13 Tell-Tale Signs Of Manipulation In A Relationship

signs of manipulation in a relationship

Manipulation in a relationship feels like having a pebble in your shoe. Something feels wrong consistently and the problem won’t go away even after you think you’ve fixed it. While the workings of emotional abuse and manipulation are difficult to put a finger on, the damage they cause is significant and lasting. The lack of awareness about the signs of manipulation in a relationship explains the volume of couples perpetuating the same-old detrimental cycle. 

Educating ourselves on manipulation (and all that it entails) is the first step toward rectifying the situation. The myriad forms of emotional abuse are best understood with the guidance of a mental health professional. We are in conversation with psychotherapist Dr. Aman Bhonsle (Ph.D., PGDTA), who specializes in relationship counseling and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. He is here to shed light on the workings of manipulation tactics in relationships and the red flags you must be wary of.

Having conversations around the subject is essential for a healthier love life and meaningful emotional connections. The subtle signs of manipulation in a relationship spell trouble for both parties involved. Without further ado, here’s presenting the comprehensive guide on power, romance, and emotional abuse. 

What Does A Manipulative Relationship Look Like?

What does manipulation look like in a relationship? And more importantly, what does it really mean? Dr. Bhonsle puts it quite simply, “It is essentially a way of gaining power over your partner. You want to establish control and manipulation is a tool to weaken the other individual. There’s a clear imbalance of power in most manipulative relationships where one person uses tactics to get their way most of the time. Gaslighting, disrespect, bullying, mind games, and so on.” 

While power struggle between couples is not unheard of, manipulation gives it a darker turn because it is carried out under the guise of love, care, and concern. Allow me to put forth an example. Allison and Nate have been together for three years. Their relationship started out quite nicely and they seemed to be very compatible with each other. But lately, their friends have begun noticing a few odd patterns. Things always happen according to Allison; her schedule, mood, and convenience take precedence. 

Expert-recommended solutions to deal with the issue

And this would have gone unnoticed but for palpable changes in Nate’s personality. He is always unsure of himself, doubting his choices, consulting Allison before making the smallest decisions. In fact, Nate’s self-doubt has made him dependent on Allison and she reinforces this behavior in subtle ways. If he asserts his independence, she claims to be hurt for not having been consulted. If he tries to voice a complaint about the relationship, she threatens to break up. Slowly (but surely) Nate is going to rely on his girlfriend completely. He cannot see what his friends can – female manipulation in relationships at its worst. 

Because we don’t want you to end up in his shoes, we’ve curated this list of 13 indicators. These are the surefire signs of manipulation in a relationship. 

13 Tell-Tale Signs Of Manipulation In A Relationship

Your knee-jerk reaction to these signs might be denial. It is only natural to be defensive of a relationship where you have invested so much love, time, and effort. But we urge you to shake off that denial and look at things in a more objective light. A simple way of doing so is by prioritizing your wellbeing (only yours) for the duration of this read. Emotional manipulation in relationships often strips people of the ability to put themselves first. 

We will reclaim your sense of self gradually. Remember Eat, Pray, Love? That’s the sort of journey we’re striving for. The first thing to do is to keep an open mind. The second, be willing to accept the outcome of your evaluation. Recall the wise words of Craig D. Lounsbrough who said, “The truth might hurt, but it is never your enemy.” With that in mind, let’s delve deeper into the signs of manipulation in a relationship.

Related Reading: Romantic Manipulation – 15 Things Disguised As Love

1. Gaslighting is the norm in toxic manipulative relationships

Dr. Bhonsle explains, “Gaslighting is the most subtle form of manipulation. It occurs when a person makes their partner doubt their perceptive faculty. The person being gaslit starts second-guessing their reality. In extreme cases, individuals lose their minds because of self-doubt. They keep wondering what they’re doing wrong. It is the state of perpetual guilt which drives one to a point of no return.”

In simple terms, gaslighting means making a person doubt their version of events. If you and your partner have decided to meet at 5 pm for coffee and they reach early, you will be made to believe that the original time agreed upon was 4:30. These little instances might be low in intensity but they are high in frequency. Gaslighting phrases that kill love are highly corrosive when they persist for a prolonged period. Of all the signs of manipulation in a relationship, this is the most potent. 

2. You’ve been dismissed

Can you think back to the last time you raised a concern about the relationship? Were you taken seriously? Did you and your partner have a conversation about your problem? Victims of manipulation in relationships are often frustrated because they feel unheard by their better half. The manipulator discredits the charge levied by their partner or simply brushes them aside. 

