Note: This piece gives a broad overview of emotional manipulation. But manipulation in marriage can be more complex and must be addressed with sensitivity and care. If you’re married and wonder about the differences between an unhealthy exchange and abuse, we encourage you to read our article Signs of Emotional Abuse.
We’ve all known manipulative people, whether they are friends, family, or our spouse. They might scare, criticize, guilt trip, bribe, blame, undermine, or intimidate. Or they flatter, offer sympathy, and act innocent, but not with sincerity.
What manipulation is
Manipulation is a counterfeit way to get our needs met. It’s an attempt to take away someone’s free will and replace it with our own selfish desires or twisted motives — and do it in a way that disregards someone else’s value and dignity.
We all have legitimate needs for physical and emotional wellbeing. And healthy people know how to ask appropriately for what they need. They know how to interact with others toward a good outcome for everyone.
However, manipulative people underhandedly try to influence someone for an ulterior motive. They act from pain or immaturity. They anxiously react rather than freely relate. They never learned (or refuse) self-awareness, humility, empathy, and a willingness to take personal responsibility.
Manipulation is destructive — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And whether it’s in the form of physical abuse or threats, verbal put-downs or name calling, trying to guilt you into doing something, or making you question reality, it needs to be stopped.
How to stop manipulation
Be aware and open-minded. Ask yourself, Is this person really trying to override my choice and make me act the way they want? There’s a difference between strong encouragement (or the excitement of someone who has an outgoing personality) and manipulation.
Get input from a licensed Christian counselor. This is especially important if the manipulator is your spouse or relative. An outside perspective can help you see things more clearly.
Ask yourself: Is this person safe enough (physically, verbally, emotionally) to confront, or will there be negative backlash against me if I do? Here again, a counselor’s input can be important.
Set and enforce healthy boundaries. You might need to increase physical or relational distance between the other person and yourself — even to the point where you stop all contact until their unhealthy behaviors end.
To follow Christ is to love others in ways that are honest, grace-filled, and healing. And as much as it depends on us, we should live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). At the same time, we must be discerning with those in our communities, our workplaces, our churches, our families, and our marriages — wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Read our complete article for a deeper look at why people manipulate, signs of manipulation and its impact, what to expect when you stop playing along with a manipulative person, and a list of recommended resources: How to Deal Wisely With Manipulative People.