In the 2014 thriller Gone Girl, a seemingly perfect marriage falls apart after the wife goes missing and the husband becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance. As things unravel, viewers get a ringside view of how manipulation in relationships works – a critical aspect that can make or break a romantic partnership.
Manipulative behaviors come in many forms – some so subtle you’d probably be surprised if someone calls them out. In fact, one of the hallmarks of master manipulators is that you never see them coming. So, how can we recognize manipulation tactics in relationships? To get some answers, we got in touch with 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?
According to researchers, we all try to influence outcomes or behaviors, either consciously or unconsciously, in our daily lives. However, harmful manipulation is designed to intentionally create a power imbalance so that one romantic partner can wrest control and get what they want at all times and at all costs.
“Anger, impulsive behavior, and gaslighting are some of the manipulation techniques in relationships,” says Kavita. Other forms of common manipulation tactics in relationships include:
- Love bombing
- Emotional blackmail
- Mind games
- Mental distortion
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Covert or overt threats (like when a partner threatens to self-harm or hurt you or the people around you)
- Verbal abuse
- Physical abuse
Manipulators are relentless in their pursuit of control and will use you against yourself if it means they can string you like a puppet and make you dance to their tune. If, at all, you manage to confront them about it, they will neatly turn the tables on you. “They attack the victim’s insecurities and self-esteem. This happens to such an extent that the victim starts to believe something is wrong with them,” Kavita adds.
Why do people manipulate?
There are many underlying factors as to why people manipulate their partners. Maybe they want to protect their ego and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Perhaps they struggle with communicating their wants directly and honestly. They may have an insecure attachment style or suffer from mental health conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder. Or they may come from a dysfunctional family where they had to resort to or were exposed to manipulative tactics.
11 Subtle Signs Of Manipulation In Relationships
While manipulation can happen in any interpersonal interaction, it is seen more often in very close relationships, like romantic or family relationships. You can imagine how subtly it can manifest in romantic relationships, right? Your partner may use manipulation tactics so cleverly that you may not even realize it at first. And as long as you bend to their will, the relationship will seem perfect.
So, how to tell whether your relationship comes with controlling strings attached? Here are 11 typical but subtle manipulation signs:
1. You constantly feel pressured to do their bidding
“Manipulators have a ‘my way or the highway’ approach to life and relationships. Financially, emotionally, or spiritually, they know how to get things done,” says Kavita. In other words, they are bullies who will use every means available for personal gain or to pressure others into doing what they want, no matter how unreasonable. According to one study, they won’t hesitate to use guilt trips to attack and get you to change even the most trivial behaviors or habits.
Often, manipulators use statements loaded with subtext to force their partner’s hand. Instead of simply saying, “I wish you would call more often when you travel,” they may add:
- You’d do this if you really cared for me
- Why do I even have to ask? Can’t you see how much I worry about you?
- Can’t you do this much for me?
If you constantly feel saying no to your partner’s requests is not really an option, know that it’s an unhealthy sign.
2. They make all the decisions in the relationship
Manipulators are focused on getting their own needs met and use every trick in the book to make that happen. One way they do this is by taking away your choice, whether in small decisions or big, and cutting off your support systems, whether emotional or financial. In fact, this is one of the common forms of manipulative behaviors in relationships.
From what you eat for breakfast to what you order for takeout, where you go on a holiday and who you spend time with – if your decisions are dictated by what your partner wants, it could be a potential red flag. Controlling partners are also not above financial manipulation in relationships, like:
- Taking charge of all financial decisions and resources
- Limiting or monitoring your access to finances
- Dictating how you spend your money
If you sense any of this is happening, then it’s time to think things over. A healthy relationship involves both partners making decisions together, not for each other.
Related Reading: 11 Signs Your Husband Uses You Financially
3. They indulge in cyclical bad behavior
According to Kavita, there is often a clear pattern to many behaviors that manipulative people show. In fact, they tend to use the same tactics over and over again to wear another person down and influence how they think, feel, or behave.
