In the 2014 thriller, Gone Girl, a couple’s seemingly perfect marriage falls apart after the wife goes missing one day and the husband becomes the prime suspect. As things unravel, the one lesson that the viewer learns from the many twists and turns shown in the film is how manipulation in relationships works – a critical aspect that makes or breaks a partnership.
Manipulation in relationships comes with many faces, and some of them are so subtle, you’d probably laugh if someone told you that you were being manipulated. But remember, one of the hallmarks of master manipulators is that you never see them coming. In this piece, we talk about how to recognize the signs of manipulation in your relationship, with the help of counseling psychologist Kavita Panyam (Masters in Psychology and international affiliate with the American Psychological Association), who has been helping couples work through their relationship issues for over two decades.
What Is Manipulative Behavior In A Relationship?
Frankly, an equal relationship is a myth to a large extent. Sure, there would be love and affection but even in the most perfect scenarios, there is some amount of control and manipulation in relationships. In that case, how do you understand subtle manipulation in relationships? How do you describe a manipulative person?
Kavita weighs in, “The definition of manipulation in relationships is when you try to be the controlling partner and directly or indirectly, try to steer the course of the connection. You neither allow the other person to give as much as they want to nor do you contribute as much as you should.”
In other words, it’s all about being the controlling partner in the relationship. The control and power games can be overt or covert, subtle or obvious but manipulation in relationships is characterized by one partner trying to gain the upper hand in every situation. One of the characteristics of a manipulative person in a relationship is that he/she tries to seize control through mind games.
The list of manipulation tactics is rather long for those who practice it. From psychological manipulation in relationships to downright physical abuse, there are various ways in which a man or woman tries to dominate his or her partner. “Anger, impulsive behavior, and gaslighting are all manipulation strategies in relationships,” adds Kavita.
The underlying reason behind such behaviors is the same: these are people who are dishonest with themselves and their partners. They do not know what they want and hesitate to ask and communicate in a direct manner. Hence, they resort to physical or emotional manipulation tactics to feel powerful and in control of the relationship.
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What Does A Manipulative Relationship Look Like?
A manipulative relationship almost always has two aspects – the bully and the bullied. In most cases, the manipulator plays mind games, sends his or her victim on a guilt trip, cooks up stories to justify his or her stand and then uses the situation to his or her advantage. “They attack your insecurities and self-esteem. This happens to such an extent that the victim starts believing something is wrong with them,” says Kavita.
Ever seen a person who constantly magnifies problems or complains about loneliness to attract the attention of their busy partner? Or someone who cries, sulks, gives the silent treatment or the cold shoulder until their exasperated partner gives in to their tantrums? These are some examples of romantic manipulation practiced by both men and women in their own ways.
When there is manipulation in relationships, one partner is always subdued or eager to please. Such marriages are unequal as one partner gets his or her way through everything. Over a period of time, the one being manipulated feels suffocated and stifled – certainly, it’s not healthy nor is it the foundation of a strong relationship.
11 Subtle Signs Of Manipulation In Relationships
So, what are the signs of subtle manipulation in relationships? What are the emotional manipulation tactics partners resort to? As mentioned before, when manipulation in relationships is practiced overtly, it’s somewhat easy to fight them. However, the challenge is when a person resorts to underhanded, subtle and undecipherable means to win an unnecessary war against their partner.
Subtle manipulation in relationships is manifested in many ways. From deciding what is to be made for breakfast to taking important life decisions related to finance or children, the manipulator plays different cards to bulldoze their way through. At other times, they are so clever while indulging in romantic manipulation that you will not be able to understand that you are being used.
Do emotional manipulators have feelings for you? Well, whether it’s male or female manipulation in relationships, manipulators are only interested in being loved and cared for. As long as you are conforming to their needs and they have the power to control or influence you, the relationship is perfect. If you are stuck in a similar situation and wondering whether your partner is manipulative, these 11 typical yet subtle signs of manipulation in relationships can help you decide your next course of action.
1. Forcing you to do things you don’t want to
In other words, bullying! The bully might ask you to do something for them rather politely. You don’t want to but you can’t bring yourself to say no. It may be due to the tone or the hidden threat but you end up doing their bidding. This is one of the most common characteristics of a manipulative person in a relationship.
Such forms of manipulation are easy to recognize because the bully does not really make any effort to hide their lack of respect for your opinion or choice. “Financially, emotionally or spiritually, they know how to get things done. They have the “my way or the highway” approach to everything in life and relationships,” says Kavita.
Related Reading: How To Get Out Of A Controlling Relationship: 8 Ways To Break Free
2. Convincing you to step out of your comfort zone
They may cajole, convince, argue with or threaten you to do something you’re not comfortable with. They will do everything to ensure that you parachute out of your comfort zone and land into theirs. So, if you find yourself ordering Mexican food ONLY because your partner loves it or you visit ONLY his or her favorite clubs or restaurants, know that it’s a sign of subtle manipulation in relationships.
A relationship is all about equality. When you’re not given a chance to exercise your choice because your partner is too egoistic to listen to you, It is a sign of imbalance and inequality. It’s an emotional manipulation tactic. You might think it’s no big deal but remember that these small things add up to the larger issues in the relationship and in life.
3. Indulging in cyclical bad behavior
“Manipulation in relationships is everything that stops you and freezes you on your tracks,” says Kavita, “Often you will notice a pattern to their responses.” For example, if there is a fight or an argument, regardless of who is wrong in the situation, a manipulative partner begins a cycle of bad behavior by giving you the cold shoulder and holding you responsible for everything that went wrong.
