The signs of manipulation in a relationship can be difficult to recognize. In a perfect world, we’d all be in healthy relationships where all partners feel comfortable, loved, and valued, but sadly, this isn’t always the case.
Manipulation is a form of emotional abuse, and it has no place in healthy relationships. Some research even found that emotional abuse can be as harmful as physical abuse, as both can contribute to low self-esteem and depression.
“Many times people have simply not learned healthy ways to ask for what they want and need, and manipulate to get it,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Paired’s In-House Relationship Expert.
“This is a key part of the confusing nature of identifying emotional abuse. Adding to why people will initially stay in manipulative relationships even when they are unsatisfied.”
Emotional manipulation can be overt and violent, but in most cases, it’s so subtle that you don’t realize it’s happening until it’s seriously affecting your happiness and mental health — so learning how to identify the signs of manipulation is crucial.
It’s not always easy to spot when you’re being manipulated. Psychological manipulation can start slowly, with one romantic partner making the other feel incredible before they progress to making them feel dependent.
This may be referred to as “love-bombing,” wherein a partner showers another with gifts and romantic gestures, often curiously early in the relationship. It’s a tactic used to lull the other person into a false sense of security, let their guard down, and form an emotional attachment.
There are typically four stages of manipulation tactics, so it’s important to recognize each and the traits that a manipulative romantic partner may have.
At the targeting stage, you’re just getting to know each other. Manipulators are often consciously or unconsciously looking for people to prop up their own self-worth, so it’s easier for them to target people with low self-esteem. They may look for signs of poor mental health, for example, if they meet you in a vulnerable setting such as a self-help group.
They may ask you questions about your vulnerable situation under the guise of caring. What they’re really doing is looking for weaknesses to exploit, so that they can make you feel dependent on them afterward.
“What is important to keep in mind when trying to identify manipulation, is that oftentimes people have learned patterns of manipulation that they bring into relationships having little or no insight into it,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“Unlike more direct physical or emotional abuse, manipulation often gets understood by a couple that one or both of them just thought this is what relationships feel like.”
This comes as part of the “courtship” phase as your romantic relationship starts to flourish. A manipulative person may start to drop “love-bombing” tactics at this stage, even with constant text messages to make them the center of your world.
Beware that the love-bomber can turn these off in an instant — suddenly becoming distant for no reason, and making you question if you have done something wrong. They essentially make you dependent on their attention.
By the time you’re in a fully-fledged relationship, your partner could exhibit all manner of manipulative behaviors toward you. For example, they might resort to emotional blackmail if they feel you’re giving too much attention to other loved ones.
They might even try the passive-aggressive approach, where they say something like, “it’s fine, go and see your family again.” This is another attempt to make you feel guilty, even if what you’re doing is totally acceptable.
Another manipulation tactic is known as stonewalling, where a partner intentionally stifles communication and gives you the silent treatment. By not talking to you, they force you to think about what you might have done wrong, placing the responsibility of repair on to you, making it so they are avoiding sharing any vulnerable feelings. Shifting the blame for their negative emotions and experience solely onto you.
At the abusive stage, an emotional manipulator will try to break you down. In extreme situations, this could also lead to domestic violence. With the escalation in negative interaction in your relationship, a manipulator might try to blame you for their behavior, for example, telling you that you made them do something, such as physically or verbally assaulting you.
They may project their insecurities onto you or even lie to make you look like the perpetrator and you the victim. For example, some cheating partners may try to turn things around on their lover to take the attention off them.
A healthy relationship should not make you doubt yourself or feel dependent on your partner. There are several signs of manipulation to look out for:
You have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, but you choose to ignore it.
Your partner makes you feel guilty for doing perfectly normal things, such as spending time with friends and family.
Losing your sense of self or individuality to the point where you forget what makes you happy.
You feel like you are constantly trying to make them feel better or fix something you did.
You start to wonder if you’re the problem, even though you don’t know what you did wrong.
Always walking on eggshells for fear of upsetting your partner.
You start to doubt your own reality and sanity.
Poor mental health, anxiety, or depression.
When you’re away from them you often think about if they are mad that you’re not with them.
You feel insecure or have poor self-esteem.
In every relationship, there are bound to be things that upset or annoy the other partner, but it’s important to talk about healthy boundaries and set ones that meet both of your needs.
If your partner is emotionally manipulative, it may be time to call them out on their behavior or end the relationship altogether.
There are different reasons why some people become manipulative. In some cases, a person may have grown up in a toxic home environment and been a victim of manipulation.
In other instances, a manipulative partner might have some form of personality disorder, such as a narcissistic personality. Some common manipulation tactics include:
Threats or coercive behavior
Trying to isolate you from your friends, family, or support network.
While emotional manipulation can start small, it’s often progressive, so it’s important to look out for the telltale signs from day one.
Nobody wants to be in a toxic relationship, and you deserve to feel confident in yourself. The first step is to build your self-esteem back up, starting with a strong support system such as friends and family.
Remember that you deserve to feel loved, respected, and valued — without feeling guilty for setting boundaries. Manipulators often disregard our boundaries and have unrealistic expectations for their partners.
The next stage is to decide where you want the relationship to go. Do you believe your partner can change, and do they want to?
Speaking to a couples therapist or marriage counselor may help you both understand if there’s an underlying cause for your partner’s manipulative behavior. For example, your partner’s need for constant love and attention may stem from abandonment issues in childhood or past trauma in a relationship.
Your partner needs to recognize your needs. Start with “me” pronouns such as “I” and “my” to communicate your boundaries. This may be saying no more often or spending less time together, for example.
Victims of manipulation tend to put the needs of others first. Perhaps your partner has made you feel like you can’t live without them when in reality it’s the opposite. Tell yourself that you are strong and can get past this — particularly with a support network like friends and family members around you.
A manipulative relationship can change, but it is up to the manipulator to want to change. Remember: it is not up to you to excuse someone else’s behavior.