Romantic manipulation can be extremely difficult to recognize and overcome in relationships primarily because it manifests in varying shapes, forms and degrees. From unconscious and subtle to shrewd and overt, manipulation can be as unique as couple relationships themselves. Irrespective of its degree, manipulation in romantic relationships can be detrimental to a couple’s bond.
Besides harming healthy dynamics in an intimate relationship, manipulation leaves the victim feeling confused, frustrated and powerless. It takes a toll on your happiness and makes forming a healthy relationship impossible because the couple’s entire dynamic is centered on deceit. You’re constantly second-guessing each other’s motives and intentions, wondering whether it’s love or manipulation you’re dealing with.
When that happens, instead of feeling like two people on the same team, romantic partners become enemies caught in a never-ending war for one-upmanship. This invariably interfered with your intimacy and connection. Clinical psychologist Kranti Sihotra Momin, who is an experienced CBT practitioner and specializes in the resolution of relationship issues, explains why it’s important to spot romantic or emotional manipulation in romantic relationships and protect yourself.
What is Romantic Manipulation?
Manipulation can be defined as an attempt to influence a person’s emotions or thought process with a motive to get them to act in a specific way or elicit a desired reaction from them. In the context of relationships, romantic manipulation is when one partner uses these tactics to establish a stronghold over the other.
It can be argued that everyone manipulates others in some form or the other, from time to time. Even socially acceptable niceties such as smiling or making eye contact during conversation can be dubbed as a form of manipulation. True as that may be, not all forms of manipulation are created equal. Goofing around to distract your partner when they’re in a bad mood or upset with you cannot be equated with “no one will love you like I do” manipulation.
Toxic romantic manipulation takes hold in relationships when one partner deliberately resorts to establishing power control to avoid healthier strategies like open and honest communication for establishing intimacy. That’s when it charters into an unhealthy territory and takes on the form of emotional abuse.
Machiavellianism, which is another word for emotional manipulation in romantic relationships, is characterized by a manipulative style in handling interpersonal connections that extend to a willingness to exploit others and a tendency toward emotional detachment.
Those who resort to romantic manipulation perceive their partners to be less dependable and report having less faith in them. This results in controlling behavior and emotional abuse. Owing to this compelling need for control, they don’t hesitate in using love to manipulate their partners. To them, the end justifies the means.
People who are deliberately manipulative also display high levels of cynicism and struggle with trust issues in relationships. Machiavellian individuals not only perceive their partners in a negative light but also seek symbiotic closeness to be able to exploit them to serve their own needs.
Related Reading: Emotional abuse- 9 signs and 5 coping tips
15 Things That Are Actually Romantic Manipulation Disguised As Love
Clearly, romantic manipulation can have far-reaching consequences for the victims, who find themselves lost and stripped of any semblance of control. When the person you’ve trusted with your heart uses love as a manipulative tactic, it is bound to scar you emotionally and leave you wary of relationships. Which begs the question when does manipulation in romantic relationships border on emotional abuse?
For the sake of better perspective, let’s paint a scenario: after years of actively dating, you’ve found the perfect person you’ve been looking for all along. They check all the boxes of being “the one”, and shower you with gifts, attention, and copious amounts of love.
However, beneath this seemingly perfect exterior, there is something problematic. Maybe, your friends have tried to warn you about your new partner. They have seen signs of romantic manipulation that you have not been able to spot so far.
You too have a nagging feeling about your partner, only you can’t put a finger on the reason behind it yet. That’s natural because people who have mastered the art of manipulation make it hard for their partners to identify their toxic relationship patterns.
If that sounds familiar to how you feel in your relationship, don’t silence that gut instinct just because you don’t want to have a bitter or jaded perspective on love. Pay attention to these 15 warning signs of romantic manipulation:
1. Your partner gives you guilt trips
Guilt trips are among the classic relationship manipulation tactics. You can be sure you’re dealing with romantic manipulation in your relationship if your partner finds a way of making you feel guilty about the smallest of things. Let’s say you spent the entire Saturday morning preparing their favorite meal. Then, they respond with, “The food is nice but it could have been better if you had followed my mother’s recipe to the T. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because I love you.”
Your partner has put in you a spot and immediately absolved themselves of any culpability for it by cushioning that criticism with an ‘I love you’. However, that doesn’t change the impact of their reaction on you. You feel guilty for not living up to their expectations and are filled with a sense of inadequacy. Using I love you as manipulation and getting away with the most corrosive and insensitive remarks is a textbook technique you need to watch out for.
2. Isolating you from friends and family
You made plans to hang out with your friends but they pull a face, saying they were hoping to spend the evening with you. Your mother has invited you over for dinner and your partner conveniently forgets about it and makes a dinner reservation that clashes with your plans with the family. If you are on the phone with a friend, they gesture to you to hang up quickly because they want to hang out with you.
A manipulator may pass these troubling behaviors as their desire to have you all to themselves all because they love you so much when in fact their ulterior motive is to slowly but surely isolate you from the people in your life. Always remember that manipulators use love as a tool to further their end goal, which is exercising total and unbridled control on you.
