9 incredibly subtle forms of manipulation in a relationship, according to psychology

Have you ever found yourself agreeing to something and later wondering why you didn’t say no?

Manipulation in relationships can be so subtle that you might not even notice it until you’re deep in doubt about your own decisions.

Think about it:

When was the last time someone convinced you of something that didn’t sit right later?

That’s what we’re about to explore in this article – those quiet manipulations that gently bends us to our partner’s will. 

Let’s turn to the experts and see how these subtle forms of manipulation work, how to recognize them, and how to stand your ground when someone tries to quietly reshape our decisions.

Let’s get started and look at 9 incredibly subtle forms of manipulation in a relationship, according to psychology:

1) Gaslighting

This term makes the rounds quite a lot lately.

But what exactly does it mean?

Dr. George Simon, an internationally-recognized expert on manipulators, explains gaslighting as “that crazy-making feeling” manipulators push us into.

I like to think of it as someone slowly changing small details around you but denying it when you bring it up. They do this patiently so that over time, you start doubting your own memory or sanity.

It’s very subtle and hard to pin down because each instance seems very minor, but what you fail to realize is how effective it is:

As time goes on, your confidence and self trust crumbles, making you more dependent on the manipulator for your version of reality. 

And just like that, you’re bound to a controlling relationship.

2) The victim card

Playing the victim is a masterclass in reverse psychology.

It’s when the manipulator portrays themselves as the injured party whether it’s from past relationships or the current one you have with them. 

I remember a friend of mine who dated someone like this. Every argument they had, he would bring up past relationships where he was “mistreated” or “misunderstood”. 

It was very effective, I tell you. She would almost always end up being the one apologizing in arguments, even if she wasn’t at fault.

The good thing is, she finally saw his sad stories for what they were – lies to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions. She ditched him and is now happily married to someone else.

Psychology Today contributor, Preston Ni, warns us to be careful of this subtle form of manipulation, explaining its effectiveness is achieved by taking advantage of your kindness to get special treatment.

3) Talking you out of what you want

Another form of sneaky manipulation according to Psychologist Dr. Linda Hatch is in the form of a challenge, dressed up as logical advice.

What does this look like?

Say for example you plan a beach trip, but your partner answers you with, “are you sure? You know the weather report says it might rain today, so it might not be worth spending on gas and snacks just to end up not staying there.” 

To be fair, that argument is logical, right? It’s sensible and doesn’t seem to have anything wrong with it.

But what if I told you that the manipulator (your partner in this example) doesn’t really care about the weather or the expenses. 

The truth is, he or she just doesn’t want to go. 

But of course, they’re manipulators so they won’t say it outright. 

Instead, they try to control the situation or save themselves the argument by making you question your own decisions, through using seemingly logical arguments.

Talk about being sneaky and selfish!

4) Non-stop talking

Does your partner not let you get a word in whenever you’re talking with them? 

No, I don’t mean talkative partners who like to tell a lot of stories and those who speak at speeds of 1000 words a minute. 

What I mean is partners who take total control of the interaction and discussions.

According to Dr. Hatch, monopolizing conversation is a common tactic in people who want to maintain control over situations. 

A partner who dominates a conversation does it to make sure that only their opinion or ideas are being discussed, effectively silencing your say in the matter.

It’s like playing a game of “Simon Says”, only it’s the relationship edition.

5) Hurtful joking

There are funny jokes, and then there are humiliating remarks discussed as jokes. 

If your partner is someone who likes to make fun of your choices, desires, beliefs, or even you as a person – you might want to reconsider your relationship with them.

Dr. Hatch suggests that manipulators cleverly use jokes or sarcasm to express their hostility without facing confrontation.

You know you’re under this subtle form of clever manipulation if you’ve let a demeaning joke slide more than a few times for fear of being labeled as “uptight”, being “overly sensitive”, or having “no sense of humor”.

Don’t let a similar situation go on for too long. 

Psychologists say that doing so will significantly impact your self-esteem and you might even start believing the negative things said under the guises of light-hearted banter.

6) Reframing your reality 

Another common manipulative tactic that Dr. Hatch warns us about is the reframing of our reality. 

How is this different from gaslighting?

In reframing, the manipulator doesn’t deny your experience.

Instead, they try to change your perspective on it, but they often make you believe that the change was your idea.

Look at it this way:

Let’s say you’re unsure about a decision. 

When you have a manipulative partner and they’re for that decision, they will only emphasize the benefits, making the choice seem better than it actually is. 

They’ll use the same tactic even if they’re against the decision. Only instead of highlighting the benefits, they will focus on talking about the cons. 

The result is the same: the choice will seem worse than it actually is.

At the end of the day, you’ll end up making the decision yourself. But what you overlooked was that it wasn’t truly 100% yours.

You were carefully steered to that decision by your partner’s subtle control tactic.

7) The DARVO strategy 

You’re probably wondering, what on earth is DARVO?

Here’s what it stands for and what it means, according to psychology experts:

The acronym stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim, and Offender. Apparently it’s a strategy that involves a few steps:

First, your partner will deny any wrongdoing. Then, they’ll attack you when you raise a concern. And finally, they reverse the roles to make it seem like they’re the victim.

But the experts warn us that the shift between the steps is so sudden and aggressive that it leaves little to no room for you to come up with an appropriate response. 

And that’s why the DARVO works. 

Because of the speed in execution, you’re left with no choice but to “shut up” about your criticism of your partner and you might also end up doubting the legitimacy of your concerns. 

It’s like a combination of some of the subtle forms of manipulation we’ve already tackled above.

8) Bombarding with facts and statistics

Imagine being bombarded with so much data and so many facts that you can’t even keep up.

That’s exactly what manipulators do when they overwhelm you with information. 

The experts like to refer to this subtle form of manipulation as “intellectual bullying”.

You know your partner uses this on you when you start to doubt your knowledge and feel too tired to argue. They overwhelm you with so many details that it becomes impossible to process everything in real time.

It’s a subtle strategy to make themselves seem like the expert, pushing you into submission out of confusion.

9) Using emotional guilt

This is probably one of the most personal forms of manipulation.

Psychologists recognize it as a form of emotional blackmail.

As Preston Ni explains it, it’s how manipulators exploit emotional vulnerabilities by creating guilt, compelling the victim to act against their own interests.

How can you spot this in your relationship?

Look out for situations where you constantly feel responsible for your partner’s happiness, even when it’s not your fault. 

Also pay attention to moments when your partner makes you feel bad for doing things you enjoy or for wanting something different.

Remember that if you’re always in the wrong or if you’re often guilty and pressured to change your behavior to keep your partner happy, that’s a big red flag of emotional guilt.

Final thoughts

Do you recognize any of these subtle manipulation tricks in your own relationships?

If you do, you’re on the right track. 


Because awareness is the first step and your best defense for not falling into future subtle manipulation traps.

Remember to listen to your gut – healthy relationships feel good, they make you feel easy and open, and they especially shouldn’t make you question your reality.

Most of all, don’t forget that great relationships are built on mutual trust – not subtle manipulative tactics. 

Sarah Piluden-Natu-El

Sarah is a full-time mum, wife, and nurse on hiatus turned freelance writer. She is on a journey of diving deeper into life through life itself and uses her writing to share the lessons learned along the way. When not on her computer, she enjoys time with her family strolling along the Gold Coast's stunning beaches and captivating hinterland.

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