SOURCE: Leslie Vernick
Question: Is it possible that spouses who manipulate are unaware they are being manipulative? If so, is this because of defense mechanisms or some other emotional void?
Answer: I think every human being has defense mechanisms and emotional voids. If we were capable of being completely healthy and whole individuals we would not need God. And probably 99% of all human beings have tried manipulation. Why? Because it is a very effective way of getting what you want.
A toddler throws a fit in the grocery store because she wants candy. If her mom capitulates because she’s embarrassed or doesn’t want to say no, she’s been manipulated by a two-year-old. And as the two-year-old learns that manipulation works she will do it again the next time she is thwarted from getting what she wants.
If her parents always give into her manipulative tactics her manipulation will increase and she will gain a wide repertoire of manipulative strategies. From throwing a fit, to whining, to saying “I hate you,” to the guilt trip or silent treatment, to badgering, to sighing with disappointment or disapproval, the manipulator communicates, “I am unhappy with you”, “I will hurt you”, or “you are a bad person if you won’t do or give me what I want.”
But your question is, “Is the manipulator aware that he or she is being manipulative?”
She may not know at two years old that what she is doing is manipulative, but over time she knows that certain tactics produce the results she wants. As she meets new people who resist her manipulative ways, she may face some tough realities. She may have teachers, coaches, or friends who refuse to always give into her. They may even give her some feedback that she is being manipulative. But if she continues to choose this way, she is conscious that she is being manipulative.
The problem with manipulators isn’t necessarily their tactics, but rather their thinking and underlying beliefs. As my friend and colleague, Chris Moles says, “People do what they do because they think what they think and believe what they believe.”
Manipulators think that they are always entitled to get what they want. They believe that everyone should cater to their needs first and if one manipulative strategy doesn’t work (such as pleading and begging), they will switch to another tactic (the guilt trip, or bullying). They are so good and persistent at getting what they want, knowing that the victim becomes exhausted and eventually gives in. That is exactly what the manipulator wants.
You will need to learn to understand why you’ve allowed yourself to be manipulated over and over again and what you can do to change. Usually, fear and guilt are the underlying reasons why we say yes when we want to, or should say no. We fear the loss of the relationship and the loss of their approval and love. We may also fear that they will do something drastic or harmful if we don’t give in.
We feel guilty because the manipulator accuses us of being selfish and unloving when we say no or refuse to do what he or she wants. Even our best efforts will never get a manipulator to agree that our “no” was justified or appropriate. Our guilt also comes from religious teaching that has taught us to never have boundaries and that other people’s needs and wants always come before our own. This keeps us feeling confused and guilty, easy prey for manipulators.
By your question, I wonder if you want to believe that he or she doesn’t know better. That the manipulator manipulates as a defense mechanism or a result of some deep emotional void. And because of these voids or defenses, then you feel less angry or frustrated with him or her?
This perspective may help you. If you knew that someone was stealing money from you because they were fearful that they would not have enough to buy food for their family, you would probably have more compassion than if they were stealing it for drugs. However, the solution isn’t to allow them to steal. It is to provide them an opportunity to earn money to get what they need in an honorable way.
In the same way, you can have compassion for someone who manipulates, but you have to do so from a posture of strength, not weakness. You must have the strength NOT to give into the manipulator because giving in only enables the manipulator’s beliefs to go unchallenged and his strategies to continue. That’s not good for you or your relationship with him, and it’s not good for him. Imagine how many relationships he or she has lost because he doesn’t know how to tolerate someone’s no or accept someone’s boundaries in a healthy way.
So the next time he or she tries their manipulative tactics on you, say something like this: “I know you just want me to (Fill in the blank) come to your house for Thanksgiving this year mom. I know it’s tough for you when we don’t come each year (Empathy and compassion), but I have to also think about what’s best for my family and me, and for this year it won’t work (Taking responsibility for myself and being respectful towards others.).
Then sit respectfully with his or her disappointment, anger, or grief without giving in.