Do you ever feel like your romantic partner is emotionally manipulating you?
Are they using the best parts of your personality like loyalty, affection and generosity to take advantage of you and control you?
Are they making you feel guilty, gaslighting you, twisting your words and undermining you at every turn?
If so it’s time to press the big red pause button. ASAP.
Emotional manipulation is a serious issue that can destroy even the best relationship.
Emotional manipulation is surprisingly common, but that doesn’t make it any less serious. Masters of emotional manipulation use their shady tactics at work, with their family, with their partners and in every area of life.
Emotional manipulators are proof of just how depressing and disturbing mind games can be.
Here’s how to know if you’re being emotionally manipulated.
Understanding emotional manipulation
Emotional manipulation involves using sneaky and exploitative methods to control and influence someone.
A manipulator may use your vulnerabilities against you, hit you with dramatic ultimatums in your most stressful times, try to make you feel guilty about their problems that have nothing to do with you, and much, much more.
These mind game masters have a dirty bag of tricks — and they aren’t afraid to use every last one.
The results? Guilt, shame, fear, doubt, cratering self-esteem.
If you’re not careful you can get badly burned.
Signs of emotional manipulation
Here are the 12 main signs of emotional manipulation to watch out for.
1. They want you on their home turf
One of the key tactics of an emotional manipulator is getting you on their home turf.
Obviously sometimes people just want you to meet them where they’re at. The difference is a manipulator will ask you to come to him or her even if they could easily come to you.
It’s also not a one-time thing. They never seem to want to come to you.
They want to show you who’s in charge and clearly demonstrate that they value their time more than yours.
They also want you on their home turf where they’re more comfortable in slinging all sorts of other emotional arrows at you if they decide to …
A good example is a couple who are in a relationship but one of them always has to drive a long distance to visit the other because she says “sorry I’m so busy, you know I just got this new job. I know you’re not working these days and you decided not to do that last job, the really good one I helped you get ha ha. Maybe it’s better you just come to me.”
Notice the not-so-subtle put-down buried in there as well. We’ll get to that later in the list.
2. They use your secrets and personal experiences against you
One of the trickiest things about an emotional manipulator is that they often seem caring and respectful — at first. They can often be a good listener who encourages you to open up.
They seem to be appreciating you and will often comment in empathetic and sympathetic ways about the problems or experiences you share with them.
You often find yourself speaking first and opening up, while they remain more guarded and encourage you to vent.
Then, days — or even weeks or months later — they will use any and everything you’ve told them about your secrets, struggles, beliefs, and life experiences against you.
For example, an emotionally manipulative man may sympathize with his wife’s difficult day and ask her to tell him more.
“I’ve just been feeling so stressed lately, like I’m going to burst,” she says. “I don’t know if I can handle all these responsibilities anymore.”
A month later she has an exciting invitation to her friend’s wedding and asks her husband if he can come this weekend. His response?
“I thought you were too stressed to put more on your plate? If you have so much free time maybe you can start making dinner more often.”
An emotional manipulator doesn’t listen to you and let you talk first because they care: they do it to find your weak spots and get more power over you.
If there are people in your life who are trying to manipulate you like this, it’s essential to learn how to stand up for yourself.
Because you do have a choice to end this cycle of pain and misery.
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3. They twist your words like crazy and constantly distort and lie
Emotional manipulators lie like they breathe. They will twist your words like a giant Bavarian pretzel — with extra salt.
This includes constantly downplaying how much they were the cause of a problem and overstating how much you were the cause of a problem. Emotional manipulators put words in your mouth constantly.
When an emotionally manipulative individual can’t think of a way to distort your words or lie they will simply change the subject.
For example if a man asks his emotionally manipulative girlfriend over dinner what happened with the money they had to pay off on a bill that’s long overdue which she promised she would pay two days ago she might say:
“Don’t worry about it. Do you always have to eat so fast? Honestly it’s kind of a bit much, hun.”
This puts the focus back on him and something he is supposedly doing wrong or in a way which makes him the problem.
