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Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT
Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT

When Relationships Are Based on Manipulation

Recognize the signs. Break the pattern.

Key points

  • Emotional caretakers are caring, concerned, generous, and reliable people, but they can be easily manipulated.
  • When an emotional caretaker notices they are giving up too much of themselves, they may become resentful and angry.
  • To stop being an emotional caretaker, a person must set boundaries that don’t allow others to invalidate them.
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An emotional caretaker is someone who looks out for the feelings, needs and wants of an emotional manipulator. The caretaker defers to the manipulator’s wants, giving up their own wants and even their own health and well-being needs. They give in to “keep the peace” and to please the other person—all with no improvement in the relationship.

Emotional caretakers are caring, concerned, generous, and reliable people. They sincerely want to please others and are generally nice people. However, they can be easily manipulated by others because they tend to be passive and overly compliant and have high levels of guilt and obligation, or fear of anger in others. An emotional caretaker would rather feel hurt, angry, or depressed themselves rather than have the person they care about experience any of those feelings. This makes them highly vulnerable to being taken advantage of and mistreated in relationships with people who are highly self-oriented and selfish.

Many caretakers don’t even realize they are giving up so much of themselves. When they do notice, they may become resentful and angry—but they may keep doing it anyway. Such clients often ask me, “Why did I choose to get into a relationship with someone who is so selfish?” But a caretaker's personality is magnetizing to an emotional manipulator. At first, the relationship seems wonderful—one person who loves to give and one person who loves to receive. Unfortunately, too often the receiver just wants more and more, all their own way. While the caretaker secretly hopes things will balance out in the long run, they never do.

(I don't think that emotional caretakers and co-dependents are the same thing: Most caretakers are highly functional, positive, and feel deserving at work and with their friends—while co-dependents are typically passive, self-invalidating, powerless and self-defeating in most relationships.)

When caretakers are in relationships with people who respect, value, and have positive regard for them, they get their needs satisfied and there is a good balance of give-and-take. And caretakers usually have positive relationships in their lives. But in an intimate relationship with a manipulator, an emotional caretaker’s values and beliefs about giving and caring—and their fear of the anger, hostility, and rejection from the manipulator keeps them virtually hostage. When the caretaker disagrees or wants something different than the manipulator, they often don’t or can’t stand their ground, set boundaries, or solve differences because that level of “combat” is out of their range of skills and values. They are at the mercy of a partner whose goal is to get what they want, no matter who it hurts.

What is the cost of being an emotional caretaker in a manipulative relationship? Loss of self-esteem; increased anxiety and depression; a growing sense of hopelessness and helplessness; exhaustion; a sense of emptiness and increasing hurt; fear; and frustration. Caretakers often feel trapped in relationships because of their sense of loyalty and reluctance to hurt the other person, no matter what that person has done.

Instead of the reactions of fight-or-flight, most caretakers respond to danger, anger, and hostility by shutting down. Their breathing becomes shallow, they freeze up and wait for the danger to pass. This shutdown process makes thinking fuzzy, as muscles tense up, and even heart and digestion rates slow down. This reaction can result in physical problems such as migraines; indigestion and other intestinal problems; insomnia; neck, shoulder, and back aches; and an overall sense of defeat.

How does one stop being an emotional caretaker? The most important thing to do is to value yourself and treat yourself with as much respect as you do others. Value your own wants and needs and preferences. Set boundaries that don’t allow others to invalidate you, put you down, or ignore what is important to you. Learn to fight and flee effectively when you are in danger.

Care for yourself first and then offer your caring to others. It can change your life.

About the Author
Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT

Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT, is a therapist, author and speaker on the topic of borderlines and narcissists.

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