Despite their intent to be authentic and open, many committed and caring couples use covert behaviors to get their needs met when they think direct requests won't work. They may not intend to take advantage of a partner, but simply feel they will be more successful if they use strategic tactics in certain situations. They may not even be trying to be manipulative, but just doing what they believe will improve their relationship.
Many people define manipulation as a behavior that intentionally uses another person for personal gain. Though it's believed this regularly happens outside of relationships, most intimate partners either don’t recognize that they practice it in their relationship, or don’t want to admit that they do. Even the most loving and caring partners regularly use manipulative techniques to get their partner to do things they might not otherwise choose to do. When I ask if they would rather be open about their wishes, they agree this is ideal, but are fearful this kind of transparency will create problems.
Learning to strategize begins early in childhood. Every child quickly learns when and how to ask for something that will get them what they need. They usually start by directly saying what they want, but soon realize that a strategic maneuver works better. I fondly remember a six-year-old boy in my office ignoring his mother’s requests to behave. After she made several unsuccessful attempts to control him, she raised her hand to give him a swat on his bottom. He looked at her with a very sweet expression on his face and said, “You’re so beautiful when your mad, mommy.” We both tried to keep a straight face, but it worked—and, yes, he had copied it from watching his dad.
Many of my patients tell me that their partner can easily see behind their manipulative tactics if they want to, but believe that they would rather not. Or both partners have accepted that neither is always straight in all areas, but they are usually honest about the important ones. They’ve also told me that a good outcome justifies strategic choices because being direct can cause unnecessary conflicts.
I recall a middle-aged patient many years ago who was determined to stay married to her often-unfaithful husband, once showing me her latest “re-entry bracelet.” She loved beautiful jewelry and he had learned to soothe her by giving her just the right token at the right time. It was an unspoken strategy that seemed to work for both of them. Another woman told me that she crushed Viagra and put it in her husband’s dinner because he would not acknowledge his erectile dysfunction. She knew it worked better if taken without food, but he wasn’t willing to acknowledge his predicament, and she enjoyed intercourse too much to give it up.
Such “working the system” behaviors can become so much part of a couple’s habits that they see them as part of a successful partnership. And, very often those behaviors are reinforced because they work. Sadly, major problems can arise when intimate partners unconsciously or consciously use these strategies and their behavior is discovered. If trust is the act of believing that one’s most reliable and intimate friend is always honest, then the discovery of manipulative behavior in any important area to either partner can shake that trust and threaten the relationship.
Manipulative techniques will likely continue to be part of every intimate relationship, but caring partners who want to be as authentic with one another as possible can recognize when they are being indirect and learn ways to be more transparent without necessarily risking their intimate connection. The closer both partners can come to being completely open and honest in what they want, the more they will be able to create a spiritual and emotional sanctuary that sustains their love.
Here are the 12 most common manipulative techniques. Please do not judge yourself if you recognize that you or your partner practice some of them. Try using these to help each other feel more comfortable communicating with each other.
The Twelve Most Common Manipulative Behaviors
1. Guilt. People feel guilty when they don’t live up to the expectations of people who are important to them. If you know what makes your partner feel bad about him or herself, and use that knowledge to get what you need, you are using emotional blackmail.
2. Martyrdom. If you give too much to your partner on a regular basis, you could be trying to build an emotional credit card balance that makes your partner feel obligated to pay when you want something—even if he or she would prefer not to.
3. Using others to “sell” your idea. This kind of coercion happens when one partner cites biased references to get the other to comply. “Everyone thinks...” or, “Our best friends always take a least two vacations a year," or, "The newest research shows that…”
4. Hiding your errors. If you fear your partner’s criticism or disappointment, you may find yourself hiding something you’ve done wrong. It's common to wait for a time when you’re getting along well to reveal the truth and soften the blow.
5. Presenting exaggerated, embellished, or untrue reasons for your behavior to neutralize a potentially bad reaction. If you’re caught doing something your partner is upset by, you create a more believable story to sway your partner to your side. If he or she “understands” that your behavior was legitimate under those circumstances, you might be able to neutralize a potentially negative response.
6. Overreacting to get your partner to feel badly about his or her emotions. Creating drama is a typical way to getting your partner to back down if he or she dislikes scenes, emotional turmoil, or exaggerated consequences. Even if you feel something intensely, you consciously or unconsciously count on the fact that your partner will back down to avoid the intensity of the situation.
7. Presenting something as a gift for your partner when it was really something you wanted. An example is telling your partner that a fantastic deal came up that you know he or she would really like, when it’s really something you wanted but didn’t think you could get it if you didn’t present it as a “gift.”
8. Feigning an excuse when you don’t want to do something, or don’t want to be held responsible for breaking an agreement or disappointing your partner. “I have a headache,” or, “It’s been a really hard day. I just didn’t expect so much stress. I’ll get to it tomorrow," or, "I’m so sorry, I just forgot. I have too much on my mind.”
9. Passive/aggressive behavior. Agreeing with your partner’s request in the moment to avoid disappointing or upsetting him or her, but somehow never getting around to what you agreed to. If you use this strategy often, your partner will lose trust in you.
10. Being accommodating now, just to get something you want later on. This is one of the most common types of manipulation. Most intimate partners know what pleases their partner, so they put on momentary charm in advance of a later request the other can’t comfortably refuse.
11. Padding a request to ensure that what you really want will be granted. This strategy requires that you purposefully ask for much more than you know you will get, knowing that your partner will offer less, which is what you really only wanted. “Honey, my dream would be to get that new Tesla. What do you think?” (You'd actually be very happy with a Prius.)
12. Hiding something you’ve done wrong, to fix it before it gets discovered. It’s understandable that you don’t want your partner disappointed in something you’ve done, so you try to hide or fix it before he or she finds out. You’re playing against the clock, so you have to get very good at keeping him or her off the trail until you have it covered.
Randi Gunther, Ph.D.,