6 Signs of Manipulation in Relationships

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People who manipulate use mental distortion and emotional exploitation to influence and control others. Their intent is to have power and control over others to get what they want.

Someone who manipulates you knows what your weaknesses are and will use them against you. If the person doing the manipulation is getting what they want from you, the manipulation will continue until you decide it has to stop and actively and intentionally put an end to it. This can be challenging and you are encouraged to seek support during this process, especially if you are interacting with a chronically manipulative person.

Recognizing manipulation in your own relationship can be difficult because it might have started out subtle. Over time, manipulative behavior in relationships can become the everyday dynamic with your partner.

This article covers how to recognize the signs of emotional manipulation and how to respond to manipulative behavior in relationships.

Signs of Manipulation in a Relationship

If someone consistently makes you feel emotionally drained, anxious, fearful, or doubtful of your own needs, thoughts, and feelings, you may be dealing with emotional manipulation. Follow your gut instinct when it comes to recognizing what is occurring while also looking for these signs of manipulation in a relationship:

  • Gaslighting
  • Passive-aggressive behavior
  • Lying and blaming
  • Threats and coerciveness
  • Withdrawal and withholding
  • Isolation

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Gaslighting

A person who is gaslighting you may lie to you, blame you for things, and minimize what you're feeling. They might say, "You're crazy," or "You're too sensitive." Someone who is gaslighting you tries to make you feel that you aren't worthy of expressing yourself and that your feelings and emotions are not real or valid. People gaslight in order to deny any wrongdoing on their part and to assert control over what you think and what you do.

If you suspect someone is gaslighting you, pay attention to how you feel after you spend time with them. You might feel confused, disappointed in yourself, inadequate, or like you can't trust yourself.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

As opposed to using direct communication, a person who behaves passive-aggressively doesn't express how they're really feeling. Your partner might use avoidance tactics, such as actively dodging you or dodging the discussion of certain topics. Sarcasm can be another sign of passive-aggressive communication.

A person who is behaving passive-aggressively might try to get attention by making overly dramatic gestures—like sighing or pouting. They might use immature emotional reactions to bait you into asking them what's wrong without just coming out and saying it.

Lying and Blaming

Someone who is emotionally manipulative will most likely avoid taking responsibility for their actions. They might blatantly lie or exaggerate things to portray themselves in a more positive light. They might even shift the blame to you, making you doubt yourself and what actually happened (this is another example of gaslighting).

Though many of us tell "white lies," or lies that we consider harmless, a person who is emotionally manipulative will likely tell lies to mislead you.

Threats and Coerciveness

Someone who coerces you—using threats or force to get you to do something—is being emotionally manipulative. For instance, your partner might threaten to leave you because you won't go along with exactly what they want you to do.

Your partner might threaten you by saying they'll hurt themselves. They are using the threat of self-harm to get you to do what they want. They may or may not actually hurt themselves—but self-harm should always be taken seriously.

Someone who threatens to hurt themselves should seek counseling from a mental healthcare professional.

You can encourage your partner to seek help, while still enforcing any boundaries between yourself and them to protect your emotional and physical safety.

Withdrawal and Withholding

Another sign of emotional manipulation is if your partner withdraws from you. Maybe they give you the silent treatment if you are doing something they don't want you to do.

They might withhold information, affection, or even sex to "punish" you, even for something insignificant. They might refuse to stop withdrawing or withholding until you do what they want or until you admit blame for something that isn't your fault.

Isolation

A person who wants to control you might try to cut off your contact with friends and family, especially if any of your loved ones express a dislike or distrust of the emotionally manipulative person.

On the other hand, an emotionally manipulative person might try to gain the support of your family and friends for their own benefit. For instance, if your partner knows that you want to leave them, they might try convincing your family or friends to tell you to stay with them.

Your partner might try to alienate you from your support system, causing you to doubt your decision to move on from the relationship.

Consequences of Manipulation

  • A constant need to defend yourself
  • A lack of safety in the relationship
  • A lack of trust in your partner
  • A serious sense of self-doubt
  • Frequent apologizing, even when you believe you did nothing wrong
  • Frequent feelings of confusion, dissatisfaction, hurt, resentment, anger, exhaustion, and frustration
  • Overall discontentment with the relationship

What Is Manipulation?

