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Understanding and Managing Psychological Manipulation

A four-step guide to managing manipulative behaviors.

Key points

  • Manipulative behaviors involve those behaviors designed to control a situation or someone's reactions.
  • To manage manipulative behaviors, it is important to name the behavior and to state your boundary around it.
  • All manipulative behaviors occur for a reason, and understanding the function of a behavior can be beneficial in framing your response.
Matthew Fassnacht/Unsplash
Source: Matthew Fassnacht/Unsplash

"Manipulation" is a term that is often used within the annals of relationship and forensic psychology. It often refers to attempts to control or change a situation or someone else's behavior. I prefer to use the term "influence" when discussing manipulation—because this is more realistic.

We all try to influence situations or what other people do for our own benefit. This could be innocent, like praising our partner for bringing in the bins, because we know that positive reinforcement works, and this means that they will engage in the behavior more often. This could also be somewhat malignant, such as threatening to end a relationship if our partner does not accede to our requests. When we talk about manipulation, we are usually referring to behaviors at the latter end of the spectrum, but it is important to remember that there is a spectrum, and we naturally will influence other people by dint of living in a social world.

Manipulation can be emotional (e.g., “You can’t say that to me, because you know I am an anxious person”—subtext: You are responsible for maintaining my feelings), verbal (“You owe me because I did X for you,“If you leave, I will kill myself”), physical (“You need to have sex with me to show me you care”) or financial (“I won’t be able to pay my rent if you don’t help me”). At the crux of manipulation is an externalization of responsibility for one’s own behavior or well-being and a desire to gain something (or avoid something aversive).

Manipulation is most problematic when it occurs too often within a relationship, involves extreme behaviors (such as threats), forces you to bend your boundaries (e.g., lending people money even though you feel uncomfortable about this), or requires you to invalidate or ignore your feelings. While noticing that you are experiencing manipulation within a relationship is the first step, it can be difficult to know how to address this. I use a four-step process when addressing manipulative behaviors.

Step 1: Identify and name the behavior.

To accurately challenge any behavior, it is important to first understand specifically what the behavior of concern is because you cannot ask someone to change something that neither of you understands. Some examples of specific manipulative behaviors may include: being overly dependent and asking for too much support, feigning illness for attention, threatening suicide to make someone stay in a relationship, threatening to leave a relationship or cut off contact, becoming aggressive whenever challenged. After naming the problematic behavior for yourself, it is helpful to name the behavior to the other person.

Chances are, they are unlikely to have consciously realized that they are doing this, and by bringing the behavior to their attention, you are naming the elephant in the room and your boundary around it. I use this to great effect with aggressive clients; my standard script is something like, “I wonder if you noticed that your voice is raised and that you just threatened me. Did you intend to do that?” Another example may be, “I noticed that you often give me ultimatums or say you will leave me when I hold a view different to yours.

Step 2: Take on just enough responsibility.

It is important to remind yourself that the person who may be engaging in manipulative behavior wants something from you and often wants you to feel a lot of responsibility for them. Don’t buy it. Everyone has responsibility for managing their own emotions, behaviors, and lives.

As an example, if I noticed that someone was threatening suicide as a way to make me stay in a relationship, I would want to keep them safe but also recognize that giving in to this would set up an unsustainable pattern. This is likely when I would note the behavior to myself, call 000 (the national emergency telephone number in Australia) and the crisis assessment mental health triage team (part of the mental health service system in my state) or the person’s therapist, and hand over responsibility to these services, keeping both the person and myself safe. I want to note that this is quite different from a genuine emergency—where someone was actively suicidal but was not using this as a systematic pattern of responding to influence my behavior—or if this behavior was to occur over the course of my work as a psychologist, where I have an explicit duty of care.

Marten Newhall/Unsplash
Source: Marten Newhall/Unsplash

Step 3: State your boundary around the behavior.

First, operationalize (i.e., break down and list) your boundaries around the manipulative person and their behaviors. It is important to remember that your boundaries are about how much you can give—not about how much the other person might be asking. Examples may be, “I cannot give you all the help you need; I think it may be helpful if you spoke to a therapist,” or, “I don’t want to talk about that, because it means I have to pick sides between the two of you.” You may need to be a broken record about your boundaries and repeat them ad nauseam.

Step 4: What’s the FUNC?

Sometimes, it is helpful to understand the behavior and consider what the function of the behavior might be for the other person. Are they lying to you about something that occurred because they feel defensive and anxious? Are they making you responsible for their feelings because it makes their emotional job easier, as they then don’t need to do any work on changing their patterns? Are they being aggressive because it means you stop arguing and submit to them?

Understanding the function won’t stop the behavior, but it gives you some insight into it (and knowledge is power). Bring curiosity, not blame. Pretend the person is an alien and that you are studying them for anthropological purposes.

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