Certainly, some emotional manipulators will just straight up lie or distort:
“Yeah for sure, I paid the bill last week,” or “the company is being really confusing I think they said their website is broken.”
But others won’t even bother lying and will just put you down and make you the problem no matter what the situation is instead of responding directly.
4. They don’t care what’s actually true — only how they can use it
This is closely related to the other signs of manipulation and control, but it deserves its own section.
That’s because it’s super toxic and shocking and you need to know it if you want to dodge the sludge that a manipulator will throw at you.
Emotional manipulators truly don’t care what’s true. They only care how they can use information to control or influence you.
Sample situation involving this:
“Can you please pick me up early from work if it’s not too much trouble?” asks Bella.
“Sorry, I think the car is having some problems. I think it’s better you take the bus today,” answers her emotionally manipulative girlfriend Jenny. “Actually if you can give me like max $1,200 I’ll go get it fixed.”.
“Well, it takes an hour longer by bus, but yeah OK I understand,” Bella says.
Three weeks later:
“Let’s go to that new home decor store in town, I hear they have amazing stuff,” Jenny says.
“But I thought the car had major issues… and you said you didn’t spend the money I gave you on it because you needed it to pay your personal trainer?” Bella asks.
“Ah, I mean, I think the car’s no problem. I was just stressing last week,” Emotional Manipulation Expert Jenny says.
Two hours later they are stranded on the side of a busy highway waiting for an expensive tow truck. Jenny only used the car’s problems as an excuse to not pick up Bella and has now put them in an awful situation.
5. They hit you with all sorts of confusing and unnecessary roadblocks and red tape
Emotional manipulators don’t really care what’s true if they can take advantage of you in some way, but they often love to hurl red tape and roadblocks at you as a way to wear you down.
They want to get you into their orbit of control, like the tractor beam of an alien spaceship.
And you don’t even want to know the kind of experiments this emotionally manipulative Machievellian wants to do on you.
Nor do you want to find out.
An example would be if an emotional manipulator is trying to shirk responsibility around the apartment or house and you are getting tired of doing everything.
“Do you think you could help out just with taking out the recycling hun,” asks Karen.
“Don’t you know the municipality passed a new law? Do you, like, read the papers ever? Everyone’s talking about it. You have to sort it in a whole new way, but the specific info is on the website and I think we don’t have the program to get that pamphlet. Honestly I don’t have time for this. You’re better off just tossing everything in the trash.”
6. They talk over you — and for you
Emotional manipulators are like human bullhorns. No matter what you say they say something else louder and bigger and more confidently.
Unless you’re telling them information they can use against you or manipulate in some way they will often drown you out or simply talk while you talk.
They will finish your sentences in ways you didn’t mean and just plain talk over you.
Even when they agree with you on something simple they will often rephrase it if you made the first suggestion so that it’s now “theirs.”
A man ordering for his girlfriend at the restaurant when she just finished already ordering and repeating what she just told the waiter with one or two added emphases about the order, but in a slightly condescending tone of voice as if his girlfriend is a silly child who doesn’t know what she wants or eats food that’s funny or less than worthy in some way.
7. They focus on the negative
You know how some people are like a ray of sunshine that seem to put out good vibes no matter what?
An emotional manipulator is basically the opposite.
Except for when they are playing fake nice or temporarily relaxing their mind games, these folks tend to be highly negative.
Emotional manipulators are a problem looking for a place — or more like a person — to happen to.
They’re always the victim, their problems are always worse than yours, their needs are always more important than yours.
An emotional manipulator wants you to join their Feeling Bad Club, and thinks that by getting you to feel bad too they will feel less lonely or unstable.
Instead it’s always just a lose-lose situation for everyone.
“Your brother died of an overdose this time last year, I know. It’s so awful babe. My friend Nick is currently in treatment and says he’s going to kill himself. I’m so worried. I couldn’t even sleep last night. That’s why I was a bit rude today. It’s just so heavy. At least with your situation it’s in the past now. I just don’t know what to do about this.”
8. Do what I want or else … !
Emotional manipulators love ultimatums. They will often combine them with other tactics discussed in this list.
