What Is Manipulative Behavior?

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Interpersonal relationships are complex and require healthy boundaries for everyone to thrive together. However, when problems arise, such as manipulative behavior, they need to be addressed immediately.

Manipulative Behavior

Manipulative behavior is used when someone wants to influence a person for their benefit, to obtain power and control.

Although the manipulator may be subtle, it's essential to spot the signs to stop the behavior and protect yourself.

Manipulative behavior can occur in personal and professional relationships and, over time, cause a power imbalance that leads to more problems down the road. Although seemingly harmless, it can create an emotionally abusive relationship leaving the other person feeling confused, anxious, and fatigued. 

Learn more about the signs, causes, and coping strategies for manipulative behavior.

Characteristics of Manipulative Behavior

Manipulative behavior can be done consciously or subconsciously with ill or good intentions. It is a human trait, which means everyone has done something manipulative before. The tactics can be overt or subtle.

Some signs of manipulative behavior include:

  • Someone knowing your weakness and exploiting it for personal gain
  • Convincing a person to give up important people or things in their lives to create codependency
  • Withholding the truth, lying, and blaming you without taking responsibility for their actions
  • Making vague accusations
  • A person constantly judging or ridiculing you, in person or in private, in ways that make you feel insecure
  • Gaslighting when confronted with an issue
  • Passive-aggressive behavior when angry instead of directly expressing their concerns

Manipulators have poor boundaries and experience difficulty healthily communicating their needs. They use these tactics to confuse you into giving up your power.

Types of Manipulative Behavior 

Manipulative behavior and emotional manipulation go hand-in-hand. Playing mind games creates fear, questioning of your reality, and degrades trust in yourself and others.

Here are some forms of manipulative behavior:

Identifying Manipulative Behavior 

The manipulator may have various reasons for their actions. Some may want to avoid accountability, others may purposely create confusion, or they may be dealing with a mental health condition that is affecting their behavior.

Understanding the tactics and signs can help you avoid the detrimental effects on your emotional well-being and relationships. 


The term was introduced to the public in 1938 in a play "Gas Light" by British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton. The play, which was later turned into a movie, revolves around a husband who manipulates his wife in order to institutionalize her. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that makes victims feel like their realities are made up.

This tactic may include various forms of manipulation, including lying, using what someone has said or done against them, and denying conversations. This kind of emotional abuse can cause someone to feel "crazy ."

Studies show that gaslighters will use gendered and racialized stereotypes against their victims to manipulate their realities. As this behavior continues, it can create doubt, anxiety, and depression.


There is safety in numbers, which is why manipulators work to isolate you from the people and places you feel most comfortable. Once someone has distanced themselves from their community and is placed in an unfamiliar environment, the manipulator can take control.

In a recent study, researchers found that women reported experiencing more isolation than men.


Passive-aggressive people are indirect, but it is still a form of aggression. It's categorized as any behavior intended to harm yourself or someone else directly or indirectly.

Those who have an issue with direct communication may use backhanded compliments, guilt trips, or talking behind your back to express disapproval of your behavior.

Research shows that passive aggression is a defense mechanism for emotionally immature people. Those who struggle with anorexia, acute stress disorders, and borderline personality disorder are more likely to use passive aggression during a conflict.

Love Bombing

Love bombing is a pattern of behavior where a partner is overly affectionate and shows extreme attention to their partner. This manipulation tactic includes grand overtures such as introducing you to their loved ones, constantly giving presents and even saying “I love you” very early into the relationship.

Love bombing may be a sign of narcissistic personality disorder or unhealthy attachment styles.

Causes of Manipulative Behavior

People use manipulation to hold undue power over others. This behavior differs from healthy forms of social influence because there's no equitable exchange between individuals. One person is exploiting the other for personal gain.

Chronic manipulative behavior can be due to many factors such as:

  • Family history: Growing up with manipulative family members can significantly influence someone's survival mechanisms. In dysfunctional families where one may need to manipulate others to avoid punishment or get their basic needs met, learn to interact negatively with others. They might have learned unhealthy communication patterns and behaviors if there were struggles for power, control, love, or other perceived advantages.
  • Mental Illness: Chronic manipulative behavior has been linked to people with attachment issues and mental health conditions such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
  • History of abuse: Experiencing certain forms of abuse can cause someone to feel unsafe communicating their needs directly, making them susceptible to forming manipulative behaviors.

Treatment for Manipulative Behavior 

Long-term manipulation can negatively affect close relationships between friends, family, romantic partners, and colleagues.

Manipulative behavior can deteriorate relationships' quality, leading to poor mental health or the ending of the relationship.

Dealing with this toxic behavior can become exhausting. Treatment for those with manipulative behaviors depends on the root of the issue. Therapy may be necessary if a mental health issue causes it.

Here are ways to stop manipulative behavior in its tracks:

  • Seeking professional help to explore the problems in expressing your needs directly
  • Take accountability for your role in the relationship
  • Learning healthy forms of communication and boundaries within relationships

Manipulative tactics are destructive, but everyone is in charge of their behavior and can change.

Coping With Manipulative Behavior 

Dealing with manipulative people is exhausting regardless of their role in your life. You may not realize a person is manipulating you because of the subtle signs that turn into more significant issues down the road.

Although it may be challenging to recognize or prevent these behaviors—because you're not creating them—you can protect yourself from the fallout.

Learn to trust your gut when confronted with manipulative behavior. You can empathize with the other person without engaging in harmful behavior such as arguing, which may encourage them.

Here are some ways to set boundaries in relationships where manipulative behavior is present:

  • Communicate clearly and directly about what you need or don't like.
  • Set boundaries and call out manipulative behavior when you recognize it happening. Let the person know that you will not participate in the conversation if it continues. 
  • Find someone who is not under the influence of the manipulator and ask for their advice on the matter. 

A Word From Verywell

Someone manipulating you isn't your fault, but you need to look out for your best interests. Be careful when deciding to confront someone. The possibility that they may lose their power or control over a situation or person may cause them to be more erratic. Take care of yourself and make the healthiest and safest choices for you.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Odochi Ibe
Odochi Ibe is a writer and expert in social justice, health and wellness, and documenting the human experience. Her work has been featured in FCBHealth, Quartz.com, Nike, and The New York Times.