18 warning signs you’re dealing with a manipulator (and how to respond)

We sometimes include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate disclosure.

Manipulation can be sneakier than you expect.

And sadly, it’s incredibly common.

One survey found that almost half of us have dealt with psychological aggression in a relationship.

That’s why it’s really important we pick up on the warning signs.

What are the red flags for manipulation? And how should you deal with it?

Let’s take a look…

1) Love bombing

Manipulation isn’t always mean, sometimes it’s incredibly charming.

As clinical psychologist and author, Alexander Burgemeester points out:

“Some common traits of love bombing include providing excessive amounts of attention, admiration, and affection. The aim of this is to make the recipient feel dependent on and obligated to the individual.”

2) Being pushy

In essence, being pushy is not respecting someone’s boundaries.

For example, rather than accepting your no as a no, they won’t let it drop.

They keep trying to get you to change your mind. They persistently try to wear you down to get their own way.

3) Not giving you time or space to think

Another form of pushy behavior can be putting you under time pressure to make a decision.

For example, giving unreasonable deadlines or putting you on the spot with ultimatums.

4) Actions and words not matching up

As I said in the intro, some manipulation can be subtle.

It may take a while to spot. But one of the earliest signs of a manipulator in a relationship is when their words and actions don’t match up.

They make promises that they don’t keep. They tell you they are going to do something, but fail to follow through.

5) Guilt-trips

Do you always end up feeling guilty or ashamed when you spend time with this person?

If you get an off feeling in your gut, it could be signaling something to you.

Being guilt-tripped and having someone keep score of “what you owe them” is manipulation.

6) Gaslighting

As explained in Psychology Today:

“​​Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity.”

No matter what happens, they manage to twist things around so that they are blameless.

They might try to convince you that you’re acting “crazy” or paranoid.

Even when it feels clear they are in the wrong, they talk you around in circles to convince you that you are the one who is in the wrong.

7) Controlling behavior

They try to decide things about your own life.

That might be who you can see, what you wear, where you go, how you spend your money, and what you do.

This is extreme manipulation known as coercive control, and in many places around the world is illegal.

8) Emotional blackmail

“If you really loved me, then you would”.

Emotional blackmail uses your own feelings to get under your skin and control you.

You may not always notice it, as it can be very sneaky.

For example, as therapist Erika Myers, highlights:

“It might appear as withholding of affection, disappointment, or even a slight shift in body language”.

9) Isolating you from other people

The more isolated we become, the more vulnerable we are.

This can be just what a manipulator wants. That way you rely on them for more of your emotional needs.

If they want you “all to themselves”, consider if they are cutting you off from family, friends, and other support networks.

10) Being passive aggressive

Whilst anger and shouting are easily seen as abusive, this can fly below the radar.

Passive aggression is when you indirectly express negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.

For example, it might be through snide remarks or withholding your affection as a punishment.

Or it could be through this next sign of manipulation on our list…

11) Sulking and giving you the silent treatment

Technically the silent treatment is a form of passive aggression.

Yet it’s such a common manipulation technique it deserves its own mention.

It’s all about withholding attention as a way of making you feel bad.

It’s manipulation because its real aim is to inflict pain and punishment.

12) Projecting their own bad behavior onto you

This one can be summed up through this classic example:

The cheating partner who accuses you of infidelity.

In order to deflect from their own wrongdoing, they project their own faults and failings onto you.

13) Spreading rumors behind your back

Gossip and talking dirt about people can be a way of controlling them.

Particularly if it makes you feel so bad that you end up falling back into line rather than standing up to someone.

14) Playing the martyr

They volunteer to help, but they won’t ever let you forget it!

A seeming act of self-sacrifice can be used to try and get one over you.

Even though the act of service appears to be given freely, it’s later used to try to make you feel bad or indebted to them in some way.

15) Put downs, backhanded compliments, and cruel “jokes”

  • Mean nicknames
  • Making unkind comments
  • Saying rude things but insisting it’s just a “joke”

Words can be incredibly painful.

This is why they can be easily used to manipulate and strip away self-esteem.

16) They are always the victim

You know what they say:

There are two sides to every story.

