14 Warning Signs of Manipulative Behavior

Crystal Jackson

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Relationships are complicated. You take people with individual thoughts, beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences, and you try to form one healthy relationship. Sometimes, we try to form a healthy relationship with unhealthy people and then wonder why breakups and divorce are so common.

The problem isn’t that we’re so broken that we can’t make anything work. Sometimes, we try relationships on only to realize that they just don’t fit — even if we wish they would. We learn through trial and error, and one of the hardest lessons we’ll learn is how to spot these red flags in relationships.

Manipulation in Relationships

When we read the word manipulation, someone likely comes to mind. A parent, a child, a friend, a partner, a former partner — we all know someone who is a master manipulator. Yet, we don’t always recognize the common behaviors we all do that are designed to get what we want by exercising control over others.

Our behaviors have an end goal — to get what we want or need. Because some of us didn’t grow up with healthy boundaries or communication, we likely follow the unhealthy blueprints we saw modeled.

Some people attempt to control others consciously. Others simply reenact patterns of the past without realizing that these behaviors are manipulative. Ideally, we eventually clue into our own bullshit and learn new and healthier ways of behaving. We begin to demand better treatment from our partners.

Signs of Manipulation in a Relationship

1. People-Pleasing

This one can come as a surprise, but people-pleasing behaviors are manipulative. When we tell others what they want to hear or go along with their ideas against our wants, needs, or better judgment, we’re influencing the outcome of the situation. To be real is to risk rejection, which people-pleasers find terrifying and sometimes traumatic.

This is a sign that I know I’m guilty of using in relationships. It took trauma therapy for me to look closely at this pattern. I thought if I could make myself the ideal partner it would prevent abandonment and earn love. People-pleasing is often an unconscious form of control used as a way of achieving validation, acceptance, and love.

2. Love Bombing

Love bombing is one of the most insidious forms of control— and is not always done intentionally. When we’re being love bombed, the relationship moves swiftly. The love bomber uses attention, flattery, and romantic gestures to engage our affections. It all sounds perfectly innocent and feels wonderful, but then it all comes to an end.

Once a love bomber is assured of our affection, they withdraw their own. We often find that the person we’re partnering doesn’t resemble at all the person we got to know during those first few intense weeks or months. At first, we may assume that the honeymoon period is over, but the reality is that we were tricked into strong feelings and then abandoned.

3. Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive aggressive behavior comes in many forms, but it happens any time we try to get our needs met without directly asking for what we want. It can even look like complaining about our workload in hopes someone will read our minds and help out or using sarcasm as a way to hurt someone rather than telling them we feel hurt by an action they took. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a guilt trip where they play on our emotions to get what they want or need.

4. Silent Treatment

The silent treatment happens when someone refuses to speak with us as a way of letting us know they’re upset — instead of actually talking it out. The silent treatment can look like ignoring messages or phone calls or staring daggers at someone who’s in the same room but refusing to speak with them. It can even happen when a person is trying to communicate but is consistently ignored.

The silent treatment is deadly to relationships. The issues we refuse to talk over become the ones that cause us to leave — or cause someone else to leave us.

5. Gaslighting

One of the key signs that we’re being influenced comes when we constantly second guess ourselves. If we’re not sure if our reactions are justified or if we remember events the way they actually happened, we may be the victims of gaslighting behavior. Gaslighting makes us question reality.

The term comes from a classic movie by the same name that tells a story of a woman who is tricked by her husband into believing that she’s crazy. It’s worth watching, especially if we’ve seen the signs in our own relationships. While real-life experiences may be less extreme, the experience of being gaslit can leave us questioning ourselves even in healthy relationships later. Our self-trust is damaged, and it can take time to heal and recover.

6. Withholding

Withholding, like silent treatment, is a way to influence another person’s behavior. When we withhold our physical affection or affirming words from someone else, they are sure to be hurt by it. It can do long-term damage, and the technique is a way to avoid intimacy while undermining a sense of security within the relationship.

This is often the behavior that follows love bombing. By this point in the relationship, we’ve formed an attachment. When the withholding happens, the struggle becomes releasing the attachment that formed in the earlier part of the relationship.

The experience of love bombing followed by withholding can feel a lot like gaslighting. We no longer trust ourselves, nor do we understand the drastic change in the relationship. We can spend too long trying to convince ourselves it will change back or trying to figure out what happened in the first place when we’d be better served to move on.