Manipulation is a tactic someone uses in order to gain control over another person, usually in an attempt to get what they want, and often at the other person's expense.

For instance, a person who is manipulative might use strategies like lying, gaslighting, passive-aggressiveness, and the silent treatment, among others, all in order to get you to believe that you are wrong and they are right. You may feel confused, uncertain about what to think or feel, and find yourself apologizing for something that you have not done wrong.

Signs of emotional manipulation can be subtle or obvious, but no matter how they appear, manipulation is damaging to your relationship, confidence, and self-esteem. Here's a look at how manipulation tactics compare to a healthy, direct approach.

Honest Approach
  • I would like to go to the movies tonight. Do you want to go with me?

  • Let me know if you can pick up the kids from school tomorrow.

  • I want to talk to you about something when you have time.

Manipulation
  • If you loved me, you would go to the movies with me tonight.

  • If you don't pick up the kids, you clearly don't care about them.

  • I would talk to you about something, but I know you don't have time for me anyway.

The examples above use tactics like guilt-tripping, such as implying that you don't love them or care about your kids based on not performing certain actions. Statements like these are attempts by the manipulator to shame the target into doing what the manipulator wants.

"I would talk to you about something, but I know you don't have time for me anyway," is an example of a passive-aggressive statement. A manipulator may fear that you don't care about them, but instead of expressing it directly and honestly, they side-step the issue. They might put you down in an attempt to get you to apologize or feel bad about a situation.

Recap

The goal of manipulation is to control another person in order to get what the manipulator wants. It can involve a range of behaviors that can range from the more obvious to the very subtle.

Why Manipulators Act the Way They Do

In general, people manipulate others to get what they want, to protect their ego, and to avoid having to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. They may feel the need to punish, control, or dominate their partner. They may be seeking pity or attention, or have other selfish motives. They might also be trying to change or wear down a partner in an effort to have their own needs met.

People who use manipulative behavior in relationships sometimes come from a dysfunctional family of origin (the family they grew up in). They might have had to manipulate in order to get basic needs met or avoid harsh punishment, or they may have been emotionally manipulated by their parents and learned how to interact with others through what they observed and experienced. 

People who have attachment issues and people who have high levels of anxiety may be more likely to use emotional manipulation. In some cases, manipulative behavior is linked with symptoms of a mental health condition such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Recap

People manipulate others to get what they want. This type of behavior may have a number of causes including interpersonal dynamics, personality characteristics, a dysfunctional upbringing, attachment issues, or certain mental health conditions.

How to Respond to Manipulative Behavior

Manipulation and other forms of emotional abuse that you do not have to tolerate or accept from a romantic partner—or anyone else in your life. It is important to understand that manipulation is a form of emotional blackmail and learn how to respond.

Don't Minimize Manipulation

It might take a while to recognize emotional manipulation, but when you do, don't act as if it isn't a big deal. Emotional manipulation needs to be addressed, whether you are the target or the perpetrator.

The first step is admitting that you're in an emotionally manipulative relationship.

Consider having an honest and direct conversation with your partner to address the manipulation. If you are being manipulated, you might name specific examples of their behavior and how it affects you. Be specific in describing the forms of manipulation and your feelings in response to them.

For instance, you might say, "When you shut down in response to my saying something that you disagree with, I feel sad and discouraged. I'd like to feel connected with you; is this something you are open to talking about?" or "When you tell me that I said something I didn't say, I feel confused and frustrated. Can we have an honest talk about what is happening?"

Seek Help

Getting to the root of emotional manipulation can be tricky—especially if one or both partners have a tendency to avoid honest discussions. You might attend relationship or marriage counseling if both parties are willing. Seeing a therapist on your own can also help you understand the emotional manipulation present in your relationship.

A mental health professional can also help you and your partner understand how to address manipulative behavior if it's linked to a specific mental health condition such as anxiety.

A therapist can provide suggestions for better communication. Therapy is an opportunity for you and your partner to better understand both of your vulnerabilities, which may help strengthen the relationship.

