We all have wants, needs, and desires from our interpersonal relationships. Expressing those needs is healthy and also necessary for the relationship to thrive. However, there’s a right and a wrong way to do so.
Manipulation uses deceitful, indirect, and dishonest tactics to get someone to do what you want, whether it’s healthy for them or not. While some truly unsavory people purposefully manipulate others, most manipulators aren’t completely aware of their actions.
You can have the best intentions but also act in a manipulative way. If you’re manipulative, or even if you suspect you are, you likely want to change. Fortunately, discarding manipulative tendencies in favor of a more honest approach is usually easy.
Here’s a closer look at how to identify, and then change, manipulative behaviors.
What is Manipulation?
A manipulator gets what he or she wants through deceptive and duplicitous means. They attempt to change someone’s mind or alter their actions indirectly. Manipulators rely on lies, threats, and influence (the ability to cause something without direction action).
Manipulators don’t care about you. They only care about getting you to do what they want. Obviously, manipulators are bad news. You don’t want them in your life. They can cause you to compromise your morals and engage in activities or behaviors which make you uncomfortable.
However, what if the manipulative person… is you? Manipulators don’t always know they’re manipulating. You might exhibit manipulative behavior unconsciously in your interpersonal interactions.
At first, this might sound ridiculous. How can someone use manipulative behaviors without any awareness that they’re doing so? Truthfully, manipulation is like any other type of communication. People develop conversational strategies from a young age based on what works. If manipulative strategies get results, a person will continue to use them.
The first step to changing manipulative behavior is recognition. Let’s take a closer look:
Common Manipulative Behaviors
Do you do any of the following?
Attempt to Control the Feelings of Another
The most common type of manipulation is an attempt to control someone’s feelings. In most cases, manipulation involves making someone feel bad.
Watch the other person’s reactions to your behavior. Do they do what you ask out of a sense of guilt, shame, or fear? Manipulation often provokes someone to react to your behavior instead of the specifics of the situation.
Also, watch your behavior. Do you use strong emotions to get your way? Examples include crying, pouting, yelling, and whining. If you get someone to do what you want because they don’t want to upset or anger you, you’re manipulating them.
Here are some phrases commonly used in emotional manipulation:
- “If you love me, you’ll [behave in a certain way or perform a specific action].”
- “All my friends think you [mistreat me in a certain way].”
- “I care more about you than you do about me.”
- “I do more work in this relationship than you do.”
Lie or Mislead
Lying is an obvious sign of manipulation. Making up false stories to get what you want from someone is manipulative.
However, most manipulators don’t tell outright falsehoods. Instead, they twist the truth. Common manipulation techniques include:
- Deliberately misinterpreting information
- Concealing information
- Changing the meaning of information
For example, imagine your boyfriend or girlfriend tells you they don’t want to go out tonight. Instead, they plan to stay at home. You go out with friends only to find several angry messages from your partner. They say they expected you to stay with them, even though that was never explicitly stated. They’re changing the meaning of the earlier conversation to manipulate your feelings.
Withhold Something Important
Manipulators often withhold actions, communication, or affection if they don’t get their way. They might withhold sex, money, assistance, communication, or love. Common types of the manipulation related to withholding include:
- Your partner refuses to talk to you
- Your partner refuses to let you access money
- Your partner refuses to provide physical affection
Of course, your partner has autonomy over their actions. They’re allowed to not feel like talking or to not be in the mood for romantic relations.
Manipulation occurs when the withholding directly relates to a specific condition set by the manipulator. For example:
- “Don’t call me unless it’s to apologize.”
- “We’re not sleeping together until you block all your exes on social media.”
- “I’m not helping around the house until you admit I’m right about [some specific issue].”
Blame Others for Your Actions
Manipulators blame others for their failings. Usually, this means they reframe situations to assign blame to others. Most people with manipulative tendencies struggle to accept responsibility for the results of their actions.
For example, imagine you’re in a minor car accident while your partner is a passenger. In the aftermath, you blame your partner for distracting you by talking. You’re attempting to deflect responsibility for your actions.
Another similar technique is spreading gossip to discredit someone. For example, you might tell all your friends or family about something negative your partner did. Because your partner has no idea about those conversations, they’re unable to defend themselves.
Keep Your Intentions Vague
Manipulators often keep their intentions vague. Instead of stating their intentions directly, they drop hints or suggestions instead. It places a burden on the other person to read between the lines and determine your true intentions.
For example, a manipulative person might say, “I don’t have any plans for Saturday night.” However, what they mean is they want the other person to make plans with them. If the other person doesn’t pick up on the hint, the manipulator will become angry.
Act like a Know-It-All
Many people with manipulative tendencies also don’t like to show flaws. Instead, they want to appear as if they know everything. They often resort to manipulation in any situation where they feel perceived as not having the right answers.
