Emotional manipulation is behavior that intends to emotionally exploit, control, or influence someone for an advantage.1,2 In a relationship, emotional manipulation may be the only form of abuse present, or it may take place alongside other types of abuse, including physical, psychological, or spiritual. Emotional manipulation, however, may be hard to identify because part of its purpose is to maintain the uneven power dynamics.
What Is Emotional Manipulation?
Emotional manipulation is one type of emotional abuse where the perpetrator seeks to emotionally control or influence the victim in a way that gives them an advantage.1,2 Emotional manipulation commonly takes place in abusive relationships or toxic relationships.
Emotional manipulation in relationships exists on a spectrum, and it doesn’t always have malicious intent. Abuse can be covert or overt. For example, a supervisor who gives an employee positive feedback to positively reinforce and encourage that behavior is influencing that employee’s emotions to promote the positive behavior. In most cases, this type of example doesn’t signify malicious intent.
15 Signs of Emotional Manipulation
Emotional manipulation tactics can take many forms, making it difficult to pin down. You may notice that the other person is taking action to shift or sway your emotions in a way that benefits them, but does not benefit you.1 Look for patterns of these behaviors as well.
Here are 15 signs of emotional manipulation:
1. Making You Feel Guilty
If your partner is purposefully saying things that suggest you should feel guilty or ashamed, this may be emotional manipulation. This is especially true if the guilt or shame would then motivate you to do something that benefits them and not necessarily you.
Bullying, harassment, and ridicule are emotional manipulation because they can generate fear or embarrassment in the victim.
Gaslighting is a particularly insidious way to emotionally manipulate, because it makes you doubt your own perceptions and experiences. Gaslighting is when the perpetrator convinces the victim that something is untrue while making them feel crazy or wrong for thinking it was true.
4. Exploiting Insecurities
If a partner knows that you are insecure about a particular aspect of yourself, they may highlight this to encourage you to do or not do something. Using this against you is emotional manipulation.
5. Threatening to Share Things
A partner may manipulate you by threatening to share information about you, for example, saying that they might tell your mom about your spending habits unless you do what they say. That sort of threat emotionally manipulates you to behave in a certain way.
6. Embarrassing You
Purposefully and repeatedly embarrassing you can also be a form of emotional manipulation. It may serve to generate shame that ultimately affects your behavior.
Blackmailing is when a person threatens to do something if the other person does not take a specified action. For example, a partner may threaten to release photographs if you do not do what they say.
8. Playing you off someone else
Another tactic of emotional manipulation may be to play you off someone else. For example, Charlie and Emerson are in a relationship. Charlie tells Emerson that a third person was talking about Emerson, and then tells the third person that Emerson was talking about them. In effect, Charlie is playing Emerson and the third person off one another to create a conflict that somehow benefits him.1
9. Lying & Dishonesty
When there is a pattern of lying and dishonesty, this can also be a sign of emotional manipulation. It may serve to manage your emotions around or in reaction to the other person’s actions.
10. Love Bombing
Love bombing is an excessive amount of positive communication and affection early in a relationship in order to influence the relationship.3 This is out of proportion to the normal “honeymoon stage” of a relationship.
11. Using the Silent Treatment
While it is sometimes appropriate to ask for time or space, using the silent treatment as punishment is manipulative.
12. Making Themselves the Center of an Argument
If you bring a concern up to a partner, and they become so upset or ashamed that they make it completely about how bad they’re feeling, this may be a form of emotional manipulation. This can draw attention away from the concern and onto comforting the other person.
Consistent and unkind criticism can be manipulated by decreasing self-esteem and self-confidence. Periodic helpful feedback can be a healthy part of a relationship, but criticism rises far above this to the point of being unhelpful and unnecessary.
In relationships, ultimatums are an absolute last resort when there is a potentially relationship-ending disagreement. In an emotionally manipulative relationship, they may be regularly used to keep you in fear and to exert control.
15. Making You Feel Like it’s You & Them “Against the World”
If your partner makes you feel like the whole world is against the two of you, or like you should stick together no matter what, this may be emotionally manipulative.4 It can serve to keep you in the relationship against your better judgment.
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How to Deal With Emotional Manipulation
Dealing with emotional manipulation is difficult because it can lead you to question yourself and your judgment. Trauma bonding or forming a bond with the abuser may also make it more difficult to manage manipulation or know when/how to walk away (especially in a romantic relationship).
Here are ways to deal with emotional abuse:
- Set boundaries: Setting boundaries requires you to recognize your needs and limits and communicate those clearly and assertively. These boundaries may be related to what you are willing to do, what is acceptable to say to you, how you will spend your time, etc. Setting boundaries allows you to assess whether your partner can recognize and accept them, and what that may mean for the relationship.
- Look out for patterns: If you notice only one of these signs of emotional manipulation, it may not be as concerning as noticing a pattern of consistent and recurring manipulation. Watch for these patterns to help you determine if there is malicious intent.
- Talk to a trusted friend or family member: While it is your opinion and perception that matters most, sometimes confiding in a trusted friend or family member can help you to process what you are noticing and get an outside perspective. It also helps to fight against any isolation your partner may be intending.
- Consider couples counseling: Couples therapy is not always recommended when there is abuse present in a relationship. This is because it can put the victim’s safety at risk. If they are honest, it may result in violence following the session.5
Only if the emotional manipulation has been mild to moderate, you are not concerned for your safety, and your partner is open, consult with an experienced couples counselor to determine if it is the right move.
- Consider engaging in individual therapy: Individual therapy may help you to identify the emotional abuse, make a plan to handle it, and cope with the emotions it generates. Working with a mental health professional can also help you learn to set boundaries and improve self-esteem.
- Trust your gut: It may be easier said than done, but if your intuition is telling you that the relationship is not fair or safe, listen. If you have a nagging concern, talk with a trusted person to help you determine how to address it.
- Contact a domestic violence center: If you are concerned for your safety, contact a domestic violence center or appropriate hotline.
When to Leave
If you notice multiple signs and types of emotional abuse, feel unsafe, or are consistently unhappy in the relationship, it may be time to leave. These decisions are never easy, and they’re even more difficult when there’s emotional manipulation. Fortunately, the above coping tips can help, especially talking to a trusted friend or family member, or engaging in therapy.
How to Heal From Emotional Abuse
During or after an abusive relationship, you may feel insecure, hurt, and confused. Emotional manipulation in particular can lead to a person doubting their own judgment and sense of reality. Finding a therapist can be tremendously helpful in rebuilding your sense of self and gaining a better understanding of what happened.
If you’re ready to find the right mental health professional for you, explore a free therapist directory. It’s OK and often a good idea to refrain from dating for a while until you regain a sense of stability.
Final Thoughts On Emotional Manipulation In Relationships
Emotional manipulation is a serious form of emotional abuse. When reviewing these signs, consider whether you have experienced patterns of ongoing manipulation. It can be hard to spot, but with the right support and skills, you can handle it and effectively heal. You deserve to be safe, respected, and appreciated.