Dr. Bhonsle says, “Invalidating feelings and experiences are a staple of emotional manipulation in relationships. Your partner simply dismisses what you have to say with statements like ‘you’re too sensitive’ or ‘stop overreacting and deal with it’. The response could be something as brazen as ‘I don’t want to talk about this.’” Being on the receiving end of such responses makes one helpless. They speculate, is my problem actually that trivial?

3. Psychological bullying 

Psychological bullying aims to make someone understand that they are ‘thinking wrong’. One of the clearest signs of emotional manipulation in a relationship is one partner bulldozing the other’s opinions, preferences, and values. It is a mark of disrespect and suggests that you may be dating a narcissist. There are many ways of walking over someone psychologically; it all starts by establishing one’s intellectual supremacy. 

The manipulator uses facts to back up their argument – statistics, news reports, personal experiences, etc. They make you realize that they know better. If you want vanilla ice cream for dessert, they will be quick to tell you that chocolate is much more beneficial to health. Chocolate is good for the heart and you should avoid vanilla ice cream because it has artificial flavors. Unable to contend with them rationally, you will succumb to the situation and have a chocolate sundae instead. Still asking, “how do you know if you’re in a manipulative relationship”?

infographic on signs of manipulation
The signs of manipulation are diverse in nature

4. Victimization for the win – The signs of manipulation in a relationship

Dr. Bhonsle explains, “Manipulators often play the victim when they’re confronted or when their power is threatened. They turn the tables and claim to be hurt by your actions. You might end up getting guilt-tripped when you try to stand up for yourself.” This is the easiest trick in the subtle manipulation handbook as it garners sympathy and evades responsibility. This brings back an incident from a few years ago. 

My sister was dating a classmate and she was unhappy in the relationship. She finally decided to call it quits after three months of constant arguing. During their ‘talk’, he blamed her for adding on to his stress while the exams were around the corner. Things with his family were not good either, why would she choose to hurt him like this? Now he would do poorly on his finals and go through a world of pain on her account. Henry Cloud was right to say, “Victims declare, “The world is responsible for me,” and never do anything to better their quality of life.” 

5. Accountability? What’s that?  

Couples in healthy relationships have a strong foundation of honesty and accountability. They own up to their mistakes and feel no shame in apologizing for their errors. Toxic manipulative relationships, on the other hand, are characterized by one partner evading accountability and the other being guilt-tripped unnecessarily. The former is above saying sorry and the latter says sorry for mistakes that aren’t their own. A classic example of manipulation, really.

If you are on the receiving end of manipulation tactics in relationships, your partner will not take the blame for anything that goes wrong. In fact, they will be outraged at the mere suggestion of such a thing. The aftermath of such a dynamic will be quite disastrous; your self-esteem will take a hit and your partner will get away with almost everything. Unable to make them assume responsibility, you will become resentful and bitter, losing confidence every step of the way.

6. What is manipulation in relationships? The silent treatment  

Dr. Bhonsle says, “Giving your partner the silent treatment is an age-old technique. It is a form of passive aggression where you withhold love and affection to make them miserable.” Rather than communicating openly and hashing it out once and for all, the manipulator prolongs the process by refusing to speak. They might be direct about their intention to avoid conversing or they might pretend “everything is fine” when it clearly isn’t.

Shutting out the partner and letting their anxiety or insecurity take over is a method of establishing control. Because when the person finally stops giving the silent treatment, their partner will experience relief. Toxic manipulative relationships often see recurring spells of silence and passive-aggressiveness. Yet another reminder of the perils of poor communication. 

Related Reading: Is Silent Treatment In A Relationship Emotional & Mental Abuse?

7. You’re obligated to do their bidding

Is your mind governed by a lingering sense of obligation toward your significant other? In a strange way, do you find yourself keeping score of what you do for each other? Does your partner happen to remind you of the many sacrifices they’ve made? These are the signs of manipulation in a relationship and are often accompanied by statements like ‘this is the least you can do for me’ and ‘after all I do, you’re saying no to me?’

You are constantly reminded of the numerous things your better half does for the relationship. As a result, you’ve got a mental tally of what you should do in return. This element is characteristic of transactional relationships and is not present in a healthy, well-functioning bond. You are being subjected to manipulation tactics in relationships so your partner’s wishes can take precedence in most scenarios.

