At the start of any romantic relationship, everything is fresh, new, and exciting. We tend to idealize the person we are dating, feeling that they can do no wrong and would never do anything to hurt us, ever! Sound familiar? It’s because these feelings get the best of us and many times, these idealized traits can very well be true (with hints of reality that we won't always agree and/or be “lovey-dovey” 24/7). However, sometimes we may start to notice that we have polar opposite experiences in our relationship, depending on the day…never knowing what’s to come. We have some days where we are honeymooning followed by days of emotional turmoil. When we start seeing this pattern continue over time in the relationship, it's time to start thinking about whether we may be dealing with a partner who is emotionally manipulating you, whether they even realize what they’re doing or not.
Of course, it can be very difficult to tell if you have a manipulative partner and even more difficult to admit this to ourselves once we see all the clear signs that this could be true. Oftentimes, we may see that our partners are incredibly loving, affectionate, and make us feel like we are the most important thing on this planet. It's a wonderful feeling, something to be cherished, and oftentimes we become addicted to the feelings of elation that come with this affection from our partner. Then, maybe there's some kind of disagreement where we are then ignored, avoided, and made to feel that we are a burden. Often, we are made to feel that we are in the wrong, confused, or not paying enough attention. The constant cycle of honeymoon phases followed by conflicts, anger and confusion makes it difficult to know whether we are genuinely in the wrong or if we are being manipulated.
There are many signs of manipulation that one can show if we know what to look for in our interactions with not just our romantic partners, but anyone in our lives. Here, we will go over just a few of the big manipulating skills that we often see in romantic relationships that maybe you’ve noticed too.
First, there’s gaslighting. Do you ever notice that you become more confused and feel like you're losing your mind in your relationship? Your partner may make you doubt yourself constantly and that you are always in the wrong. An example may be that your version of events often differs from theirs and they make you believe that you are confused or maybe even accuse you of lying and/or being manipulative.
Another tactic is called stonewalling. When your partner and yourself have a disagreement, do you find that you are then being ignored and avoided for several hours, maybe even a day or two? This is called stonewalling and manipulators use this tactic to make you feel emotionally isolated, it's all your fault, and that you are the problem.
Also, you may notice that there are ever changing and unclear boundaries in your relationship. Manipulators will often change the rules and flip the script on you to fit their own agenda. They are flexible in the way they represent themselves to you and others around them to ultimately get what they want from whoever they can, which would mean manipulating a lot of people throughout their lives.
Do you notice that you are always painted to be the monster while your partner is the victim to your constant wrongdoings? Maybe your partner is always saying that they are being wronged somehow without having any willingness to look at their own behaviors. Maybe they are unwilling to reflect on how their actions may impact your relationship. They want sympathy and the best way to get it is to make you feel bad and that this is all your fault. An example may be that your partner tells you that they are drinking excessively because of the stress you bring them.
Maybe you have also noticed that there are elements of blaming language and sarcasm interwoven into your regular interactions with your partner, whether they are positive, negative, or neutral conversations. When manipulative partners use sarcasm and/or blaming language, they may downplay your problems, feelings, and make you feel like you are just being dramatic and/or overreacting. They may even make a joke of the issues and your feelings. Infuriating, right?
If you determine that your partner is manipulating you, it is essential to first develop and solidify strong boundaries for yourself. Talk with your partner about some of the behaviors you notice from them in a calm and neutral manner. Do not use blaming language and avoid any angry tones or raising your voice. Knowing what your own values and expectations are in your relationship will help you hold boundaries and immediately address any manipulative behavior as they happen.
When one partner notices emotional manipulation, they are hurt but still in love and often will look into anything they can to remedy the relationship. They may ask, would couples counseling help? Well, it could potentially help, but not always. A couples counselor could help to highlight behaviors from both parties in a relationship that may be maladaptive and contributing to emotional tensions and conflicts. Afterwards, they would likely discuss conflict resolution skills to promote transparency and constant constructive communication between both parties. Sometimes if the manipulative partner is not willing to acknowledge their behaviors and how they impact the relationship, individual counseling may be recommended. However, manipulators are not always willing to make change because their manipulating ways work to their benefit, so why change? Often in these circumstances, couples counseling could be beneficial in that the ever-rising conflicts are highlighted so that the manipulated partner may gain additional insight and strength to leave this toxic relationship.
If you feel you are in a relationship with a partner who is emotionally manipulating you, talking to someone about what's going on, whether it be a therapist or trusted loved one, this can help you have additional objective insight into what is happening so you can make the best choice regarding next steps for your own wellness and what next steps you’d like to take in your romantic relationship. Much easier said than done, but you can do it. You have the strength, wisdom, and resilience. You’ve got this.