18 signs your partner is being manipulative, according to psychology

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Manipulation is always wrong, but the truth is that it creeps into many relationships.

Sometimes it’s very subtly done. By nature, manipulation is sneaky and underhand, so you may not spot it.

The real truth is, even your partner may not be conscious of when they are unfairly using this tactic to try to get their way.

So how do you know if your partner is manipulative?

Let’s take a look at some of the clearest signs to watch out for.

1) Your gut tells you something isn’t right (even if you try to ignore it)

Let’s get something straight:

Your intuitive feelings are not just unsubstantiated feelings that you should disregard. It’s based on deeper wisdom that comes from past experiences.

As pointed out in Psychology Today:

“Psychologists believe that intuition relies on powers of pattern-matching, as the mind combs experience stored in long-term memory for similar situations and presents in-the-moment judgments based on them.”

So when your gut tells you “This seems wrong”, it’s using a wide range of information stored in your subconscious to patch together a more accurate picture of the present moment.

If your partner is being manipulative and something feels “off” you may have an uneasy sense about it. But you may simultaneously fight this feeling and try to argue it away.

Especially if your partner engages in the next thing on the list…

2) You question whether you are being “too sensitive”

The reason why so many people put up with manipulation for so long is often because they doubt themselves.

If you bring up a problem behavior to your partner, they may retort by saying you’re making too big of a deal about nothing.

Denial is a common tactic to deflect from manipulation.

But as a consequence, you are left questioning whether you are making a mountain out of a molehill.

You wonder if you just need to chill out, and if you are the one making problems.

3) Your partner is dismissive of your thoughts and feelings  

The reality is that we end up worrying we are “too sensitive” when someone is dismissive of us.

If you are in a respectful relationship, then your feelings and thoughts matter.

You and your partner won’t always agree, but you should feel heard.

They shouldn’t try to shut you down or disregard what you have to say.

4) You often feel guilty

…And the reason is because your partner tries to make you feel bad.

Guilt trips are one of the most classic signs of manipulation in a relationship.

They give the illusion of free will, but the fallout from going against your partner’s wishes often makes you feel like you have little choice.

Your partner tries to make you responsible for their feelings. Rather than explicitly say what they need and want from you, they’ll turn to manipulation.

As therapist and social worker, Liza Gold explains:

“Guilt-tripping is a natural form of passive-aggression that people result to when they don’t have the skills or language to assertively communicate their needs or feelings,”

5) You feel like you’re not the same person you once were

Sure, we all change over time. That’s not a bad thing either. It can be a consequence of learning, growing, and evolving.

But that should come from within. It should not be brought about by trying to change yourself to keep your partner happy.

Losing a sense of self to appease your partner can appear in many ways:

  • Dressing differently
  • Changing your appearance
  • Changing your opinions and thoughts
  • Adopting your partner’s interests, practices, and lifestyle and abandoning your own

6) You avoid speaking up because it’s not worth the hassle

Sometimes it is smart to bite your tongue. We avoid unnecessary conflict by thinking before we speak.

But open and honest communication is really important in any relationship.

Whilst tactlessly blurting out everything that comes to mind isn’t advisable, you shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells.

7) Your partner acts like you’re the one who is crazy

“That didn’t happen”

“You’re remembering this all wrong”

“Why do you always spoil things by making such a big deal of everything?”

These are just a few of the potential phrases a manipulative partner might try out.

It’s called gaslighting, and the aim is to make you question the validity of your own memory, judgment, or reality.

It’s just another way of assigning blame to you.

8) No matter what you’re arguing about, you are always the one in the wrong

You are constantly saying sorry.

Sometimes it’s because you have been made to feel so bad by your partner. Other times, you may simply apologize as it’s the only way to keep the peace.

Yet all the compromise, bending, and backing down is on your side.

Even though it takes two to tango, you are the one who is made to shoulder 100% of the blame, no matter what happens.

