist can work with you to identify manipulation, break free from an abusive relationship, and reduce the risk of being trapped in a relationship such again. In therapy, you’ll develop healthy boundaries and work through any reluctance you have to enforce those boundaries.
Families and couples who struggle with manipulation can also find help in therapy. A therapist may work with all parties to understand why direct communication is a challenge for them, cultivate healthier communication patterns, and find better ways to get their needs met.
Begin your search for a therapist here.
- Burton, N. (2015, April 14). Don’t fool yourself: seven signs you’re being passive-aggressive. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/04/14/dont-fool-yourself-seven-signs-that-youre-being-passive-aggressive/
- Collins, R. F. (n. d.). 10 ways to manipulate at work or at home [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~rcollins/manipulationposter9-16.pdf
- What is gaslighting? (n. d.). Retrieved from https://www.thehotline.org/what-is-gaslighting
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