How to stay grounded while confronting the difficult people in your life.
Psychological manipulation: a loaded and ambiguous term. It refers to the lying, distorting, dominating, gaslighting, and otherwise emotionally controlling behavior that many people experience in difficult but close relationships. Manipulators may be your parents, your partners, or even your children. No definition of the term seems sufficient, apart from the subjective one: when your perspective is invalidated, when your power in a relationship is systematically diminished, and when conflicts become emotionally charged in ways that keep you off-balance and unhappy, you feel manipulated1.
Because the experience of manipulation centers on helplessness and confusion, as if the usual rules of relationships have been rewritten to benefit the other person, it’s important to learn that you can respond to this behavior in effective ways. Not every controlling move can be neutralized, and not every manipulative person in your life will respond to each technique, but in general, these are the best ways to hold on to your sanity while working toward a more stable relationship.
Broadly speaking, the first principle in working with a manipulative person — particularly a rageful or easily triggered one — is safety. If your relationship makes you feel unsafe, you must develop a plan to maintain your well-being. Find a person you trust and explain the situation in detail. If your home environment doesn’t feel safe, take yourself out of it temporarily (or permanently, if need be). Be prepared to let an angry partner or family member know that you cannot communicate while being screamed at, and say you will leave until he or she calms down. (You may choose to add that you’ll come back later, to try again.) If you need to disengage, be sure to set physical limits: leave the room, exit the apartment, or lock the door. Stop the car, or refuse to drive with the other person. Spend time with the person only when a third party is present. Stop reading his or her emails or texts. Set limits that will preserve your safety, as well as your peace of mind.
When you do initiate a conversation, do it in a noncombative way. This means choosing the right time to talk. Sometimes you’ll need to set limits when a boundary has been transgressed; at other times, you’ll choose not to escalate a small argument into a larger one. If you suspect your partner or family member is vulnerable to feelings of abandonment, be aware of the times when he or she feels alienated or rejected. Engaging at times like these will not lead to fruitful discussions, and neither will the tactic of withdrawing from your partner to punish him or her. You’ll need to be aware of your own mood, too, when confronting the manipulative person in your life, because your own feelings can easily (and not always helpfully) affect the conversation you’re trying to have.
Taking a noncombative approach also means declining to fight back when you are attacked. Arguing about the facts won’t be productive, either; you’ll just get caught in the weeds. In fact, it’s much better to hear your partner out and to reflect his or her feelings back in your own words. Try to absorb and restate their position, rather than reacting to it, even if you don’t agree with your partner’s interpretation of the facts; you can still try to relate honestly to the emotion behind this interpretation. You may even want to ask the other person if you fully understand their message. Respond with “I” statements that reflect your own truth, but without blaming, interpreting, or diagnosing.
When it comes to stating your point of view, you’ll need to be absolutely clear about what you believe. It can be difficult to retain your perspective in the face of the distortions, exaggerations, or emotional intensity you may experience. Remember: You have the right to your opinion, to express your wants and needs, and to be treated with respect. You also have the right to say “no.” Keeping these facts in mind can help you ground yourself while stating your position. Ask for what you need — for instance, an apology, a change in the way you’re treated, or just an acknowledgement of your perspective. Make it clear that you are responsible for your choices, just as the other person is responsible for his or her behavior. If the other person tries to pivot to another topic, confuse the issue, or shift the responsibility onto you, don’t be distracted. In confrontations like these, you’re very likely to be emotionally provoked or overstimulated, but try to stick to your original point. Stay focused on the conflict and don’t bother arguing about the argument.
On the other hand, even as you’re asking for your feelings to be respected, you will need to respect the feelings of the other person. His or her response may represent a genuine expression of feelings, rather than an ill-intentioned lie. Even if they cast aspersions that aren’t accurate, you may be able to concede that you would feel exactly as they do if these things were true. Hold this distinction in your mind as you try to disagree without invalidating the other person’s point of view.
When responding to the person you find manipulative, the most important principle is setting limits in a clear, consistent, and nonjudgmental way. Your overall point should be that these limits — for example, the need to be free from desperate midnight phone calls, or from irrational rage when you get home late — will make your relationship better. Good boundaries and mutual respect will make it easier to get along. Don’t get stuck arguing about the reasonableness of your own limits; you only need to say they’re important to you. Set clear consequences for boundary violations, such as “If you keep yelling at me, I will have to go out because I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” Add positive consequences, too: “If we can settle down to talk about this, we’ll be able to spend a nice afternoon together.”
It’s also important to know when to walk away. In all honesty, your partner, friend, or relative may never be able to regulate his or her emotions well enough to treat you fairly. If this becomes clear, end the conversation. Once you have made your point, and have been clear about what you’ve been asking for, you should feel some confidence that the other party — at some level — understands what you’re after. If things end this way, it’s progress, even if you don’t get the satisfaction you were originally seeking.
Overall, in coping with manipulation, it’s best to follow four basic principles: know your rights and your limits; set clear, appropriate boundaries in a respectful and neutral way; recognize and avoid the other person’s efforts to escalate the conflict or muddy the issue; and always make sure to protect your own safety.
1 The word “manipulation” can be problematic, as it is often used to characterize women’s behavior. Implying that “manipulative” behavior exclusively pertains to borderline personality disorder is unfair, because the BPD diagnosis is disproportionately applied to women. Other character disorders, such as narcissistic PD, often contribute to this kind of behavior as well.