Manipulation in Marriage

Manipulation is not a good communication strategy

Couple arguing
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People who manipulate influence and control others through the use of mental distortion and emotional exploitation. The intent is to have power and control over you to get what they want. Manipulators know what your weaknesses are and use them against you. This will keep happening unless you actively and assertively stop it. This is quite difficult in a marriage as the manipulation may have started out subtle. Before long, this may become the everyday dynamic of your relationship with your spouse. 

Manipulation can be subtle or quite obvious, but either one is damaging to your marriage. For example: 

  • Subtle manipulation: "Do you have any plans for this evening?" (Left unsaid: If you do, you must not love me.)
  • Obvious manipulation: "If you loved me you would go to the movies with me tonight."
  • Direct and honest approach: "I would like to go to the movies tonight. If you don't have any plans for this evening, would you go with me?"

Manipulation Strategies

Think about whether you recognize some of these situations in your marriage. If you do, it is likely that your spouse is manipulating you. 

  • Withholding sex or affection
  • Withholding money or something of value
  • Making you feel shame, embarrassment, or guilt
  • Crying 
  • Withdrawal or avoidance
  • Giving the "silent treatment"
  • Pouting
  • Whining
  • Having a temper tantrum
  • Doling out threats and ultimatums
  • Lying or twisting the truth
  • Criticizing and disapproving
  • Being vague about wants or needs
  • Blaming
  • Being coercive
  • Showing exaggerated disappointment
  • Withholding or hiding information
  • Twisting your words (or their meaning)

Why Someone Manipulates

In general, people manipulate others to get what they want. They may feel the need to punish, control, or dominate their spouse. They may be seeking pity or attention, or have other selfish motives. They may be trying to change or wear down their spouse, perhaps in an effort to have their own needs met.

Consequences of Manipulation

If your spouse is being manipulative, this can cause serious damage to your relationship. You may experience:

  • Negative feelings such as dissatisfaction, hurt, resentment, anger, and frustration
  • A serious sense of self-doubt
  • A constant need to defend yourself
  • Frequent apologizing, even when you believe you did not do anything wrong
  • A lack of trust in your partner
  • A lack of safety in the marriage
  • Overall discontentment with the relationship

What to Do About Manipulation

Most people know how to be manipulative. But we choose other mature and healthy ways to interact with others. Particularly in a marriage or other loving relationship, most strive to be respectful of our mate through direct and honest communication.

Manipulation and similar forms of emotional abuse are not acceptable from a romantic partner (or anyone else in your life). Realize and accept that manipulation is also emotional blackmail. This unfair behavior needs to be recognized and eliminated in your marriage.

  • Recognize when you or your spouse manipulates.
  • Tell your spouse when you experience manipulation. Be specific in describing the manipulation and your feelings.
  • Do not act as if the manipulation is no big deal.
  • If you discover yourself manipulating, stop in mid-sentence. Be more direct in your questions or statements.
  • If the manipulation in your marriage continues, find a marriage counselor to help you both change the behavior.

Someone who manipulates in their adult relationships may have come from a dysfunctional family of origin (the family one grows up in). They may have had to manipulate in order to get basic needs met or avoid harsh punishment. Alternatively, the individual could have been manipulated by their parents and learned this negative way to interact with others.. 

Manipulation may seem like the easy or natural way to deal with a difficult issue or to have things the way you want them, but in the long run, it isn't. Manipulation is hurtful and damaging to your marital relationship. Both you and your spouse deserve honest and loving communication.

Article updated by Marni Feuerman

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