For example, during a fight, they may cut you off emotionally and then distance physically. Or they may lash out angrily or mope around till you give in. In this way, they subtly pass on the burden of guilt to you. Once you apologize, things may get back on track – only for the cycle to repeat as soon as the next argument or disagreement crops up.
Eventually, you may begin to walk on eggshells around them, or you may start steering clear of certain topics when you’re with them. To avoid conflict, you may try and second-guess their reaction by constantly asking yourself:
- What would they think or do if I…?
- Would they be okay with this?
4. They withhold sex or affection
One of the most common examples of manipulation techniques in relationships is withholding sex or affection as punishment or blackmail. Couples often fight and make up later in bed. However, manipulators deliberately deny sex or dismiss displays of affection – and they don’t relent until you give in to their demands. Even when they do, they make it seem like a favor. This is a passive-aggressive tactic used to force an outcome and ultimately breeds resentment in a relationship.
5. They blame you for things gone wrong
Manipulators will rarely accept responsibility for any relationship problems you may have. Rather, they will blame you for everything that is wrong in the relationship and in their life.
- They may gaslight, that is, undermine and invalidate your concerns and experiences (“You are imagining things” or “I never said that” or “You are reading too much into things”) till you begin to question your own reality or your mental health
- They may involve other people in their scheme to sow self-doubt and confusion in your mind
As far as they are concerned, anything that goes wrong will always be your fault. They won’t kowtow to any logic or reason, and claim ignorance even if there is evidence pointing otherwise.
Related Reading: 25 Gaslighting Phrases In Relationships That Kill Love
6. They prey on your emotions
A relationship with a manipulator often involves some level of emotional abuse. One of the classic examples of this is the silent treatment, which involves the following:
- Your partner puts on a ‘stone face’ after a fight or disagreement
- They answer in monosyllables to your attempts at conversation
- They say “I am fine” though their behavior suggests otherwise
“Sulking, going silent, stonewalling conversation – these are all ways to emotionally manipulate you,” says Kavita. Manipulators are also skilled at using dramatic statements to play on your emotions:
- Instead of: Could you pick me up after work?
- They may say: Pick me up after work. And don’t say you can’t if you truly care about me
- And if you end up running late: I knew this would happen. I’m always last on your list anyway
Emotionally manipulating someone in a relationship is just as bad as physically abusing them. If it goes on long enough, it can crush your confidence or cause you to develop a negative self-image – things no one should ever have to feel in a relationship.
7. They clip your wings in the garb of concern
Often, people manipulate others because they are highly insecure themselves. Therein stems their overarching need to control everything and everyone around them. They tend to regard any growth or stab at independence or autonomy on your part as a threat to this control.
“They simply don’t want to see you move ahead in life,” says Kavita. Though they are careful not to let you see that. Whether it’s getting a job, returning to work, taking up a hobby, or simply trying something new, manipulators will discourage you or make you question your decisions by dishing out ‘advice’ or painting worst-case scenarios. All in the name of ‘concern’ for you.
8. They are ‘good’ when they have an agenda
Manipulators don’t go around spouting evil in a red cape and pointy horns. They are often charm personified and may come across as overly sincere. You may even say they seem too good to be true. Initially, their love bombing may make you feel like you mean the world to them. But that’s – almost always – not true.
As Nietzsche says: “There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.” A manipulative person’s behavior almost never matches their words. And there is always a hidden agenda behind whatever they do. Many of their ‘good’ behaviors are designed to:
- Make it real hard for you to say no to their requests
- Pulverize your boundaries
In fact, they count on short-circuiting your ability to establish clear boundaries so they can take control of your decisions and your life. Have a gut feeling something isn’t quite right? Or a persistent thought you always end up doing things you don’t really want? Have you been feeling confused or guilty around them and can’t understand why? Then it’s time to trust your gut instincts and take stock of your relationship.
