We like to think of ourselves as emotionally savvy and not prone to falling prey to manipulative people.
But many forms of manipulative behavior are not always overt and obvious. This could include boundaries being crossed little by little as a way to gain control or power in interpersonal interaction, says California-based licensed marriage and family therapist Lauren Masopust.
Masopust says that some people who have experienced broken relationships or traumatic incidents may learn to resort to behaviors like manipulation, aggression, or deceit to get their needs met.
“These behaviors are usually the individual’s attempt at maintaining power or control in a relationship, though they may not be aware of the damage they are causing to others.”
So what are some signs you’re dealing with a highly manipulative person? Here are some behaviors to watch out for.
1) They lavish attention on you like there’s no tomorrow
Love bombing is typically characterized by a lot of attention, adoration, and affection.
Getting love bombed can feel like cloud nine at first—there’s charm, charisma, and even extravagant gifts involved—but it’s done with the intention of making the recipient feel attached, dependent, and obligated to that person, says licensed therapist Sasha Jackson.
Jackson gives the example of the Netflix documentary, The Tinder Swindler.
“What makes love bombing so confusing for the recipient is that at first, it feels really good thanks to all the dopamine and endorphin boosts you get from the bomber’s lavish gifts and attention,” she says.
The high from feeling special, needed, valuable, and worthy can give a boost to someone’s self-esteem.
2) They poke and prod at your self-esteem
As mentioned above, love bombing is a tactic designed to put your guard down, say psychological experts. It makes you more willing to do what they ask of you.
The thing is, once the manipulator has gotten what they want out of you, they’ll do a 360-degree turn and suddenly lose interest. This can make you feel horrible about yourself and do some damage your self-esteem.
Here’s a disturbing example one expert gave:
“Sometimes it can happen over the smallest things. For example, the person who manipulates you may try to tell you that you forgot to lock the door.”
You accept that this is possible even though you know deep down that you did lock the door. So the next day you double and triple check the lock, remembering the incident from the day before.
But you’re told the same thing even though you know beyond certainty that you locked the door.
3) They betray your boundaries
This one is tricky because sometimes you don’t realize it’s happening at first. You might even mistake it for passion.
For example, it could be early on in your relationship and the person you’re seeing wants to keep the conversation going late even though they know you have to get up early for work.
Or they call you at two o’clock in the morning because they were thinking about you and just had to hear your voice even though they say they’re “sorry” for waking you up.
“Manipulative people typically have one-track minds that are fixed on their needs, wants, and goals,” says Live Bold & Bloom’s Barrie Davenport.
“They’ll plow right through if your boundaries get in the way of their ambition.” Davenport recommends making your boundaries clear. This could mean simply not answering the phone late at night or firmly saying that you have things you need to do.
If they don’t get the message and they don’t respect your boundaries, then they’re not right for you.
4) They put pressure on you to do things
Emotional pressure from a manipulative person doesn’t have to be overt. It can be understated and casual and look something like this:
“Tara’s husband just bought her the most beautiful diamond necklace. He must really love her to do that for her.”
A manipulative person will sometimes compare you to other people in order to goad you, says Jabeen Beg, MD. “They may use a specific person to make you feel insecure or try to establish a sense that ‘everyone else’ is doing whatever you want to do.”
5) Their words and actions don’t match up
Emotional manipulators tend to tell you what you want to hear.
Say you tell them that you’re thinking of going back to school. They seem very supportive of the idea at first. But later, when it comes time to choose courses and pay the tuition fee, they suddenly change tack.
“It’s not a good time,” they might say. “Let’s focus on our relationship right now,” or something to that effect.
Emotional manipulators will tell you what you want to hear, but their actions are another story, says Dr. Travis Bradberry, co-author of the award-winning book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0.
“They pledge their support, but, when it comes time to follow through, they act as though your requests are entirely unreasonable.”