3. They decide what you should or shouldn’t do
A manipulator may have a dominating personality that drives in them a strong desire to make you do things the way they want them done. Sasha’s boyfriend had a habit of always picking out her clothes whenever they had plans to go out together.
He’d browse through her wardrobe and neatly lay out the dress, shoes and even the accessories he wanted her to wear. At first, Sasha found it endearing. It was only when she began voicing her opinion in case she wanted to wear something else that the element of romantic manipulation became apparent.
Her boyfriend would either sulk or throw a hissy fit if she failed to comply. He’d invariably cancel the plan, and a fight would ensue, which made Sasha feel more and more suffocated in the relationship. This is among the more overt relationship manipulation tactics, and therefore, easier to identify. The silver lining: if your partner resorts to it, you may be able to spot the red flags before it’s too late. Trust your instinct and don’t turn a blind eye to their problematic behaviors.
4. Playing the victim
Emotional manipulation in marriage or long-term relationships can be confusing because the manipulator often displays contradictory behavior. On the one hand, they could be dominating and controlling, and on the other, they might play the victim to perfection.
If you say no or refuse to indulge their whims and fancies, a manipulative partner may instantly switch to the victim mode. “Why can’t I ever do anything right?” “I’m such a failure, I always disappoint you.” “I can never be good enough for you. I’m sorry.”
Chances are, this display of self-pity melts your heart and you give in to whatever it was that they wanted you to do in the first place. That’s why playing the victim is also a form of romantic manipulation. This is nothing more than a subtle manipulation tactic in name of the love, designed to serve the same purpose as other manipulative techniques – total and undisputed control.
5. Moving too fast
One of the signs of romantic manipulation is that the manipulative partner moves forward in the relationship at a pace you may not be comfortable with. They may say ‘I love you’ too soon and say it with such intensity that you almost feel obligated to say it back.
Or they may propose moving in together when you’ve been dating only a few months. Alternatively, they may ask you to marry them soon after you make things exclusive. If you feel you’re being strung along in the relationship even though you’re not on the same page as your partner, be warned that you could be dealing with emotional manipulation.
Love as a manipulative tactic can feel extremely overwhelming, and that in itself is a warning sign. If a relationship feels too much, that’s because it probably is. Don’t fall for the “no one will love you like I do” manipulation. Hold your own and speak your mind.
Related Reading: Are You Falling In Love Too Fast? 8 Reasons You Should Slow Down
6. Exploit your weaknesses
We all have our share of weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and when we share an intimate connection with someone, we share these not-so-pleasant sides of personality with them. This is an organic process of letting that special someone into your life, wholeheartedly, and allowing them to see you for who you are.
In a healthy relationship, partners don’t use these weaknesses and vulnerabilities against each other. On other hand, emotional manipulation in romantic relationships thrives on exploiting these weak points. This is among the classic relationship manipulation tactics that will surface sooner or later if you’ve got a manipulative and controlling partner.
For instance, if you get emotional and break down during a fight, they may wash their hands off getting you to that point by saying something like, “Oh, there comes the waterworks. Isn’t this what you always do? Cry like a baby the minute things don’t go your way.”
7. Constant blame is a sign of romantic manipulation
No matter what the situation, somehow you’re the one who gets blamed for it. You plan a nice date for you and your significant other. They sit there with a long face, eating their meal in silence or constantly complaining about everything until it leads to a full-blown argument.
When you point it out to them, they turn it around on you by saying that the date turned out to be such a disaster because you picked the one restaurant that they absolutely abhor. This constant blame-shifting, even on the most trivial matters, may seem inconsequential at first but it can cause serious damage to your psyche and sense of self when this pattern is repeated relentlessly.
8. The silent treatment is a form of emotional manipulation
If you’re wondering whether you’re dealing with emotional manipulation in marriage or a relationship, pay attention to how your partner reacts to fights, arguments or a mere difference of opinion. Do they stop talking to you and give you the silent treatment for prolonged periods whenever you resist doing things their way?
Does this spell of silent treatment end only when you reach out to break the ice and invariably give in to their demands? Make no mistake that silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse and amounts to a toxic relationship dynamic. Ask yourself, “Is it love or manipulation if my partner doesn’t hesitate in willfully hurting me just to have things his/her way?”
9. A manipulative partner may stonewall you
Stonewalling is essentially an extension of the silent treatment. However, it goes a step further. In this form of emotional manipulation in romantic relationships, a partner may refuse to engage with you even when you are being your most vulnerable with them.
By not acknowledging your feelings or addressing them, the manipulator sends out the message that you or your feelings don’t matter. Stonewalling can also manifest in a more aggressive form where the manipulative partner raises their voice and yells at you without allowing you a window to put forth your perspective. In both its forms, this emotional manipulation is a tool to seek compliance.
Related Reading: How To Deal With Being Ignored By Someone You Love?
