It can be really hard sometimes to figure out if someone is trying to manipulate you. This can be especially true in trauma survivors who have endured abusive relationships (with a partner, friend, parent, etc) because our idea of a “normal” and healthy relationship may be skewed.
Manipulation is defined as someone taking actions to try and control others. This is usually in a harmful way, but may also be done unintentionally. Manipulation can happen in any sort of relationship, including work relationships, friendships, partners, family, etc.
I wrote an article about Grooming in Adult Relationships which might also be relevant, but isn’t necessarily relevant to a relationship where we are being manipulated.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to reflect on whether you think you’re being manipulated, whether that’s by a friend, partner, etc.
Do they only contact you when they need something from you? For example, do they not talk to you much and ignore you unless they have a favour they want (this could also be that they only talk to you to vent to you)?
Do you find your boundaries being crossed? Do you find them constantly pushing at your "no's" even if it seems innocent/playful like "oh please, it would make me so happy if you'd...". It's important to note that this still is manipulative.
Do they make really big statements like "you're the only person who could possibly understand" or "you're the only person I've ever loved" etc? (These statements can be used as a tool to manipulate someone, but not always, so please keep that in mind.)
Do you find that if you ever talk to them about something they've done that upset you, they turn it around and you end up apologizing to them for being upset? Or they may “smokescreen” you where they deflect from the spotlight put on them. You may say “I feel scared when you yell at me” and they may bring up a behaviour of yours that they take issue with.
If they don't get their way, do you find that they suddenly "have to go" or "can't hang out" or are just suddenly unavailable? This might also mean they always suddenly have an emotional crisis or are “sick” or something else that requires your support when you try to have a conversation about their behaviour.
Are they always "just joking?" By this I mean, do they say harmful things like "oh my god, you're so sensitive!" and then go "just joking!" or laugh it off?
Do you find you're "punished" if you don't react a certain way? For example, if you get upset at something they've done, do you find they give you the silent treatment or something like that?
Do you feel you constantly have to prove your love? For example, they might use statements like "if you really loved me you'd..." (This could range from anything from doing a chore to physical intimacy to any number of other things. This uses guilt as a manipulation tactic to pressure you into "proving" your love.)
Do you feel like you live in their life and not them in yours at all? By this I mean, is it always about their hobbies, friends, places they pick to go, etc?
Are they passive aggressive to you? For example, they might say things like “I really wish I could get more help around here. I’m so sick of doing everything by myself.” (Note: This is a valid frustration a partner may have but a healthier way to go about this is to confront the issue directly with something like I-Statements, for example “I feel overwhelmed and would appreciate if you could help me more” is not manipulative and directly addresses their feelings and the issue.)
Do they constantly compare you to others to get their way? For example, a partner might say “well, my last partner had no problems doing that…” or a friend might say “well, so and so didn’t hesitate when I asked them for help.”
Do they constantly throw "favors" or "nice" things they've done for you in the past in your face when you argue, when they want something from you, or when you are having a disagreement?
While these questions do not necessarily indicate a relationship where someone is constantly manipulating you, they can be good for self reflection. These questions do not take in the nuance of every situation, like that some of the above may be an unintentional bad habit of someone (which while still unintentionally manipulative, may be able to be worked on with communication) or perhaps the person has never learned healthy ways of communicating what they want (which is still unintentionally manipulative but not necessarily with ill intentions). With that said, you are never obligated to maintain a relationship, even if the person using manipulative behaviours is not doing so with ill intent. You should put your well-being first, and if you aren’t comfortable or feeling safe to try and maintain the relationship, that’s okay.
Some other things you can do if you aren’t sure if you are being manipulated is to start keeping a written record of things that take place. For example, you may write down what happened during an argument including what it was about, what was said, and etc while it is still fresh in your mind. This can be helpful if you start to doubt yourself later, or if the other person tries to make you doubt what took place.
Try and establish boundaries. I wrote an article on boundaries here if you want to read more about setting boundaries. Make sure to stick to your boundaries.
Work on establishing and strengthening healthy relationships. Having a support system outside of the person you’re concerned is manipulating you can be helpful. You can also talk about these situations with others for an outside perspective. Keep in mind though that sometimes being “used” or manipulated isn’t clear in a single situation. For example, it might be more understandable if a friend is going through a hard time and suddenly messages you out of the blue to ask for some help after being silent for awhile. However, if this is a recurring pattern where a friend only reaches out when they need something, you may be being used and manipulated. Working with a professional could also be really helpful in identifying patterns and problematic behaviour.
If it’s possible (and sometimes, it isn’t for us at the time in our life), be prepared to walk away. You have a right to your safety and this includes emotional safety. You don’t deserve to be manipulated. Your own emotional well-being should come first.