7. Insecurities Used Against You

They often get to know us and then use our insecurities against us. They find our soft spots — our deepest vulnerabilities. Once they know our sensitivities, it’s easy for them to undermine our confidence.

Much of their bullying behavior will be dismissed as a joke. In fact, “I was just kidding around” could be their go-to response to their hurtful humor.

8. Isolation from Social Support

If we find that we’re spending less and less time with our family and friends once we’re in the relationship, we may be victims of isolation. If we’re cut off from our support system, we’re less likely to question the relationship and more likely to question ourselves within it.

It’s normal to spend less time with others once we’re partnered up, but when the partner we’ve selected actively discourages us from spending time with other people, there may be a real problem. We should be able to maintain friendships and family relationships without feeling like we’re doing something wrong.

9. Competition

A former partner would show me text messages from his ex in hopes of eliciting jealousy as a response. Later, I found out — from her, no less — that he’d used the same tactic to keep her off-balance, too.

Pitting us against other people can be a way to boost their own ego and assure themselves of the security of their relationship, but it’s done at the cost of our own sense of security. We’re supposed to see the other person, the one designated as our competition, as the problem. Other people aren’t our competition, and anyone who makes us feel differently is likely manipulating us.

10. Refuse to Compromise

They just don’t compromise. They also don’t take accountability for their actions, and they tend to make sure everything happens on their terms. We spend time at their place, meet them at their convenience, and usually find ourselves giving up what we want so they get what they want.

All relationships require some sort of compromise. If we’re the only ones compromising, there’s a problem. It could simply be a lack of boundaries and balance — or it could be an issue of control.

11. Constant Criticism

Constant criticism may not seem manipulative on the surface. Unpleasant, yes. But manipulative?

The point of constantly criticizing another person is to undermine their self-esteem and sense of security. Oftentimes, this is done by people with low self-esteem who are afraid of their partners leaving them. The purpose is to keep the relationship at the expense of the other person’s mental health and well-being. It’s not always intentional either, but it is always manipulative.

12. Strings Attached

There are strings attached, and it’s rare that we know this in advance. If they do something nice for us, it’s with the design that we’ll return the favor.

Sometimes, we’ll hear it in the form of, “I did this for you, but you won’t do this for me.” It can come out in many ways, but the point of it is to use guilt and shame to influence a particular outcome. People who use this technique often play the victim card as a tool to get us to do what they want.

13. Lack of Privacy

The partner who looks through our phones, reads our messages, and checks our emails is violating our privacy. It’s one thing if we have a history of cheating and have agreed on more open communication for accountability purposes. Yet often this happens in relationships where there’s not been any infidelity. Jealousy, suspicion, and controlling behaviors could lead to violations of privacy.

Anyone who is insisting on reading our private communication or going through our messages without our permission is manipulating us. This isn’t acceptable or healthy behavior. It’s intrusive, demeaning, and violating. They may rationalize the need to do it, but it’s still a toxic behavior.

14. You Do It Better

This manipulation is often seen in partners who share space. Someone doing a household task poorly could be manipulating their partner into stepping in and doing it for them.

This often-misogynistic dynamic can come into play with the division of household chores, childcare, finances, and even the emotional and mental labor that goes into making necessary appointments for the household. Imbalances at home can come down to a lack of boundaries, communication, and equity, but it can also be a manipulation.

Final Thoughts

Manipulation comes in a lot of forms in relationships. They don’t have to be deal breakers, but they are a sign that we need better communication. We may even need professional help in the form of therapy for ourselves or for our relationships to identify these patterns and change them.

We cannot heal a relationship alone. If we’re the ones participating in controlling behaviors, we can get help through therapeutic intervention. We can even use personal therapy to identify patterns and free ourselves from them. We cannot, however, make a manipulative person change if they don’t see a problem or don’t want to do the work to change it.

It’s important that we remember that not all manipulative behaviors are intentional. Some people engage in them because they haven’t yet learned healthier ways of getting their needs met. Others don’t even realize that their actions are toxic. Whatever the case may be, we can only control our own behavior, and we can begin to recognize when other people’s behaviors are designed to control us. Once we do, we have hope of breaking the cycle.

Article originally published on The Truly Charming

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails: https://crystaljacksonwriter.substack.com/

Madison, GA
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