8. Personal attacks are signs of manipulation in a relationship

Dr. Bhonsle says, “Using a person’s insecurities against them, bringing up traumatic instances from their past, and making personal attacks, in general, are signs of manipulation in a relationship. It is quite dysfunctional to have such arguments where there is little substance. The aim is not conflict resolution but inflicting hurt on the other person.” These fights are often marked by generalized statements – “you always do this” or “you never let anyone be happy”.

Deliberately targeting the chinks in a person’s armor suggests a sense of hostility. The manipulator wants to tear you down and build you back up the way they want. Go down memory lane and think about the nature of your arguments. There are bound to be instances where your partner says something immensely hurtful that is not even relevant to the debate you are having. See what we’re saying?

9. Big threats

How do you know if you’re in a manipulative relationship? Renowned psychotherapist and author Carol A Lambert answered this question precisely, when she said, “All threats are unacceptable, whether it has to do with turning off your credit card, abandoning you, or physically harming you. Threats are meant to coerce, restrict your life, and make you unsafe.” Absolutely! The types of emotional manipulation in relationships can often reach a point where one partner issues threats to keep the other under control. “I will kill myself” or “I’m going to ruin your life” are not as uncommon as we think. 

And it all begins very minutely. “If you don’t have dinner with me this weekend, I’ll not speak to you.” A threat to withdraw affection is a threat nonetheless. It generates anxiety in the other person and essentially leaves them with no choice but to comply. Such behavior is an indicator of emotional instability in a person; it points to unresolved issues in their past that are being projected on the current partner.

unhealthy relationship

10. Fear factor  

What does manipulation look like in a relationship, you ask? It looks a lot like fear. The partner being manipulated is always anxious, worried, or terrified about the state of their personal life. They have no sense of security or safety with their partner. All toxic manipulative relationships impact the victims very deeply; they become unsure, panicky individuals who live in the fear of being chastised by their partners. 

This also leads them to seek constant validation in their day-to-day workings. Fear chips away at their assertiveness and self-assuredness, and in extreme cases, these people start suffering from self-hatred which further ruins the relationship. It is with good cause that we are trying to impress upon the gravity of manipulation tactics in relationships. How are you faring so far?

11. No concept of boundaries in toxic manipulative relationships

Setting emotional boundaries is an indispensable requirement of a healthy relationship. Because there are such things as ‘going too far’ or ‘crossing the limit’. Each person has certain sensitive areas – they have to be broached with care and handled with delicacy. Relationship boundaries make this process much easier. But alas, the signs of manipulation in a relationship obliterate any and all boundaries.

A manipulative partner breaches all boundaries, has no concept of personal space and is unapologetic about this invasive conduct. They want to have as much access as possible to your inner workings. The more they know you, the more they can establish control. Needless to say, gaining someone’s emotional data through manipulation defeats the purpose of a meaningful connection and intimacy. 

Related Reading: 19 Examples Of Healthy Boundaries In Relationships

12. Oh-so critical 

One of the most relevant answers to what is manipulation in relationships is constant criticism – repeated blows to a person’s self-image. Negative comments on appearance and competency can take a toll on the most thick-skinned people. But that’s precisely what a manipulator wants – they want people to feel like they aren’t good enough. To put it in terms of pop culture, the one being manipulated should feel that their better half is ‘out of their league’.

Criticism also makes one feel that they are ‘fortunate’ to be dating their partner. Breaking this illusion takes a lot of time and work. It requires realizing your own merits by regaining the lost confidence and seeing the other person in a neutral light. Most individuals continue to be in toxic manipulative relationships because their bubble does not burst.

13. What does manipulation look like in a relationship? So (un)funny

Dr. Bhonsle explains, “Disrespect does not have to be overt to make its presence felt. Snide comments or jokes are just as condescending. They can cause equal damage by hitting it right where it hurts.” Such ‘by-the-way’ means of derision are usually examples of female manipulation in relationships. Humor is an excellent guise because it isn’t as easy to pinpoint or take offense to. The manipulator always covers up with “it’s just a joke, no big deal”. 

Exaggerated facial expressions, eye rolls, and farcical body language also fall under the umbrella of condescending humor. It is quite belittling to see one partner cracking up at the expense of the other in a public setting. Hopefully, you won’t see this lack of respect in your connections. 

Well, what did you think about these subtle signs of manipulation in a relationship? Did your self-assessment reveal something worrisome? If that is the case, you need not worry too much. Fixing a toxic relationship is always possible by seeking help. Depending on your needs, you can go in for individual or couples’ therapy. Many individuals have recovered from emotional manipulation in relationships with the aid of a mental health expert. At Bonobology, we offer professional help through our panel of licensed counselors and therapists. We are always happy to help you.

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