9) You feel pretty isolated

Manipulation is about control. And the influence of other people in your life may loosen your partner’s sense of control over you.

After all, they don’t want others coming along to be the voice of reason.

So they may try to distance you from your support networks like friends, family, or the community. They discourage you from spending time with anyone but them.

They may even try to use your connections against you, as we’ll see next.

10) They use other people to gang up on you

The psychological term for this is triangulation.

A manipulative partner may enlist others to coerce and persuade you. Or they may try to cause fights between you and someone else as an attempt to divide and conquer.

Either way, they draw a third party into their manipulation in order to make you feel more isolated and reliant on them. 

11) You are frequently given the silent treatment

As we’ve already seen, passive aggression is a very powerful tool when it comes to manipulation.

It’s also probably one of the most commonly found within a relationship.

Research suggests as many as two out of three of us have been guilty of using the silent treatment to show we’re not happy.

Rather than talk about how they feel, a partner may sulk or give you the cold shoulder.

Ostracising may be a long-used method of punishment, but it has some nasty side effects, as psychology professor at Princeton Joel Cooper told The Atlantic:

“Because we humans require social contact for our mental health, the ramifications of isolation can be severe. In the short term, the silent treatment causes stress. In the long term, the stress can be considered abuse.”

12) You don’t feel like you can say “no” to your partner

If you turn down your other half’s requests you’ll never hear the end of it.

They put pressure on you until you finally give in. They try to make you feel selfish or uncaring.

They may use persuasive phrases like “If you loved me you would” in order to get you to change your mind.

13) Your partner puts you down all the time but claims they don’t mean anything by it

They may say it’s constructive criticism. They suggest that they’re telling you for your own good and it’s “only because they care”.

Or perhaps they disguise their cruel and offensive comments as “jokes” or “banter”.

But not only does it make you feel bad, it seems hostile.

14) If you disagree with them they withhold affection

Sadly, according to a 2019 study, withholding love is yet another passive-aggressive form of punishment that is used by manipulators.

Your partner may try to weaponize sex by making it conditional to you doing or saying what they want.

Or they may give you a frosty reception or refuse to get close to you until you comply with certain demands.

15) They exaggerate in order to play the victim and make you the “bad guy”

Lies and blame often go hand in hand to bolster a manipulator and justify their actions.

That might include fabricating things that didn’t even happen. It could be twisting your words. Or they may simply over-exaggerate events.

The ultimate aim is to paint themselves as the wronged party.

16) They give you ultimatums

When all else fails, you may be presented with an ultimatum:

“Do this, or else!”

Sometimes your partner may try to masquerade an ultimatum as a healthy boundary.

Yet boundaries are honest (and somewhat flexible) requests. Ultimatums on the other hand are final demands.

As mental health counselor Michela Dalsing puts it:

“The difference between an ultimatum and a boundary is similar to the difference between having someone force you to choose by gunpoint and someone asking you to follow a law.”

17) They make threats to get their own way

Of course, ultimatums are in themselves a form of threat. But your partner may use threats in other ways too.

That may be direct threats to you, such as:

“Go ahead, see what happens if you do!”

Or they may also make threats to themself.

For example, an ex of mine would often say he was going to harm himself whenever I tried to end the relationship.

18) They sweet talk you to the extreme

All of our manipulation tactics up until now have been pretty nasty. You could say they use the stick, instead of the carrot to influence behavior.

But some manipulation is sugar-coated.

Psychologists call this phenomenon love bombing.

But your partner’s compliments don’t come for free, there is a price to pay, and that price is compliance, as psychologist Alaina Tiani warns:

“Initially, you might feel safe, secure and swept off your feet because grand gestures are a self-esteem boost and make you feel important and desired. But the love bomber’s ultimate goal is not just to seek love, but to gain control over someone else. Over time, those grand gestures are an effort to manipulate you and make you feel indebted to and dependent on them.”

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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