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Am I being manipulated? Here's 9 tell-tale signs, according to couples therapists

Ashley Laderer,John Mutziger   

Am I being manipulated? Here's 9 tell-tale signs, according to couples therapists
LifeScience5 min read
If your partner ignores your boundaries, they might be manipulative.    PeopleImages/Getty Images
  • Signs of emotional manipulation include gaslighting, passive aggression, and more.
  • A manipulator may also use your insecurities against you so that they can control you.
  • A sinister sign can also be moving goalposts — when your partner keeps changing their expectations.

It's normal and expected that every couple will face conflict and have arguments, but what happens when this conflict takes a darker turn? Emotional manipulation is a form of emotional abuse, which can have serious consequences.

"Emotional manipulation occurs when an abusive or manipulative person employs specific tactics and strategies in order to control, have power over, or victimize another person," says Janika Veasley, LMFT, founder of Amavi Therapy Center. This can result in unhealthy codependent patterns, minimizing feelings, difficulty enforcing boundaries, and trust issues.

A 2013 study found that emotional abuse may be equally as harmful as physical abuse, as both can contribute to low self-esteem and depression.

Sadly, emotional abuse is not uncommon. A 2011 CDC survey found that 47.1% of women and 46.5% of men have experienced psychological aggression in a relationship.

It's important to be aware of the signs of emotional manipulation and abuse so you'll know if your relationship is taking an unhealthy and potentially dangerous turn.

Here are nine signs of emotional abuse to look out for.

1. Using insecurities against you

Emotional manipulators may use your insecurities, flaws, and fears against you to bring you down, says Veasley.

For example, they may bring up insecurities when you're already feeling down, or point out your flaws in front of others.

Or, it may take the form of a backhanded compliment. "If your partner says, 'Oh I like your outfit today. You don't look as chunky as usual' you likely wouldn't take it as a genuine compliment. You would feel hurt and very insulted," says Veasley.

2. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic that can make you question the reality of the abuse you're facing in a relationship. It's a way for an abuser to manipulate their victim into doubting their own sanity or judgement, Veasley says.

"If your partner says or does something to intentionally hurt you and you confront them at a later time, gaslighting would be if they said, 'That never happened' or 'Oh my goodness, you're crazy!' The response is intended to not only deny, but also make you question if the scenario in fact happened," says Veasley.

This manipulation tactic is typically employed when you are raising a concern to your partner. When you confront them, they'll gaslight you so that your concerns feel invalid and they maintain control.

3. Recruiting others

In an effort to manipulate and control you even more, the abuser might recruit others to help out in their pursuits. Veasley says they might go to your parents or best friends to get them to persuade you to do what they want you to do.

For example, you may tell your partner you want to break up, but they might attempt to persuade your family and friends to convince you to stay.

"This is incredibly problematic because it shows a huge lack of respect for you as an individual and a partner," says Veasley.

4. Guilt as a tactic

Emotional manipulators may use guilt against you to get what they want.

For example, they may consistently remind you of past wrongdoings you've done, or of nice things that they have done for you in the past so you feel a sense of obligation to them, says Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT and founder of Take Root Therapy.

"We are all susceptible to guilt at times, and some use guilt without being conscious of it. A highly skilled emotional manipulator, however, is able to pinpoint how to instill those feelings in those around them, and use this to their benefit," says Lurie.

One example of this could be your partner reminding you of when you've cancelled plans with them in the past, guilting you into cancelling current plans with friends and spending more time with them. "This not only serves to instill a sense of obligation on the part of their partner, but it also works to keep them isolated from others," says Lurie.

5. Passive aggression

When someone is being passive-aggressive, they will indirectly express their negative thoughts or feelings.

For example, your partner might use sarcastic humor, give you the silent treatment, or refuse to have a constructive conversation about your conflict.

"Finding ways to express frustration or dissatisfaction without actually voicing any issues can keep the other party feeling unsure, anxious and on edge, which is key to manipulation as a whole," says Lurie.

6. Moving goalposts

"Moving goalposts" is another manipulation tactic used by abusers that can make you feel unsteady and insecure in your relationship.

With this tactic, the abuser will intentionally make it hard to please them by changing their requests and desires often.

"By continuously shifting the expectations of what's necessary to keep them satisfied, someone engaging in emotional manipulation is able to keep their target invested in keeping them happy for fear of losing the relationship," says Lurie.

For example, your partner may say you need to dedicate one night a week to the relationship. Once you've done that, they shift their expectations and they will say they need more time with you, Lurie says.

7. Smokescreens

Smokescreening is a tactic that's used when you raise a concern in your relationship. Veasley says you may try to stand up for yourself and voice a concern, and then your partner deflects from the spotlight you put on them.

For example: "If you tell your partner 'When you yell at me, I feel disrespected' and they respond with 'Really? You're the one that is always talking to other people on social media and being incredibly disrespectful,'" Veasley says. In this case, they shift the blame onto you, bringing up an unrelated situation to steer the conversation in a different direction.

This shows a lack of accountability on your partner's end, leaving the blame shifted on you, allowing for your partner to get away with what they've done.

8. Violating boundaries

A manipulator might ignore you when you say "no," totally ignoring your boundaries.

For example, you might tell your partner you don't like when they make comments about your appearance, but they continue to do so. Or, if you tell them you don't like when they yell at you, and they continue to do so.

"When they are presented with boundaries they either encroach, push, or completely violate the boundaries. This is a blatant show that their only concern is having their way and getting their need," says Veasley.

9. Mirroring or matching

Many of us prefer dating someone who has the same or similar interests and hobbies. But when your partner's behavior seems forced or disingenuous for the sake of matching your own, that's manipulation, says Lurie.

Lurie says to pay attention to how often your partner lets you speak first or asks probing questions, and then comes back with something very similar.

"They could be mirroring you or matching you on purpose, trying to convince you that you have a singular and special bond that is only reinforced by how many things you have in common," says Lurie."

This can make it harder to leave your partner, since they make you feel so seen and understood in a way you haven't been in the past. It also makes it difficult to see the manipulation that's happening behind the scenes, Lurie says.

Insider's takeaway

Emotional manipulation should be taken very seriously, and you should not ignore these signs.

Moreover, it's important to note that emotional abuse is not your fault, and you do not have to stay in an abusive relationship.

If you think you are being manipulated, open up to loved ones or a professional to get help.