“I’ve been feeling so down, you’re never around and I feel like you’re not committed enough to our relationship.”
“Oh yeah, I’m so sorry. Work has been so busy and the problems with my family are stressing me out so badly.”
“Honestly I’m feeling so shitty. If this continues I think I’m not even gonna keep going to work … My boss said if my ‘performance’ doesn’t pick up in a week I’m gone … I guess you also think my ‘performance’ in bed isn’t good enough, too, hm? Just can’t win these days I guess …”
Here the emotionally manipulative partner has made an ultimatum disguised as a discussion. They are saying if the other partner doesn’t change their schedule and life to be more available then it will result in them losing their job. They are also making the partner feel guilty for having not been satisfied in their intimate life.
“Do it or else …!”
When you hear these words be careful: you may be in the presence of an emotional manipulator.
9. They mock and belittle you
Being a bully is Emotional Manipulation 101. One of the biggest signs of manipulation is when someone is constantly undermining, teasing and belittling you — and not in a lighthearted or funny way.
A manipulator will often embarrass you in public with a dig that they know will get to you in a deeply personal way.
They also love to use backhanded compliments that show they’re better than you or that you’re a failure, incompetent and so on …
An example would be Ken commenting on his boyfriend Leo’s cooking skills at a get-together with well-to-do friends and professional colleagues:
“Hey, at least he’s trying. He didn’t really grow up around these kinds of recipes or had someone to teach him, did you Leo? Yeah … rough upbringing for sure: fighting by age 5 was it? Ha ha. Really impressive stuff for sure this uh … what is it … lasagna, right. Ha ha sorry I’m just joking cutie ha ha.”
Perhaps Leo confided he grew up in a very poor and rough environment in a single parent home. Now Ken is using both his higher class and Leo’s broken family to take a dig at his partner and make him feel like garbage and out of place in their high-class friend gathering.
10. They tell you all the reasons you’re not good enough
One of the questions that often comes up is do manipulators know they are manipulating? The answer usually is a mix: they sort of do but they also become so good at it that it becomes like their second nature.
Emotional manipulation can become such a habit for some people that it’s their go-to move whenever they don’t get what they want or are unhappy.
And that’s pretty sad.
To offset their own feelings of inadequacy and weakness they will often tell you all the reasons you’re not good enough.
It’s one of the bright blinking red light and flashing police siren signs of manipulation and control.
Even if some of the criticisms they’re making about you are true the point is the manipulator isn’t focusing on positive things about you for a reason:
They want to bring you down to their level and get you to submit to their world of blame and toxic codependence. Don’t do it!
An example would be an emotionally manipulative wife yelling at her husband’s driving while he’s trying to focus and is actually driving quite reasonably.
“Goddamnit, Henry, you drive like a maniac. Can you try to turn without making me fall off my seat.”
“I’m trying. Just let me focus.”
“Maybe if you focused we wouldn’t be out here with the cops thinking you’re driving drunk, you idiot. Get your act together, seriously Henry.”
11. They only stick by you when it’s easy
Another of the glaring signs of emotional manipulation is fairweather friend syndrome (FFS). The emotional manipulator doesn’t tend to be very into sticking by you in your tough times.
But you can be very sure they expect and demand you stick by them during their tough times (which also become your tough times).
Even worse, if they do stick by you through illness, financial problems, personal issues or anything else you can guarantee you’re going to be hearing about their grand heroic generosity and dedication for as long as you’re around them in the future.
They will tend to milk you for whatever affection, money, time and attention they can get by telling you much your problems are bringing them down and then bail when they can’t get more out of you.
An example would be an emotionally manipulative man who wants more sex from his partner but knows she is going through a serious bout of depression.
“Can’t you just increase the dosage of your medication, hun? Yikes. I feel like I haven’t even been with you in years.”
“I told you babe, I’m already at the maximum dosage and also one of the side effects is decreased libido. Plus the doctor said this treatment is going to take time.”
“Oh my God, seriously? Like what even happened to you that you’re so depressed? Did you know last week I found out my favorite high school teacher died of cancer? You don’t hear me complaining all the time.”
