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How to Handle Manipulators

You know what they want: Everything.

In an earlier column addressing toxic friendships, I briefly described the “social exchange” theory of friendship development: Friendships and other relationships involve their own versions of economic systems, in that we make investments in them using “relationship acumen” akin to “financial acumen.”

This may sound callous, but the truth is that few of us are willing to invest time and energy into activities or relationships that do not promise some measure of return. In business, we hear about the metric called Return on Investment, or ROI. When the expected return outweighs projected costs—in terms of cash, publicity, good will, exposure, leverage, or a host of different currencies—it is much more likely that the investment will be made.

Friendships also involve an ROI analysis, even if we don't consciously crunch any numbers or measure our expectations for outcome. Friendships are often established on the basis of shared interests, proximity, or similarity between acquaintances. We slowly open ourselves up to a growing relationship with another person with whom we feel some affinity.

The Cost of Befriending Manipulators

Relationships deepen as we provide increasingly deeper levels of self-disclosure. We gauge how much to reveal based on how deeply we perceive our acquaintance to be sharing. Yet there are “friends” who may encourage us to “tell all the gory details.” Or ask for “blow-by-blow descriptions” of fights with our lover, parenting mistakes we may have made, or details about interactions with other friends. Or: Friends who ask us to go above and beyond the level of instrumental or emotional assistance that they themselves would provide to us. For many of us, giving to others is satisfying and brings us pleasure; but being taken advantage of by such relational manipulators only brings frustration and resentment.

Manipulators are expert at convincing us to give them more than they give us. It might feel good, at first, to have a “friend” who encourages you to open up, share your thoughts, and reveal your weaknesses. Someone who listens to us when we are down is valued; someone who uses what she learns about us during those weak moments. . . not so much.

These manipulative friends know their needs and how to get them met at little expense to themselves, but at significant cost to others. Master manipulators know many ways to coerce your assistance that can leave you confused, bewildered, or angry. They may make dire predictions of what will happen if you don’t step up and give them a ride, a meal, or the shirt off your back, or they may make you feel special by playing on your soft heart. Successful manipulators are keen evaluators of human nature and can create a dynamic in which meeting their needs makes you feel good. . . even as you are stuck eating Ramen noodles for dinner because you just gave a friendly manipulator your last $20 bill.

How Do You Know When There's a Problem?

We all know that you must admit there’s a problem before you can begin to find a solution. Here are some signs that you're being manipulated:

  • When you feel an imbalance in the level of self-disclosure between you and a friend.
  • When you feel like you are always “on call” to assist your friend, but she’s a no-show when you are in need.
  • When you realize that her needs take precedence over your own.
  • When other friends begin to make pointed observations about the equity in your relationship with this particular friend.

Unfortunately, ending or exiting a manipulative relationship—whether friendship or romance—is probably easier than trying to realign it. Manipulators spend a great deal of time creating a world in which their needs are met by others over whom they maintain control. Trying to shake up that foundational operating system is biting off a lot.

Break the Cycle: Say “No” and Mean It

As counselors say to clients, the only person you can change is yourself. The best way to handle manipulative people is to become less susceptible to them. We are only as easily manipulated as we choose to be—manipulators make us feel good when we bend to their needs, but we can learn to realize that there are many better ways of building our self-esteem than giving in to them.


  • It’s okay to say no and sometimes it's essential to your well-being. Practice saying, “No, I am not available to help you with that,” even in the mirror if it helps.
  • Create boundaries you can enforce. Think about what this friend would do for you if asked. Use the answer as a guideline for how far you should go for her.
  • Recognize that healthy friendships include give and take, and that there is a limit to what even the best of friends should ever ask of one another.

Friendships are seldom fully equal in what is being given and received at any specific moment. Over time, however, a healthy relationship provides both members with a sense of commitment and support from the other.

Friends don’t let friends do all the work!

(You are invited to participate in a research study exploring adult friendship experiences. We are hoping to learn about the ways in which adults manage friendship conflict and the behaviors they value most in enduring relationships. If you would like to share your experiences, please click on the following link: Friendship Experiences Survey)

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