Fortunately, nobody expects you to know everything. Let go of any expectations you might have of yourself to know all the answers. When you no longer feel the need to impress people with your knowledge, you’ll notice a decrease in your manipulative tendencies.
Even better, people will end up liking you more. Imperfections make us human. You’ll find it easier to connect and relate to others.
How to Stop Being Manipulative
If you recognize yourself in any of the behaviors above, you might have manipulative tendencies. Fortunately, identification is the first step to improvement. Here’s a look at how to stop being manipulative:
Work on Your Self-Esteem
Low self-esteem is the number one reason why people manipulate others. If you feel unworthy of love, you’ll attempt to control and manipulate the other person to keep them around. The idea – consciously or not – is that if you let the person do what they want, they’ll leave you. The only way to keep them around is to manipulate them into staying.
Of course, that’s not how healthy relationships work. If you feel the urge to manipulate your partner, focus instead on building your self-esteem. Improving your confidence often helps improve your relationship, too.
Some ways to improve your self-esteem include:
- Work out
- Learn a new skill
- Buy new clothes
- Get a new haircut
Increasing your self-confidence helps decrease your need to manipulate your partner. Instead, you’ll feel confident your partner is with you because they honestly enjoy your company, not because they feel emotionally obligated to stay.
Control Your Anxiety
Anxiety is another major cause of manipulative behavior. Persistent, negative thoughts often prevent you from seeing the positive aspects of the relationship. Instead, you’ll feel obsessed with worst-case scenarios.
Unfortunately, these negative thoughts often result in negative actions. You’ll end up using manipulative behaviors to prevent problems that might only exist in your head.
For example, you might worry that your partner will cheat on you. To prevent this future infidelity, you might become jealous and untrusting. You might exhibit manipulative behaviors like trying to control where your partner goes and who they hang out with.
Even if your partner has no intention of cheating, your jealous actions will cause tension in your relationship. You might even drive your partner into the arms of another – creating the very problem you sought to avoid!
Depending on the type and severity of your anxiety, several solutions are available, including:
- Exercise (especially yoga)
Unfortunately, anxiety rarely goes away on its own. You’ll need to take steps to combat it either on your own or with the help of a professional.
Remember the classic saying: Anxiety is like a rocking chair for your thoughts. It wears you out but doesn’t actually take you places.
Control Your Jealousy
We touched on this issue above, but it’s worth an expanded look. Jealousy is a major cause of manipulative behavior.
Jealousy takes many forms. Watch for the following behaviors:
- You want to know where your partner is, and who they’re with, at all times
- You’re constantly comparing yourself to people your partner previously dated
- You try to control or limit your partner from spending time with certain people
- You want access to your partner’s phone and social media accounts
Let’s unpack some of these.
Where Are You?
First, in a healthy relationship, you probably should have a general idea where your partner is at most times. For example, if they’re two hours late getting home from work and you have no clue where they are, that’s concerning. You want to know if your partner’s hurt or in trouble.
However, watching their every move like a hawk is not okay. For instance, you shouldn’t install a tracking app on their phone. If they’re out with friends, you don’t need to call them every hour to check on them.
Many couples share their phone and social media passwords with one another. The idea is that, because they have nothing to hide, they’re comfortable with the other person looking through their digital life.
Although this seems like a way to increase trust in a relationship, it can actually have the opposite effect. Sharing all your passwords implies your partner should check up on you. In a healthy relationship, each person should have privacy to talk to friends, surf the web, etc.
If your partner wants to cheat, they’ll find away. Restricting their right to privacy typically builds resentment but won’t prevent infidelity.
Accept “No” for an Answer
Unfortunately, we don’t get what we want all the time. Rejection is a fact of life. If you encounter an obstacle, don’t try to manipulate your way out of it.
Making your wishes known is fine. Using any of the manipulative techniques described above isn’t. If someone is unwilling or unable to do what you want, don’t use guilt to try to change their minds. Instead, try to compromise.
For example, suppose your partner wants to spend a Saturday night at home watching a movie. You’d prefer to go out for a fancy dinner and drinks. You could compromise in several ways. Instead of going out, you could order in. You could also go out to dinner but return home for a quiet night afterward.
Stop Manipulative Behavior When You Recognize It
Understanding how you’re manipulating people is the first step towards improvement. As soon as you catch yourself exhibiting manipulative behavior, stop yourself immediately.
You don’t have to say anything such as, “Sorry, I’ve been manipulating you.” Instead, excuse yourself from the situation momentarily. Take deep breaths and collect your thoughts.
When you return, approach the situation more directly and honestly. State your feelings. Don’t try to force the person to change their mind.
Changing manipulative behavior is difficult. You’re allowed to slip up now and again. Recognizing the problem and halting it immediately is what’s important.
Listen Carefully to the Other Person
Manipulators often only care about their goals and desires. They have little concern for the other person. Seeing the world through the eyes of another is usually difficult for a manipulator.