That’s why if someone manages to always play the victim, no matter what, they could be manipulating you.

Rather than take responsibility, they are always shifting the blame onto you.

You feel like you are always the one having to apologize, even when you did nothing wrong.

17) They know how to push your buttons

…And they don’t hesitate to do so.

They may use your biggest insecurities against you. It’s as though they intentionally try to trigger you.

They pick at your biggest fears or your perceived flaws in order to stay in control.

18) Enlisting other people to pile the pressure on

Manipulators may not do all the dirty work themselves.

They may get other people to try to push and persuade you too.

You may feel ganged up on until you just agree and go along with things.

How to deal with manipulative people

Point it out

Here’s the thing:

Manipulation is always wrong.

Yet the real truth is that many of us are probably guilty of some low-level manipulation from time to time.

Sometimes it happens without us even being fully aware of it. People can learn some unhealthy emotional habits.

For example, if your girlfriend or boyfriend sulks with you and gives you the silent treatment after an argument.

Or your friend’s persistence in trying to get you to go out on Friday night when you don’t want to starts becoming a nuisance.

The first course of action when you experience behavior that could be manipulative is to have a talk about it.

Calmly point out certain behaviors that aren’t ok, and let someone know why it doesn’t feel right.

Hopefully, they’ll then see the error of their ways. If not, you will need to step up your boundaries. 

Assert your own boundaries

How can you put a manipulator in their place?

Don’t be tempted to be drawn into further games. Never try to manipulate a manipulator to get one over on them.

Because at the end of the day, doesn’t that just make us as bad as them?

Boundaries are how we rise above it. Our boundaries are like our own armor.

With firm enough boundaries, it’s much harder to fall foul of manipulation.

That’s because you know where you draw the line, and you don’t allow others to cross it.

It’s a really useful exercise for everyone to get crystal clear on their own boundaries.

Literally, write them out.

See them as the rules of your club.

  • What behavior is and is not acceptable?
  • How do you expect people to behave if they want to be in your life?
  • What are the consequences when someone pushes your boundaries?

If anyone can’t abide by your rules, they can’t be in your club.

Get clear on how it makes you feel

When you’re dealing with manipulation, it can be very confusing.

You may start to second guess yourself, or dismiss your own feelings.

Perhaps you’re even asking yourself: ‘Am I overreacting?’

But it’s important to get in touch with how this manipulation makes you feel.

You can do this through journaling to express the emotions coming up for you. And by talking to someone you trust (like a friend or family member).

Acknowledging your emotions will:

  • Help you to address your feelings rather than push them away
  • Reassure you that your emotions are justified
  • Give you the fuel to do something about it, rather than be tempted to explain it away or excuse it

Create some distance

Manipulation can cause toxic relationships.

Healthy relationships rely on respect, affection, and mutual cooperation to run smoothly.

If you have a connection with someone that feels very manipulative, you may need to put some space between you —or even cut them out altogether.

What happens when you ignore a manipulator? You take away their power over you.

As sad as it can feel, the reality is that sometimes the best thing we can do to protect ourselves is to simply walk away.

Of course, I know that is often easier said than done.

But it is about showing yourself the love and care you deserve.

Gaining some space and distance away from them will also help you to see things more clearly and gain a better perspective.

Seek help and support

Don’t underestimate it:

Manipulation can very quickly become a form of abuse.

In fact, one study found that emotional abuse may be equally as harmful as physical abuse.

Research shows that being exposed to it can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, depression, and withdrawal.

So you may need some help in breaking free from manipulation. If so, it’s vital that you let someone know what is going on.

You may also choose to seek therapy to help you heal, or seek the support of help groups.

Louise Jackson

My passion in life is communication in all its many forms. I enjoy nothing more than deep chats about life, love and the Universe. With a masters degree in Journalism, I’m a former BBC news reporter and newsreader. But around 8 years ago I swapped the studio for a life on the open road. Lisbon, Portugal is currently where I call home. My personal development articles have featured in Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, Thrive Global and more.

10 secret personality traits of early birds and night owls

20 phrases that will make you sound classy and intelligent