How can you tell if someone is manipulating you? Let’s see. Are you frequently unsettled and confused after a conversation that didn’t go as you expected? Do you identify with that deer in the headlights scrambling up the shoulder of the road to escape from the semi heading its way? Do you leave conversations with loved ones with an icky aftertaste of guilt or humiliation coating your psyche? Do you return home after a couples’ night out layered in self-loathing and self-recrimination? Or puzzled and discombobulated? Are you likely to feel worse about yourself when with your partner or spouse than when in the company of friends, work colleagues or distant relatives?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions you just might be a victim of manipulation by a loved one. (And yet another indication of manipulation, do you often feel like a “victim?”) Does the phrase manipulation by a loved one sound like a contradiction in terms? It shouldn’t. Our nearest and dearest are as skilled as any twitter tweeter for spinning the bland into a very personalized poisonous brew all about you.
In fact we all can take turns at being the victim of manipulation and the victimizer. It just takes activating a few key phrases coupled with body language and off we go. What might those phrases be? Well for beginners they start with “you” and are often accompanied by finger pointing, direct and formidable eye contact/forehead frowning, a hand gesture moving in a dismissive wave, lips pursed downward, possibly a body in a three quarter turn away from you or walking out of the bedroom, the kitchen or the family room leaving a trail of unattractive adjectives about you as they go.
So there you are left wondering if you are bad, stupid, uncaring, spoiled, careless, unloving, a cheater or a liar. Your partner has shared with you what they saw or heard or interpreted in an interaction with you and the first feelings you have are anxiety and confusion; you’ve lost your footing; you are metaphorically looking for a guardrail to steady you. Next you are scared: what is the reality after all? Did I say that, do that, mean that? Yes I am bad. Or no, I’ll fight this. Either way you have accepted your partner’s version of the story – you are provoked and reactive. But did you do your homework?
Reality may often be subjective – perception is personal. But certainly there are facts that bear on any interaction with another, accessible facts. And beware believing in an intention that someone else ascribes to you without checking into your psyche first. Only you can know your intentions for your actions, verbalizations or decisions. In truth you may have acted impulsively or spontaneously without examining your intention at the time. That’s fine. But it is your job to retrieve through memory the motivation for your behavior after the fact and share it. I didn’t say I wanted to leave the party because I was mad at you. I said it because I was really tired. The data is available in memory; just develop the skills to explore your own mind.
An exceedingly effective manipulation is the flip, a technique seamlessly introduced into a conversation. You might be sharing a feeling of sadness or disappointment with your partner and next thing you know, they are saying it is your fault that you feel that way. They flip it. You’re too sensitive; you’re too needy; you’re never satisfied. Or your partner takes you on a stroll down memory lane, digging up the bones of your past offenses. How did that happen? Distract by attack – a clever tool that works every time if you don’t catch on that someone has changed the subject and the new subject is “bad you.”
There is a caveat here: just because your partner is telling you that something you did or said created unpleasantness for them doesn’t mean that they are manipulating you or implying that you are a bad person. The other half of the education in interpersonal communication is to learn how to grapple with your own distortion tendencies. No matter how old, big or tall you may be, there is a child lurking within the confines of your psyche who still perceives a world of good or bad, loved or unloved, attached or abandoned. And depending on how severe the ravages of one’s childhood, the inclination to process a fairly mild reproach or even just a partner’s sharing of some hurt feelings might have the power to reduce you to a quivering mass of insecurity or a fire-breathing dragon of self-defensiveness – distortions both.
So keep a keen eye out for manipulations – those of your partner and those of your psyche. Armed and empowered by fact checking and self-knowledge will place you at the top of your game and your Coupledom in a healthy interactive mode for the shared life.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015