10 covert habits of someone who’s secretly manipulative

Covert manipulators are experts at subterfuge while they’re trying to control you. Your only clue may be an uneasy gut feeling or feeling somehow trapped into complying with a request. 

Unfortunately, most people unwittingly react in ways that escalate the manipulators’ abuse. If you grew up with a manipulative parent, it’ll be harder for you to see it in others, especially your partner, because it’s familiar behavior to you. You are a manipulator’s dream come true.

When manipulative people behave passive-aggressively, what you’re really observing is covert aggression

Is this behavior conscious or unconscious? 

That’s definitely debatable. 

It doesn’t matter either way to the manipulator’s victim, though. The end result is identical. When someone attacks you, whether it’s done overtly or covertly, they’re acting aggressively. End of story. 

If you’re empathetic to a fault, you’re leaving yourself wide open to future disrespect. And a skilled manipulator will sense this like a shark smells blood in the water. 

To help you protect yourself, here are a few classic maneuvers beloved by covert manipulators.

1) Liar, liar pants on fire

Pathological liars sometimes lie when it’s unnecessary. They aren’t lying out of fear or guilt, though. Their goal is to confuse you so they can do whatever they want. Some manipulators like to multitask, and simultaneously put you on the defensive with accusations while they’re lying through their teeth. 

Then there are the lies of omission. This is lying using the omission of key information in an otherwise true statement. Like my ex, for example. He’d call to say he was grabbing a quick beer on the way home but neglected to tell me he was at a strip club.  

It’s the warm, fuzzy moments like this that make a marriage so special.  

2) Evasiveness

Above all else, covert manipulators seek to escape confrontation and responsibility for their actions. They studiously sidestep conversations about their behavior by flat-out refusing to discuss it. 

Manipulators are famous for turning the table so you’ll probably be accused of being an unreasonable nag.

These folks are slick, so their avoidance tactics can be subtle. When a manipulator decides it’s time to shift the topic, they’ll camouflage their evasion with what you want to hear, like, “You know how much I love you” or “Let’s go out for pizza.” 

Some of these manipulators, especially if they are also narcissists, are so good at evasion that you may forget why you were upset to begin with.

3) Dazed and confused

Some covert narcissists get their jollies by creating confusion. They may not engage in the Blame and Shame game, but instead, they like to make people question their sanity and second-guess what they know to be true.

 A covert narcissist needs to use tactics like this to maintain power in the interaction. If they can trick you into questioning your perceptions, it gives them a chance to further exploit you.

4) Gaslighting

Gaslighting is using clever deceptions and outright lies to manipulate someone into doubting their own perceptions, memories, and even their sanity. 

Phrases like “That never happened!” and “You’re crazy!” are common with this type of manipulation.

If someone challenges your very perception of reality, don’t just give in. Talk it over with a trusted, objective outsider. 

5) The blame and shame game

red flags your partner uses manipulative love tactics 10 covert habits of someone who's secretly manipulative

Ah, the old blame and shame. A classic. 

These time-honored tactics include projection, a maneuver where the manipulator accuses other people of the behavior they themselves are guilty of. 

Manipulators swear by the credo “The best defense is a good offense.” By shifting the blame from themselves to you, the victim is on the defensive. 

For example, you find seductively flirty text messages on your partner’s phone. Instead of being chagrined when you confront them, your partner is furious at you for going into their phone. 

And, just like magic, you’re suddenly the villain.

It’s common for abusers to blame their victims, so be wary of an apology cleverly disguised as yet another manipulation attempt. 

Shaming demeans your worth as a person and not just your actions. Negative comparison is a subtle, but powerful form of shaming. Think of parents who compare siblings with each other and spouses who compare their partner with their ex to make their mate feel inferior.

6) Denial is not just a river

This isn’t unconscious, self-protective denial like not realizing you’ve been the victim of abuse or have an addiction. 

This denial is a conscious attempt to deny any knowledge of agreements and promises the manipulator is party to. Denial also manifests as minimizing the damage they’ve wrought and using rationalization or excuses to back up their crummy behavior. 

So, the manipulator acts like you’re unreasonable and making a big deal over nothing. They will rationalize their actions to plant the seeds of doubt or even to gain your sympathy.

Don’t let them.

7) Emotional neglect

Narcissists stink at creating and maintaining emotional bonds with others, and a covert manipulator is no different. Even though they appear less obnoxious than their more extroverted brethren, they’re no more emotionally accessible.

You won’t get many compliments from a covert manipulator. Their priority is maintaining their fragile sense of self-importance, so it is easy to understand why they would find it difficult to build you up. 

One thing is for certain, though. You’ll be doing most of the emotional heavy lifting in a relationship.  

8) Calculated giving

Generally, manipulators and narcissists are not what you’d call givers. They have zero interest in anything that doesn’t benefit them in some way.

A covert narcissist might be able to present themselves in a manner that appears giving, but their generosity always comes a a price. 

9) Not-so-subtle intimidation

Intimidation can be subtle. It’s not always about a fist in your face or even direct threats. Intimidation can be as simple as just a look or tone of voice and statements like: 

“I always get my own way” or 

“Have you thought over the possible repercussions of your decision?” 

Another manipulative intimidation strategy is provoking fear with fictional horror stories, such as: “Mary left her husband and lost her kids, her house – everything.”

Hint, hint.

This is a ploy to keep you docile and under their thumb. It’s creepy as all get-out, too. 

10) Poor me 

This ploy is different from blaming the victim, but just as pathetic. Rather than directly placing the blame on you, this “poor me” tactic is weaponized to arouse feelings of guilt and sympathy to keep you in line. 

They’ll say things like, “I have no idea how I’ll manage if you don’t help me.” 

Nothing like being put on the spot, right? 

And you’ll probably comply, and live to resent it. This will damage your relationship and open the door for continued manipulation.

Final thoughts

Obviously, all of these manipulative tactics are unhealthy and destructive. This kind of trauma can severely damage your self-esteem and even your mental health. 

Awareness is your first line of defense. Always strive to see your relationships with others clearly and as objectively as possible. 

If you think you’re being emotionally manipulated, consider jotting down conversations and pay attention to any manipulative tactics and patterns that emerge. 

Please. Don’t put your head in the sand. Things aren’t going to suddenly right themselves. You owe it to yourself to leave a situation where you are not valued for anything but what you can do for your partner. 

Picture of Kathy Copeland Padden

Kathy Copeland Padden

Kathy Copeland Padden lives in a New England forest paradise with her cats, kid, and trusty laptop. She has been writing since age 8 and is such a pack rat she can back that up with physical evidence. Music is her solace and words are her drug, so her house is strewn with records and books. Watch your step.

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