6 phrases that seem like tough love, but are actually quite manipulative

Remember when you were a kid and you scratched your knee? Your Mom dusted you off and told you to get back out there. It was a healthy dose of tough love.

As we get older, we need less help with scrapes and bruises and more with our feelings. We get this support from friends, family, and our partners. And as part of this, sometimes we still experience tough love.  

Tough love is about being stern with someone for their own benefit. It’s like if your parents tell you you’re partying too much in college and they’re worried you’ll fail your exams. Or if you refuse to lend your friend money until they get their spending under control. 

The problem with tough love is that sometimes people can use it as a cover for controlling behavior like manipulation. They’ll pretend they care about you but really it’s all about what’s in it for them. It’s not always easy to spot the difference.

But don’t worry, today, we’re sharing 6 phrases that sound like tough love but they’re actually quite manipulative. Hopefully, this will help you to identify if and when you’re being manipulated and put a stop to it quickly.  

Let’s jump in. 

1) “I’m doing this for your own good”

Manipulators make it seem like they care about you when really, it’s all about controlling you to get what they want.

One of the phrases that manipulators use is “I’m doing this for your own good”.

Although it sounds like a form of tough love, really it’s a way for them to get you to accept what they’re doing by claiming it’s for your benefit. 

Has anyone ever said this to you? 

If so, be cautious as it may be a sign that someone is being quite manipulative towards you. 

2) “After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me?”

Manipulation only works when the manipulator can assert power over the victim. They’ll go to great lengths to create a power imbalance in the relationship where they’re strong and you’re weak

One of the signs of psychological and emotional manipulation is ‘guilt-baiting’ as noted by communication coach and author Preston Ni M.S.B.A. This is where the manipulator targets your vulnerabilities to make you feel guilty. 

A phrase like “After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me?” is a prime example of something that seems like tough love but it’s actually designed to make you feel guilty for what you’ve seemingly put someone else through. 

Don’t be fooled into thinking someone who says this to you has any genuine concern for you. They’re simply using guilt-baiting as a way to get you to concede to their unreasonable demands. 

3) “Don’t you trust me?”

No matter what situation you’re in, it’s never nice to have your trust in someone called into question, right? 

One of the first things manipulators do to gain someone’s trust and develop a connection is ‘love bombing’ or ‘friend bombing’ which is the platonic version. 

It’s all about excessive praise and communication to create an intense emotional connection in a very short amount of time. 

Once you feel like you’re friends with someone, calling your trust into question can really hurt. And manipulators know this. 

By saying “Don’t you trust me?” they know that you’ll do whatever they want to in an attempt to prove your trust. They might use this phrase when they suggest something to ‘help you’ and you’re not quite convinced it’s a good idea.

They act as though they’re saying it for your own good but really they know it’ll make you do whatever they want. 

4) “Why are you putting me through this?”

“Manipulative people can play the victim, making you seem to be the one who caused a problem” notes Psychiatrist Abigail Brenner M.D.

A manipulative person might say, “Why are you putting me through this?” to seem caring, but they’re actually shifting the blame to you and acting like the victim.

It’s a classic manipulation tactic and one to look out for. 

My cousin Shaun went through this with his Mom. She didn’t want him to move out because she was afraid of being lonely, but he wanted to live his life. When she asked him “Why are you putting me through this?” he knew for sure she was trying to manipulate him into staying.

If someone in your life is making it seem like something you’re doing is causing them distress, it might be a sign they’re being quite manipulative under the guise of tough love. 

5) “I expected more from you”

This is a sneaky little phrase that seems pretty innocent but there are a few reasons why it’s extremely manipulative.

Firstly: it creates the idea that you’re inadequate and small and the manipulator is powerful and dominant. Manipulators often rely on holding all of the control and power like this so that they can influence you to do what they want.

But it’s not just about asserting dominance and power, saying “I expected more from you” can also make you feel guilty, like you’ve got something to prove, even though you don’t. 

It’s easy to see why you’d mistake this for tough love because it comes across as motivational and like someone believes in you to do better but in reality, it’s just another way to get control over you.   

Although it’s a little harder to spot, it’s another phrase that can seem like tough love but is quite manipulative so watch out for it. 

6) “I’m doing this because I love you” 

When my friend Stephanie, first met her boyfriend Jack, she was head over heels for him. From everything she told us, he seemed like a great guy and he made her very happy.

However, I got concerned when she stopped showing up to our group catch-ups. So I called her about it. What she told me shocked me and made me realize he was trying his best to manipulate her pretending it was tough love.

Stephanie had a pretty stressful job and worked long hours. Before she met Jack, she relieved her stress by spending time with her friends at the weekend. When I called and asked why we hadn’t seen her she told me Jack didn’t allow her to do many social things. 

He said she needed to stay home with him on weekends to relax and unwind. And when she protested he said, “I’m only doing this because I love you, and I don’t want you to burn out.”

The truth was: he was using that as an excuse to isolate her from her friends which is typically the second stage of manipulation as outlined by PsychCentral. Thankfully Stephanie listened to us when we warned her and she got away from him before things got too serious. 

Watch out for this phrase, it’s a telltale sign someone is trying to manipulate you.  

Final thoughts

We all want to believe our loved ones have good intentions for us when they appear to be giving us tough love. 

But the truth is: that manipulation can happen to anyone at any stage in their life.

Being aware of these phrases will hopefully help you to avoid this situation altogether. Or if you’ve realized you’re already being manipulated, now you’ll be able to recognize it and put a stop to it quickly.

Cat Harper

Cat is an experienced Sales and Enablement professional turned writer whose passions span from psychology and relationships to continuous self-improvement, lifelong learning and pushing back on societal expectations to forge a life she loves. An avid traveler and adventure sports enthusiast, in her downtime you'll find Cat snowboarding, motorcycling or working on her latest self-development project.

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