Think you’re being emotionally manipulated? Here’s how to tell

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Romantic relationships aren’t perfect. It’s normal to fight from time to time with your partner, and disagree on things. But there’s certain behaviours that go beyond arguments and veer into a more serious territory of emotional manipulation.

Here is how to spot emotional manipulation and how to deal with it.

What is emotional manipulation?

Emotional manipulation is when someone tries to manage the emotions of another person, or exert influence over someone else’s behaviour for self-serving purposes, explained Dr. Mariyam Ahmed, a Toronto-based psychologist.

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.

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“Emotional manipulation is something that is happening on a regular basis,” Ahmed told Global News. “[Someone] will use emotional means, such as being more upset or angry, to try to get their partner to change their behaviour.”
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According to Chantal Heide, a relationship expert and dating coach at Canada’s Dating Coach, people who emotionally manipulate often do so with little to no regard of the well-being of others. This is what distinguishes it from a normal argument.

“The sort of fighting most couples engage in can usually end in a resolution that stems from respectful negotiations, resulting in changed behaviour that will benefit both parties,” she told Global News.

“Guilt, shame and fear are very negative emotions that make us feel uncomfortable, and people who use emotional manipulation in negative ways trigger those feelings to incite avoidance, getting their partners to choose alternate behaviours in an attempt to feel more comfortable emotions within the relationship.”

What does emotional manipulation look like?

Emotional manipulation can be hard to spot. In the context of a relationship, we want to believe that our partner has our best interests in mind, and are therefore more likely to overlook warning signs, said Ahmed. But if someone is constantly making you feel badly, there are things you should look for.

Someone who is emotionally manipulating you may do so in subtle ways, like judging and criticizing your actions. They might make a mean comment about your choice of friends, for example.

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Another sign of emotional manipulation is trying to create feelings of embarrassment or guilt. “An example of that would be if someone said, ‘I can’t believe you would say that! Who would say that?'” Ahmed said.

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“They’ll point out their partner’s faults or weakness by using humour as a way to shape or undermine their confidence.”

Emotionally manipulating people will also try to undermine the perception of others, said Ahmed. This can cause people to doubt themselves or feel confused, a similar effect as gaslighting.

“You almost end up questioning yourself,” Ahmed said. “So either [the person] will completely deny they agreed to do something, or ever said something.”

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What can emotional manipulation do to a relationship?

Emotional manipulation is toxic in any relationship, but especially a romantic one. It creates a very one-sided relationship, and can cause someone to desperately cling to any validation they get from their manipulating partner, said Heide.

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“In this sort of scenario, fights usually happen frequently, namely any time the manipulated partner tries to exercise individuality and self-control,” she said. “[This is] because the manipulator seeks to maintain full control.”

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It also takes a toll on the person who is being manipulated. Someone who is in an emotionally manipulative relationship may experience low self-esteem as a result of the behaviour, and start to question their own worth.

“Staying in a situation where control is constantly being applied means one will lose the ability to think for themselves, and will instead always take their cues from their partner in an attempt to avoid negative emotions,” Heide said.

“This stunting of their emotional growth reduces their sense of accomplishment, and eliminates opportunities for important validation. In turn, their self-dialogue will be, ‘I’m not important, I’m not worthy… I’m not loveable.'”

What should you do if you find yourself being emotionally manipulated?

Emotional manipulation needs to be addressed. If this sort of behaviours stems from a fundamentally kind person who unfortunately has a dysfunctional relationship with love, therapeutic intervention is needed, Heide said.

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But, if someone is unkind and shows no interest in changing their harmful behaviour, it might be time to end the relationship. Heide said that safety and well-being are of the utmost importance.

“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,” she said. “Steps [should be] taken to ensure safety since individuals like this rarely give up control easily.”

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“Additionally, 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.”

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