They may first cut you off emotionally and then the physical distance begins. They may carry the resentment for such a long time that you begin to feel guilty. This way, they subtly pass on the burden of guilt on you. Once you apologize, things get back on track only for the same cycle to begin again after the next fight.
4. Withholding sex
One of the most common techniques of romantic manipulation in relationships is withholding sex as a form of punishment. A lot of times, couples fight and makeup later in bed but manipulators deliberately deny sex to ensure you never forget the fight. They may withdraw and act cold.
Emotional intimacy is the foundation of a healthy and strong relationship. However, by staying away from you, they try to send a strong message that they are not willing to forgive or forget. They won’t relent until you give in and even when they do agree to sex, they make it seem like a favor.
5. Blaming you for things gone wrong
How do you describe a manipulative person? Manipulators rarely accept responsibility when things go wrong. In fact, they may use every trick in the trade to fire from your shoulders. They will always blame you for everything that is wrong in their life. This can happen in professional as well as personal relationships.
Basically, they want you to feel dependent and when you don’t comply, the cycle of abuse continues. The key aspect to be noted here is that it doesn’t matter who has made the mistake. The bottom line is it’s always your fault and you are the one trying to over-explain and justify things you need not justify.
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6. Giving the silent treatment
This is one of the most obvious characteristics of a manipulative person in a relationship. Emotional manipulation is as bad as physical abuse and one of the classic emotional manipulation examples is the infamous silent treatment that people indulge in. Does your partner put on a ‘stone face’ when there’s a problem or a fight between you?
Do they answer in monosyllables to your attempts to have a decent conversation? Do you feel confused when they keep saying, “I am fine”, but their behavior indicates just the opposite? “Sulking, going silent, stonewalling conversation are all ways to manipulate you into doing what they want,” says Kavita.
7. Giving you wrong advice
Are you constantly plagued by questions like do emotional manipulators have feelings for you? Are you frantically looking up signs of male or female manipulation in relationships on the internet? If you are, know that manipulation in relationships occurs mainly because one person is insecure and does not want to lose his or her control over their partner.
Be it friendships or relationships, manipulators are often seen dispensing wrong advice under the garb of ‘caring’. So be it discouraging you from taking a new job or withholding new opportunities for your growth or painting the worst-case scenarios when you want to try something new, they try to stunt your growth. As Kavita says, “They simply don’t want to see you move ahead in life.”
8. Being the good guy/girl
What are the characteristics of a manipulative person in a relationship? Well, for starters, don’t presume manipulators are evil people with horns who make your life miserable. Often, they are charming and overly sincere. In fact, they come across as so nice that it almost seems fake. They might make you feel you are the most special person in their lives but that’s, almost always, not true.
The hidden agenda behind all the praise and compliments is to manipulate you into doing what they want. It’s to exercise control over your decisions and life. When someone is too kind and too flattering, you will find it difficult to say ‘no’ to their requests. And that’s precisely what manipulators prey on – your inability to draw healthy relationship boundaries.
9. Playing the love card
Do emotional manipulators have feelings for you? Not really. But they like to show that they do. Guilt-tripping you with love is one of those classic emotional manipulation examples. “I love you so much, can’t you do this much for me?”, “You don’t value my feelings”, or “How can you be so brutal when I love you so much” – if these lines get thrown at you way too often, know that it’s one of the most common emotional manipulation tactics.
The idea behind tugging at your heartstrings instead of explaining things logically is to avoid reasoning and proper discussion. In a strange way, they put on you the onus of proving your love for them time and again. “If you loved me, you would….” is one way of making sure you give in to their wishes. It’s a common and subtle sign of manipulation in relationships.
10. Being calm and in charge
What are the signs of a manipulative boyfriend? In some cases, manipulators tend to overreact and be dramatic but the opposite can also be a form of manipulation in relationships. Your beau might be calm, cool and collected and, while that’s a great quality, it can be used as a tool against you.
The objective might be to make you look over-dramatic in a situation that, perhaps, warrants your drama and anger. But, you end up looking silly, immature and over-emotional while they are the mature, cool cucumber who knows how to behave like an adult. When this happens over and over again, you may feel defeated – which is exactly what they want.
11. Constantly comparing you to others
Insecurity in relationships rises from comparisons. You can never really achieve what you set out to do if you compare your journey to that of others. Constant comparisons that, somehow, make you look inadequate or worthless in front of others is a form of manipulation in relationships.
“Why can’t you look like him/her?”, “Why can’t you make money like XYZ?” – There are many points of comparison that can make you feel like you will never be good enough in the eyes of your partner. The objective is to ensure you never grow larger in stature than them. If you feel like this happens to you a lot in the relationship, know that it is an emotional manipulation tactic.
Manipulative relationships can wreck your peace of mind. They may not sound as bad as physical or verbal abuse but bit by bit, they chip away at your self-confidence. To deal with them, you first need to recognize that you are being used and only then can you take steps to seek your real self out and set boundaries. You deserve all the happiness and don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.
Staying in a toxic, unhealthy relationship is never a good idea. If you think certain boundaries are being crossed or you’re not being respected and valued in the relationship, know that it’s your cue to walk away. If you are stuck in a similar situation but aren’t able to get out of it, consider seeking help. Bonobology’s panel of licensed and skilled therapists is only a click away.