12. They feed on self-doubt and low self-esteem
There are many signs of manipulation, but perhaps the biggest of all is how they stoke and feed on self-doubt and low self-esteem.
It sometimes seems that the emotionally manipulative person is singularly dedicated to making you feel bad about your life and your relationship to them – no matter what you do or how much you try to improve.
They will gaslight you constantly, making you feel things are your fault which are actually their fault.
And the manipulator will often sidestep open conflict to instead come at you in sneaky, disingenuous ways that lower your self-esteem and have you doubting your own judgment and mental sanity.
There are many signs of manipulation and control, but this one has to be at the top.
The emotional manipulator isn’t there for you, they are there to bring you down and then make you into their emotionally traumatized sidekick and servant.
Spotting a manipulator
It’s important to point out that most people engage in emotionally manipulative behavior from time to time.
As Toronto-based psychologist Mariyam Ahmed explains, emotional manipulation doesn’t just mean once or twice. It’s part of a pattern:
It can reveal itself in various ways, but a key determining indicator of emotional manipulation is consistency. If you spot emotionally controlling behaviour once or twice in your relationship, it might not be evidence of a larger pattern of behaviour.7
In other cases when you point out that someone’s behavior is emotionally manipulative they may feel genuinely sorry and stop doing it.
The sign of a true emotional manipulator who relies on negative tactics and won’t let it go is someone where it keeps occurring.
Even after they said sorry.
Even after they swore it would never happen again.
Even after they made you feel guilty for pointing out their emotionally exploitative behavior.
The bottom line: getting rid of an emotionally manipulative person
Getting rid of a manipulator can be done the wrong way or the right way. If you’re stuck with a user who knows your weaknesses you have to tread carefully …
By now you already know how deep this person’s issues are and how far they’re willing to go to selfishly manipulate you …
Relationship expert and dating coach Chantal Heide recommends knowing your rights and defining your boundaries, creating distance between you and that person and don’t react to their provocations.
In addition, stay away from self-blame. It’s toxic and it’s exactly what the emotional manipulator wants you to do: blame yourself for their poison.
Don’t do it.
Remember you are not responsible for fixing or dealing with someone else’s emotional issues and complexes. You need to become emotionally resilient to withstand their attempts to undermine you and set firm boundaries, as our free eBook on developing mental toughness teaches here.
Therapy and finding out more about the deep roots of true love and connection including from our free masterclass on finding true love and intimacy with Rudá Iandê are both great places to start.
In the worst-case scenario, of course, you may have to make the decision to break up with someone who is emotionally manipulating you.
What to do about a classic manipulator
You need to take active steps to rid yourself of a master manipulator.
As Dr. Heide advises:
“A relationship with a person who has no regard for others and is using manipulation to selfishly gain advantages in the relationship should be ended immediately.
“Steps [should be] taken to ensure safety since individuals like this rarely give up control easily.”
Now that you can spot a classic manipulator from a mile away, it’s time to create a plan for dealing with these people. There is a lot to consider, but much of it starts – and ends – with you.
1. Get angry
Here’s one piece of counter-intuitive advice if you have a person in your life who emotionally manipulates you: get angry about it.
Let me explain why getting angry can actually be incredibly powerful when dealing with toxic people.
Do you feel guilty for being angry? Do you try to repress your anger so it goes away?
If you’re like most people, then you probably do.
And it’s understandable. We’ve been conditioned to hide our anger for our entire lives. In fact, the whole personal development industry is built around not being angry and instead to always “think positively”.
Yet I think this way of approaching anger is dead wrong.
Being angry about emotional manipulation can actually be a powerful force for good in your life — as long as you harness it properly.
To learn how to do this watch our free masterclass on turning anger into your ally.
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Rudá’s breakthrough teachings will help you identify what you should be angry about in your own life and how to make this anger a productive force for good.
Being angry isn’t about blaming others or becoming a victim. It’s about using the energy of anger to build constructive solutions to your problems and making positive changes to your own life.
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2. Know your rights
Knowing your rights, for example, related to the workplace can help you get a head in your job. If the manipulation is bordering on harassment or threats, you can always take your complaints to a senior authority in your organization.