The best way to understand someone else is to listen to their perspective. Give them space to share their feelings about the situation. Listen carefully, asking for clarification when necessary.
Listening to someone else’s point of view helps you understand their goals and motivations. When you know what they want from a situation, you can help reach a compromise.
For example, you might want to go to a party on Friday night, but your partner wants to see a movie. If you were trying to manipulate them, you might say something like, “We never get to go to parties. You’re no fun at all!”
However, a better approach is to listen to their reasons for wanting a movie night. Maybe they had a long day at work around people and need some quiet time to recharge. You could suggest a movie night tonight, and maybe a social event tomorrow.
What are the Signs of a Healthy Relationship?
If manipulation is all you’ve ever known, you likely have no idea what a healthy relationship even looks like. As you start to drop your manipulative tendencies, it can feel like you see your relationship through totally new eyes.
Here are some signs you’re in a healthy, non-manipulative relationship:
Here’s a scenario:
You and your partner have dinner plans for the evening. It’s nothing special like an anniversary or anything, but it’s still a dinner at a nice restaurant.
However, at the last minute, your partner gets an invitation to a unique and memorable event. Their best friend won tickets to a meet-and-greet with the local NBA team! It’s an amazing, out-of-the-blue surprise.
In a manipulative relationship, you’ll demand your partner meet you for dinner. After all, you had plans. Another option is you let them go, but complain about how they abandoned you. You’ll guilt-trip them excessively.
In a healthy relationship, you’ll tell them to take advantage of this one-of-a-kind opportunity. You’ll feel excited on their behalf. You’ll ask all sorts of questions about the event when they return home. A healthy relationship can go with the flow when the unexpected happens.
Respectful Towards Personal Space
Everybody needs “me time” on occasion. Healthy relationships allow for each person to spend time quietly by themselves without feeling guilty.
A manipulator wants you to spend time with them whenever they want. They monopolize your time excessively. They make you feel bad whenever you want time to yourself to recharge.
All relationships have disagreements and even arguments. Occasional fighting is healthy. Otherwise, you’re likely holding back your true feelings.
There’s a right and wrong way to fight. Healthy fights are often heated and unpleasant, but they never cross certain lines. When fighting, always remain respectful of your partner. Avoid name-calling, insults, and personal attacks.
Also, avoid what’s called the “kitchen sink” approach. It’s when you throw every grievance you have at the person. For example, your partner complains that you left your dirty socks on the floor. In response, you bring up seemingly everything they’ve done wrong in the past ten years. You’re complaining about everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink.
Instead, you want to focus on resolving the issue. Try to find points of agreement. Look at the issue through your partner’s eyes. (Remember earlier when we talked about how manipulators are often unable to see another person’s perspective. That plays a big role here.)
Willingness to Let Issues Go
No matter how wonderful your partner is, they’re going to annoy you from time to time. Maybe they watch the TV too loud. Maybe they leave the bathroom sink a mess. Whatever it is, they’re going to do something which bugs you.
In a manipulative relationship, the manipulator will use these minor annoyances to their advantage. They’ll bring them up when they want to make you feel guilty or bad.
In a healthy relationship, you’ll let that little stuff go. You’ll pick your battles. You understand the difference between a minor issue and a major one.
A healthy sex life plays an important role in a healthy relationship. However, intimacy is about more than sex. It’s about connecting with the other person on an intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual level.
A manipulator withholds intimacy and sex to punish the other person. In a healthy relationship, intimacy is a foundation for trust and closeness.
Cooperative Decision Making
Manipulators typically make all of the decisions for a couple. After all, what’s the point of manipulation besides controlling someone else? Although manipulators often make decisions under the guise of what’s best for both of you, they’re usually only choosing what’s best for them.
In a healthy relationship, both partners make decisions together. These decisions range from minor issues to major life choices. For instance, you’ll decide together if you want children. You’ll also decide together what movie you want to watch or what you’ll eat for dinner.
In essence, people in a healthy relationship act as a team. A manipulative relationship has a leader and a follower.
Along those same lines, people in a healthy relationship understand everything isn’t equal at all times. One person might work more while the other does more housework. One person might end up driving more because the other person gets nervous in traffic. Not everything is equal, but both partners cooperate and share the workload as much as possible.
Happiness and Joy
No matter how stressful and hard life gets, a healthy relationship finds time for laughter and fun. The two of you genuinely enjoy hanging around with one another. You find joy in simple things. Being around the other person fills your heart with happiness. Life isn’t perfect, but you can’t imagine living it without your partner.
Have you been manipulative in your relationships, either purposefully or accidentally? It’s a bad feeling knowing you’ve been manipulating a loved one. However, there is good news. You can change for the better!
Identifying your manipulative tendencies is the first step towards reducing and eventually eliminating them. In return, you’ll find increased joy, honesty, and intimacy in your relationships.