13 Ways to Tell If It's Love or If You're Being Manipulated

When people are quick with praise, is it because they want something from you?

Posted Oct 08, 2015

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Someone is buttering you up, which is nice. Sort of. You like affirmation, but not if it’s manipulation.

Are they about to ask a big favor? Are they flattering you to get you to support rather than oppose them? Are they social climbers scrambling over you to get to your connections? Do they want sex?

How can you tell what motivates their sweet gestures?

You can’t just ask, “Do you really mean it?” They’ll say yes, whether they mean it or not. And they might get offended: “How dare you question my motives?” Besides, none of us know all of our own motives, so they could say, “Yes, I mean it” without consciously realizing that they don’t.

Love is wonderful. Being used is horrible. You wonder whether you can trust the person. The only thing as bad as trusting the untrustworthy is callously distrusting the trustworthy. You want to avoid both errors. Is there a surefire formula for determining who really appreciates you and who is just playing you to get what they want?

Alas, there is no formula for distinguishing love and manipulation, but we can get better at predicting when affirmation is and isn’t to be trusted. The first step is to step back from the present personal particulars to think broadly and neutrally about affirmation as a practical currency. As with other currencies, there’s a supply of, and demand for, affirmation. Like money, affirmation can be used in exchange for all sorts of goods and services.

Here are 13 reflections on "affirmationomics":

  1. Hard vs. Soft Currency. We have different rules for money and affirmation depending on whether it's business or friendship (including romantic love). In business, you track tightly who owes what money. In friendship, you track more loosely.
  2. Double Entry. With both money and affirmation, we do double-entry bookkeeping, maintaining parallel registers that track each transaction as coming out of one account and into another. It's obvious with money; less so with affirmation. But think about it: A friend says, “Thanks, that was a big help,” and we assume his affirming gratitude will translate into his willingness to help us in return. As such, it’s an accounts payable in his ledger and an accounts receivable in ours.
  3. Cooked books: Politeness and generosity compels us to cook the books, hopefully in each other’s favor. To your friend’s “That was a big help,” you say, “Don’t even think about it,” implying that, out of generosity or politeness, you’re not going to count it as accounts receivable.
  4. Overcooked books. But such soft, altruistic book-cooking can go too far. Despite your frequent reminders, a friend is very late returning something he borrowed. You say, “Awesome! Thank you!” and he says, “Glad I could be of help,” as though he did you a favor. Suddenly you start wondering whether he’s really a friend. Maybe politeness has gone too far and you should be more businesslike in your transactions with him. Maybe you have to start keeping more accurate books to make sure you’re not being used.
  5. Affirmation ratchets. At first an affirmation is a delightful surprise, but soon it becomes an expectation. If, after each of your first times out together, you text your date to say, “That was awesome!” it’s a delight. If after a later date, you don’t write, you may disappoint expectations. Affirmations ratchet, which is why you’ll often see couples stuck in exaggerated, “I love you"/"I love you more" mutual affirmation cycles. They’ve ratcheted up to extreme affirmations and don’t know how to cool it down without disappointing each other’s expectations.
  6. Mutual Affirmation Society. Everything and everybody is "awesome" these days. We’ve ratcheted the whole culture up to where we can hardly tell when any affirmations are real. That doesn’t make our skepticism any more welcome. In a pro-positivity culture like ours, expect lots of positivity peer pressure: “How dare you question my positivity? You should just be positive back!”
  7. Pay it forward. We consider it naïve in business to pay money up front on faith that it will be paid back later. We loan and invest money only when we’ve done our due diligence. With affirmation in relationships, there’s lots of paying forward on faith. In part because…
  8. “Like” is cheap. It doesn’t cost you much to throw affirmations around like a spendthrift. Facebook “likes” are a perfect example. “Likes” are cheap affirmation taken to a one-click extreme. Think of how different our spending patterns would be if “likes” were budgeted—if you had to buy them, or could only spend as many as you get. That doesn’t mean that they’re all lip service; just that you can’t tell what motivates them. (Often, not much.) Or consider the "player" who courts multiple women at once, sweet-texting them all and hoping for a bite. He can afford a feed forward strategy with them all because texted affections and affirmations are easy to send.
  9. Good cop, bad cop. We use pay forward and pay back strategies in a range of activities. For example, good cops employ pay forward: They affirm you to get you to come clean. Bad cops employ pay back: They demand your help first before they affirm you.
  10. Grace and Law. In religious studies, we talk about the relationship between grace (affirmation from God) and law (what you owe in return). The Protestant Reformation was built on the idea that grace comes first—God as good cop. The Catholic Church had turned grace into something you had to earn—God as bad cop. (Follow the law and you’ll get grace.) Protestantism reversed it: God grants you grace up front. He has paid you forward, so pay Him back by following His laws.
  11. Affirmation can be like political corruption. Political corruption is rampant today: People trade unearned money for unearned favors, dictators bribe their way into power, corporations grease politicians with political contributions, and democracies veer into dead ends steered by the distorting power of corruption’s false economy. At the personal level, affirmations can be as dangerous a false economy. We all can distort standards just by buttering each other up too liberally.
  12. Wean toward leaner leaning. One way to manage the affirmation currency is to minimize your dependence upon it. Neither an affirmer or affirmee be, or at least,  be very discriminating about whose affirmations matter to you and who you give them to. Boycott the affirmation economy. Become "egonomical"—economical in your ego-stroking.
  13. The hungry are soon eaten: If you’re too hungry for affirmation you can’t be discriminating. Depend on affirmation from any source and soon you’ll be a sucker to any source of it. Live off the affirmation grid to the extent you can.