10. You experience constant emotional hurt
Do emotional manipulators have feelings for you? This question can weigh on your mind a lot if you see classic signs of romantic manipulation in your relationship. The answer is no, here’s why: romantic manipulation can leave you emotionally hurting.
Many people don’t see it as being as problematic as physical hurt caused due to domestic abuse or violence, but it’s no different really. The intention behind causing emotional hurt is the same as inflicting physical harm on someone – to exercise control and seek submission.
How can someone who willfully hurts you possibly love you? They – and you – may confuse their emotions for love, but they’re far from it. When a partner uses love as a manipulative tactic, their feelings for you cannot be genuine and the relationship will turn emotionally abusive at some point.
11. Your relationship is in a flux
Irrespective of whether you’ve been together for 6 months or 6 years, your relationship is in a constant state of flux. You cannot say for sure how your partner feels about you, and that makes you insecure and confused.
One moment, they could be buying you gifts and lavishing you with love and affection. And the next, with even the slightest provocation – real or perceived – from your end, their attitude could change completely. They may act distant, aloof, and refuse to share the reason with you. As a result, you’re always left wondering how they feel about you.
This is yet another subtle manipulation tactic in the name of love propagated to keep you hooked and trapped in an emotionally scarring relationship. A manipulator knows just when to shower you with love and affection and when to hold it back and for how long, so that you’re restless and yearning for them. By doing this long enough, they make you subconsciously tie your self-esteem to their approval, and after that, getting out of a manipulative relationship can become extremely hard.
12. Gaslighting is classic romantic manipulation
Gaslighting is one of the most prominent signs of romantic manipulation. If your partner not only blatantly lies to you but then also gets away with it by questioning your perception of reality, you’re being gaslit in the relationship. This is a classic romantic manipulation technique that allows a person to establish such a hold over your mind space that you begin to question your own judgment and trust them over yourself.
A typical example of gaslighting is that you start questioning your partner about a lie they may have told or something wrong they might have done, and somehow they turn the entire conversation on its head. As a result, you end up apologizing to them.
Gaslighting is the most rampantly used of the various relationship manipulation tactics, and also the most damaging. Over time, the constant negation and alteration of the victim’s perception of reality can dent their judgment, making them doubt their own sanity and decision-making abilities.
Related Reading: 20 Gaslighting Phrases In Relationships That Kill Love
13. You’re love-bombed
A manipulative partner can be extremely affectionate and loving. That is why a lot of people struggle with identifying signs of romantic manipulation in a relationship. However, what separates this display of love and affection from that in a healthy relationship is its erratic pattern.
Every once in a while, your partner may start behaving like you’re the center of their universe. They spend time with you, text you when you’re apart, talk to you late into the night, buy you gifts, and make other grand romantic gestures. Just when you start reveling in this heady romance, they withhold it.
Abruptly, and without an explanation, leaving you struggling with the after-effects of this rude withdrawal. As you come to terms with that withdrawal, another cycle of romantic gestures begins. Love bombing is a form of romantic manipulation is aimed at making you dependent on their affection, and seizing control.
14. Your needs are unmet
Romantic manipulation requires you to be okay with your needs – emotional, physical or practical – not being met in the relationship. Of course, your partner won’t say it in as many words but the entire relationship dynamic sends out that message loud and clear.
Different rules apply to you and your partner. While they can do whatever they please, you are expected to do only what they allow you to. For instance, their weekly ritual of hanging out with their friends may be sacrosanct but you’re expected to run your plans by them every single time.
More often than not, they may ask you – either directly or subtly – to cancel, expecting you to comply. When you do, you’re sending out a message, not just to them but also yourself, that your needs come second and it’s okay if they’re not met.
15. Physical intimacy is volatile
The importance and dynamics of sex in a relationship cannot be stressed enough. However, these don’t thrive or operate in isolation and are often dependent on other forms of intimacy in the partnership. That’s why physical intimacy in your relationship may be volatile and erratic at best.
When you’re in the phase of being love-bombed, for instance, the sex may be great too. Then, when your partner withdraws, the physical intimacy may nosedive. They may also withhold intimacy as a form of punishment. Or engage with you sexually only when they desire it. All of this can add to your sense of confusion and frustration about the relationship.
If you identify with a majority of these signs of romantic manipulation, it’s imperative to set boundaries in your relationship and enforce them inflexibly. When your manipulative partner sees you push back, it might make them exhibit their insecurities or bring out their worst side. Either way, you will be able to see their true colors. That will enable you to decide your course of action for dealing with romantic manipulation more effectively.
You can try to get through to your partner, make them see the problem and work toward a solution for breaking these unhealthy patterns. If they’re not forthcoming, walk away and save yourself from emotional damage. Undoing the damage caused by romantic manipulation can be hard and can interfere with your ability to foster healthy relationships. Seeking therapy can be immensely helpful in healing the wounds of emotional abuse. Consider talking to a therapist near you or reach out to experienced and licensed counselors on Bonobology’s panel.