Know your rights as a human being as well. You don’t have to let people treat you like this. One of the easiest ways to deal with a classic manipulator is to keep your distance from them.
As to how to deal emotional manipulation, Támara Hill, licensed therapist and certified trauma professional, advises:
“I encourage you to be very careful when it comes to how much you let this person into your world. It’s okay to have boundaries. You can’t 100% trust a person who didn’t like you at first and now wants to connect. Take baby steps or no steps at all. And that’s ok.
3. Create distance
Don’t put yourself in situations where they will have a chance to make a dig at you and compromise your integrity. You might not realize this is happening for some time, but once you do, you’ll need to take action to get them out of your life, if only physically, and for a little while at a time.
Támara Hill adds:
“Avoid them until you are ready (or strong enough) to take their controlling behavior without getting angry. If you get angry or show any signs of anger, the controller will only flip things on you and blame you.
“Distance yourself little by little until you feel you are gaining better self-control. Minimize the person’s expectations, rules, or wants and keep in mind that you are only human. Do what you can but avoid feeling responsible for pleasing them. That’s not your job.
“And if you feel you need to “please” them, consider whether or not the relationship is healthy and worth it.
4. Don’t blame yourself
Remember that none of this is your fault. Manipulators are narcissistc and mean to hurt you. It’s not an accident. And since you would never want anyone to hurt you, it’s logical for you to remind yourself that this is not your doing.
According to Hills, you need to believe in your own version of the truth.
“Keep the truth in the forefront of your mind. Don’t let this type of person guilt-trip you. Now, there is a thing called a “conscience” and if you are feeling guilty about something own that and move on. It’s the only way to grow. But if you have nothing to be guilty about, don’t let this person guilt-trip you.”
5. Stand up for yourself
One final strategy for cornering a classic manipulator is to give them a taste of their own medicine – turn the questions on them. Put the spotlight on them. Expose the flaw in their argument and let them know you are onto them. If nothing else, the shame might keep them out of your hair for a while and give you the space you need to figure out a longer game plan for helping them exit your life for good.
Emotional manipulators are good at micromanaging you, making you feel like you’re unable to make decisions for yourself.
Deal with it by standing up for yourself.
“Make it clear that you do not appreciate being micromanaged. You can do this in a variety of ways such as being subliminal (i.e., taking control without permission, answering the micro-manager in a way that displays your ability to take care of your responsibilities, staying on top of your responsibilities, etc).
“Once micro-managers see that you are in control and not them, they will (in some cases) back off. When it comes to your identity, just be who you are.”
Whatever you decide to do about a classic manipulator in your life, decide that you are going to look after your best interest. The manipulator is not going to change. They can only be removed. They won’t learn, they won’t think about how it’s impacting you. So you can’t rely on them to fix this for you.
Take control, recognize you have a right to not be manipulated and get to work changing the situation.
(Do you want to increase your resilience? Check out our popular eBook on developing mental toughness here).
It can be unsettling when you realize that the person in front of you is a classic manipulator. What is most disorienting about this discovery is trying to figure out what to do about it.
In many cases, a classic manipulator is someone close to us, or in a position of power over us. This can make it especially difficult to separate yourself from these people even if you muster the courage to do so.
But if you maintain your distance, know your rights, and turn the questions on them, you’ll be fine.
If you find that the damage done is too heavy to handle on your own, there is no shame in asking for help.
Seeing a therapist or counselor may help you to uncover just how much the damage is and how you can handle it in a healthy way.
Dr. Heide agrees:
“Therapy should take place to uncover what brought them into the relationship in the first place, and how they will avoid becoming victimized again in the future.”
Emotional manipulators are often very insecure people with serious trauma and psychological issues. However this is no excuse for their behavior and nobody should feel they have a responsibility — or even the ability — to “fix” their partner.
Help is available. In the United States the confidential National Domestic Violence helpline at 1-1800-799-7233 is open at all times and will connect you with professionals who can get you the resources and help you need to move on from your emotionally abusive situation.