Dr. Bradberry says this happens a lot in the beginning stages of dating a manipulator. “They tell you how lucky they are to know you, then act as though you’re a burden. This is just another way of undermining your belief in your own sanity,” he says.
“They make you question reality as you see it and mold your perception according to what is convenient to them.”
6) You feel like you lose your power when you’re around them
Interactions with a manipulator can make you feel disempowered.
One way they do this is to maintain something Healthline writer Kimberly Holland calls “home court advantage.”
“Being in your home turf, whether it’s your actual home or just a favorite coffee shop, can be empowering,” she says. “If the other individual always insists on meeting in their realm, they may be trying to create an imbalance of power.”
This can leave you at a disadvantage, says Holland. Some examples can include if they ask or expect you to drive to where they are because they’re too “busy” to come to you.
7) You feel like you can’t fully be yourself in their presence
As we talked about above, manipulation can be an ambiguous concept and it can be difficult to pin down because it exists on a spectrum, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.
In the beginning, when you’re getting love bombed, a manipulator will likely be more than happy to go along with your preferences and even encourage it.
They’ll agree with all of your likes. Soon enough though, things will start to change and it will become more about what they want to do, where they want to go, and who the both of you should spend your time with.
“On its less-extreme side, you’ll likely experience confusion as your life is subtly rearranged to match your partner’s preferences,” says Manly.
“On the extreme end, the manipulation takes on a dark, insidious tone if they’re covertly pushing you towards a specific outcome.”
Manly warns that you could lose your sense of self, and that this could prevent you from recognizing the psychological disorientation.
They might comment on the way you dress, your hairstyle, and perhaps your hobbies—pressing you to change them. In some insidious examples, manipulation can result in a grooming so that you conform to their version of who you “should” be.
It could also feel like you have to walk on eggshells whenever you’re around them, adds clinical psychologist Annia Raja, Ph.D.
“If you’re afraid of setting off your partner’s anger or displeasure, and you’re constantly monitoring yourself around them, you may be dealing with a manipulative partner,” Raja says.
8) You’re becoming more and more distanced from friends and family
Manipulators can make it so you lose a lot of your own community, says Raja.
If you find that you’re feeling isolated from friends and family and your partner is the cause for the distance, then something isn’t right.
“Your partner shouldn’t be controlling who you see, when you see them, or actively trying to keep you from spending time with people,” Raja emphasizes.
In a healthy relationship, your partner would want to be part of your inner circle. At the same time, Raja says that manipulative people could even try to charm your loved ones and get family or friends on their side. This could involve having your friends or family convince you to give them another chance.
9) There seems to be a double standard when it comes to them
Manipulators tend to have a set of rules that applies to them and another set of rules for other people—particularly their partner.
Double standards can create confusion, frustration, and resentment in relationships.
One prime example could be that they expect their partner to be loyal, but have no problem cheating themselves. They may also expect utter honesty from a partner while seeing nothing wrong with habitually lying themselves.
10) It’s always all about them
Licensed marriage and family therapist Shane Birkel, LMFT says that one of the more obvious signs is when one person in a relationship is always calling all the shots.
This could be anything from where you’re going out for dinner, when and where you go on vacation, the handling of finances, and on and on.
“This kind of person wants everything their way and will probably not appreciate your thoughts, ideas, and recommendations,” says Birkel.
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if this is really the kind of relationship that you want to be in.
Some things to keep in mind, especially when you suspect that you are being manipulated:
It is not your job to heal others, please people at your expense, or make a relationship work if the effort isn’t mutual.
It’s not up to you to continuously compromise for another person, walk on eggshells around them, or anticipate their needs. Never change yourself or allow yourself to be compared to someone else’s liking.
“Journaling is a terrific way to gain objectivity—especially when you can objectively assess patterns that you’ve journaled about over time,” she says. “Within a week or two, you’ll likely detect patterns that help you objectively notice whether or not you’re in the midst of manipulative strategies.”
Of course, if you have any fear at all for your safety, then getting help as quickly as possible is of prime importance.