6 warning signs you’re in a manipulative relationship

We often enter relationships hoping for a fairy tale, only to find ourselves feeling trapped in a storyline we didn’t choose. 

Recently, a dear friend confided in me about her relationship, her voice heavy with unspoken fears. 

As we sat, sipping tea and sharing stories, it became clear she was entangled in a web of manipulation.

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Is this normal?”, then it’s time to delve into these 6 warning signs that might reveal some hard truths.

1) They constantly criticize you

One of the first things my friend complained about when she told me about her struggles is being constantly criticized. 

Her relationship had started out so great, but after a few months gradually her partner kept finding things wrong with her – from the way she folded the sheets to her wanting to spend a bit of time on the brown. 

This is one of the easiest signs to spot, because it will obviously feel pretty unpleasant, and so you may notice it sooner.

But it may not always be so outright as my friend’s example above.

Someone may also criticize you in subtle ways, such as negging. This is basically a sly insult disguised as a compliment, usually used to undermine a person’s confidence.

For example, “You must be really brave to wear that outfit” or “You have a great personality! I can see why people overlook your flaws.”

Whether it’s obvious or subtle, this kind of feedback is not what we call healthy constructive criticism delivered with love — it’s just repeatedly telling you you’re not good enough. 

2) They never apologize 

Apologies are the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. They mend fences, clear the air, and help us move forward. But what if those apologies never come?

My friend found herself in that exact situation. Whenever they’d have an argument, her partner would twist the facts, evade blame, and somehow make it all about her shortcomings. The words “I’m sorry” were never part of his vocabulary.

Does this resonate with you? Maybe after a disagreement, your partner shifts the blame onto you, saying things like, “If you hadn’t done X, then I wouldn’t have had to do Y.”

Or perhaps they play the victim, twisting the situation to make it seem like they were horribly wronged. 

It’s like walking through a maze where every path leads back to you being the one at fault. At some point, you may wonder, is it really possible that I do everything wrong?

And the answer is, it isn’t. You are two humans, and you both make mistakes — but if only you are forced to admit to them, it shows that your feelings, your perspective, and your peace of mind don’t matter to your partner.

Apologizing is a sign of emotional maturity. It says, “I care enough about this relationship to admit when I’m wrong.” If that admission never comes, consider it a red flag as crimson as they come.

3) They bring up past conflicts

We all have baggage, don’t we? Old arguments, minor disagreements, that one time you got the time of your flight wrong. 

In a healthy relationship, these are bumps on the road — moments to learn from and then move on. But unfortunately, some manipulative people keep these incidents alive, using them as ammunition in every new conflict.

This was another struggle for my friend. Every time they had a disagreement, her partner would bring up past conflicts as if reading from a long list of her faults. 

“It’s just like that time you forgot our anniversary,” he’d say, derailing the conversation and putting her on the defensive.

Sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. Using past conflicts in this way is a manipulative tactic to make you feel like you’re always in the wrong. Instead of addressing the issue at hand, it becomes a trial of your entire character, and that’s not fair.

What’s worse, it cripples the relationship’s ability to grow. If every new argument brings up old dirt, you’re never really moving forward. It’s like trying to drive with your handbrake on — frustrating and damaging in the long run.

If your partner can’t let go of the past and uses it as a weapon against you, take it as another unmistakable warning sign. Real love doesn’t keep score — it heals and moves forward.

4) You feel you need to hide certain things from them

There was a moment when my friend really realized something was off in her relationship — and it was when she found herself trying to figure out how to sneak the cookies she had bought into the apartment without him seeing them.

It wasn’t that he had forbidden her outright from eating junk food — but through his comments and his looks he was making it immensely clear that he disapproved, and she was constantly worried about his reactions.

This sign is a bit tricky, because of course partners will have different opinions on things, and one could argue that encouraging someone to eat healthy is a good thing.

But in a healthy relationship, openness and honesty are the name of the game. You need to feel like you can be your complete, unfiltered self without judgment, with mutually decided goals and slipups accepted. 

My friend clearly didn’t have that feeling anymore, which led to her starting to keep secrets or even lie to her partner at times — which is another warning sign in and of itself.

Do you find yourself doing something similar? Maybe you’ve started downplaying achievements at work, keeping quiet about how you spend your time, who you talk to, or even what you think and feel. 

This isn’t you being shady — it’s a coping mechanism, a way to keep the peace, and that’s a sign of trouble.

5) They sometimes withhold affection or love

Do you think love should be unconditional, or a bargaining chip that you use to control people? The answer is obvious, but unfortunately, some people act as if it’s the second option. 

My friend described these painful episodes in her relationship where her partner would withhold love and affection as a form of punishment. 

If she voiced an opinion he didn’t like or spent time doing something that didn’t involve him, the cold shoulder would commence. “It was like he turned off a switch,” she said.

Can you relate? Maybe after an argument or even a simple disagreement, your partner becomes distant, giving you the silent treatment or withholding affection until you “make it right.” 

This is another classic manipulation tactic. By making their love conditional, they’re essentially saying, “Conform to what I want, or suffer the consequences.” In these moments, love feels more like a transaction than an emotional bond.

It’s confusing and emotionally draining to live under these conditions. You might find yourself constantly trying to “earn” their love back, caught in a never-ending cycle that leaves you emotionally exhausted. 

And let’s be honest — that’s not what love should ever feel like.

6) They “keep score”

We humans all prefer for life and relationships to be fair — and as a result some people fall into the trap of “keeping score” in their relationship.

I must admit, I do this to an extent, because I’ve had friendships where I felt totally taken advantage of. It’s a protection mechanism to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But if I realize I’m investing much more into a friendship than the other person, all I do is distance myself from the other person.

On the other hand, in a manipulative relationship you might experience your partner reminding you of your “debts”, making you feel like you owe them.

Sadly, this is another thing my friend noticed. Her partner seemed to be keeping track of how much time he spent with her family versus she with his, who paid for what, and any favors he did for her.

Sometimes he did this through backhanded remarks, and sometimes he made what felt like demands for favors he wanted in return. It started to feel like a business contract.

But love shouldn’t come with strings attached or turn into a tit-for-tat game. In a healthy relationship, kindness flows naturally without the need for a scoreboard to keep track of who’s done what for whom.

Finding the courage to get out of a manipulative relationship 

You can probably recognize obvious signs of manipulation like threats, stonewalling, or gaslighting.

But hopefully this article has shed light on some more subtle and common signs that you’re in a manipulative relationship.

These can easily creep into even relationships that start out fantastic (like my friend’s). You slowly get so used to them that you don’t even realize what’s going on.

Remember that everyone can display a few of these behaviors from time to time, but it’s the consistent pattern and overall dynamic of power and control that defines manipulation. 

If you’re not sure if there’s something off, try sharing your observations and feelings with another person you trust, or a mental health professional to get a second opinion.

I know it can be very difficult to realize that you’re in a manipulative relationship, and even harder to end things with this person.

But remember that you deserve a relationship that gives you the freedom and long-lasting happiness. And there’s surely one like that waiting for you. 

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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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