When manipulation persists, a therapist can help you decide where to set healthy boundaries and how to know when to walk away from a manipulative person if necessary.

Set Boundaries

It's important to set boundaries in any relationship, but especially so if someone is being emotionally manipulative. Try to have a discussion with your partner about what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. You need to set specific consequences of boundaries as well.

For instance, you might say, "If you continue to interrupt me and tell me that I'm not feeling what I'm actually feeling, I will stop engaging in this conversation and step away to take care of myself."

If they continue interrupting you and denying what you're thinking and feeling, you can then end the conversation, leave the room, and return to the conversation when you are ready to do so at your own pace, in your own time. If they continue being manipulative, you may consider setting an internal boundary to end the relationship if the manipulation continues after a certain point.

For instance, if your partner continues to deny there are any issues in your relationship and that you are "crazy" or "too sensitive," you need to communicate that you can no longer be in a relationship with someone who chooses not to honor your feelings.

In some cases, manipulation and emotional abuse are precursors to physical abuse. If you feel you are in physical danger, make an exit plan. Let family and friends know that you plan to leave your partner, and set up a time to meet a trusted loved one. If possible, you may need to find another place to live if you live with your partner.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Show Yourself Compassion

If you are a survivor of emotional manipulation, you might have the tendency to blame yourself or feel guilty when you set and enforce boundaries with a manipulative person. Remember that your emotional and physical safety are important and worthy of protection and care. Practice giving yourself compassion and remember that you deserve to feel safe and respected in a relationship.

You can't control the other person's behavior, but you can control whether or not you choose to be around them.

Recap

If you are experiencing manipulation in your relationship, don't minimize the behavior. Talk to the other person, seek help from a mental health professional, create boundaries, and treat yourself with compassion.

How to Talk to Your Partner About Manipulation

When you decide to approach your partner about the manipulation in your relationship, it is important to have a plan for how this conversation will go. When you confront someone who is manipulating you, there is the risk that they will continue to use the same tactics to try to manipulate you further.

They may respond to this conversation by acting defensive, trying to guilt you into just letting it go, or blaming you for the problems in your relationship. Using some of the following strategies may help this conversation go more smoothly:

  • Be prepared: Before you talk to your partner, list some of the specific ways that you have been manipulated. Concrete examples make it more difficult for the other person to deny the problem.
  • Use "I" statements: Avoid critical or blaming language that is sure to put your partner on the defense. Instead, focus on framing your conversation in terms of "I" statements that discuss your feelings and how you've been affected by these problems.
  • Listen to your partner: Give your partner the ability to share what they are feeling, but stay objective and don't let them minimize the problem. If your partner is willing to listen to your perspective and discuss ways to change your interactions, consider it an opportunity to mend the relationship and move forward in a healthier way.

If your partner becomes angry, defensive, and unwilling to listen, then it may be time to honestly check in with yourself to decide how and if you want to stay in a relationship with this person. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do manipulators take control in relationships?

    Someone who manipulates their partner may use a variety of tactics, including gaslighting, lying, blaming, and criticizing. Their goal is to undermine their partner's sense of self-worth, making it more difficult for their partner to stand up for themselves.

  • Why do people accept or tolerate manipulation in relationships?

    A person may come to believe that they are to blame for their partner's behavior. They may fear defending themselves, leaving their partner, or being alone. They may struggle with people-pleasing in response to trauma and they may have been raised in households where their needs and feelings were dismissed or minimized. They may also lack the social support to help them leave a manipulative relationship.

A Word From Verywell

Manipulation might seem like an easy or "natural" way to deal with a difficult issue or to get things to go the way you want them to, but it is hurtful and damaging to your relationships. You and your loved ones deserve honest and loving communication.

If you are experiencing manipulation in a relationship, take steps to address the behavior before it becomes worse. Discuss the problem with the other person, establish clear boundaries, and be willing to walk away if they are not willing to change.

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By Sheri Stritof
Sheri Stritof has written about marriage and relationships for 20+ years. She's the co-author of The Everything Great Marriage Book.