Related Reading: 10 Must-Follow Healthy Relationship Boundaries
9. They play the love card to get out of accountability
Do manipulators have feelings for you? Not really. But they will keep telling you and reminding you that they do. Especially if they want to sidestep a discussion, no matter how important it is to you. Don’t be surprised if your demand for an explanation for something they’ve actually done is answered with:
- How can you be so brutal when I love you so much?
- This shows you don’t value my feelings
- If you really loved me like I love you, you would have understood…
If these lines get thrown at you way too often, know that you are being emotionally manipulated into giving them an out. After all, manipulators are masters of emotional exploitation who will lose no chance to put the onus on you to prove your love for them time and again.
10. They keep calm to put you down
When we talk about signs of a manipulative boyfriend or girlfriend, relentless drama, blaming language, and over-the-top reactions are what normally come to mind. However, your manipulative boo may just as easily be someone who’s always calm, cool, and outwardly collected.
These may even be qualities you will admire – till they use their unflappable cool against you to make you look over-dramatic in a situation that, perhaps, warrants your angry reaction. Instead, you’ll end up looking silly, immature, too sensitive, and over-emotional. And the person manipulating you will come off as the mature party that knows how to behave like an adult.
11. They make you feel small
Offering constant comparisons or criticisms, which cause you to feel inadequate or worthless in front of others or in your own eyes, is a form of passive aggression. Whether the comparisons come couched as ‘humor,’ ridicule, or something else, the objective is to:
- Make you feel bad about yourself or somehow lacking
- Make you think your partner is too good for you
- Make sure you never grow larger in stature than them
It could also be a tactic to breed insecurity, put psychological pressure, or shame you into doing what they want. If this is becoming a theme, know that manipulators will always have an endless supply of hoops for you to jump through. And they will keep them coming no matter what you do.
Related Reading: How To Deal With A Partner Who Makes You Feel Insecure
How To Respond To Manipulative Behavior
Psychological, emotional, or financial manipulation in relationships exacts a high toll on the people it is targeted at. It can harm your mental health, chip away at your self-confidence, erode your emotional well-being, and cause you to experience low self-esteem, or even, depression. So it’s best to protect yourself.
If you are experiencing manipulation, here are some ideas on how to respond:
- Acknowledge manipulation for what it is: Try not to minimize or brush it off. Making excuses for bad behavior, like thinking they don’t mean harm or are going through a tough phase, will only enable them further and let them off the hook
- Establish boundaries: And enforce them. Decide which behaviors you will and won’t tolerate. Let your partner know where your limits are. And set consequences if they continue to breach them
- Take charge of the conversation: Manipulators are experts at hijacking conversations by using your emotions against you and distracting you from the real issue. Be prepared to spot emotional manipulation and don’t let them get away with it
- Be compassionate with yourself: Don’t internalize the blame and the guilt. Remember, only you can decide how you feel about yourself
- Get help: If you’re feeling depressed or stuck and can’t find an out, Bonobology’s panel of licensed and skilled therapists is only a click away
- Manipulation is designed to create a power imbalance in a relationship so that one partner can always get what they want
- Manipulators use several tactics to push their agenda, such as love bombing, emotional blackmail, passive aggression, guilt-tripping, and gaslighting, to downright abuse
- A manipulative partner will take all the decisions in the relationship, yet blame you for everything that goes wrong, and play the love card to avoid accountability
- They will play on your emotions, withhold sex or affection, or make you feel small to pressure you into doing what they want
- Charming as they seem, they are never good without an agenda. And their main goal is to take away your agency and cut off your support systems so they can keep you under their thumb
- To respond to manipulation, you will need to acknowledge it, set clear boundaries, and take charge of the conversation. Whatever you do, do not internalize what a manipulator says, and get help if you need to
Staying in toxic or unhealthy relationships is never a good idea. And manipulation is both toxic and unhealthy. At times, it can even be a precursor to more serious forms of abuse. If you think boundaries are being crossed, you’re not being respected and valued in the relationship, and it is taking a toll on you, know that it’s your cue to walk away. After all, as author Ken Poirot says, true love is built on free will and free choice. Not invisible strings of manipulation and spiderwebs of control.
This article was updated in July 2023.