How Abusers Use Manipulation in Relationships to Control Their Partner

How Abusers Use Manipulation in Relationships to Control Their Partner

It can be difficult for people who have never been in an abusive relationship to understand why victims don’t leave right away. An often cited statistic is that it takes seven attempts on average for someone to leave an abusive relationship for good. This may seem shocking but getting away from an abuser is far from easy – particularly if they’re a good manipulator.

What counts as manipulation in a relationship?

 It’s not uncommon for abusers to gain control over their partner through manipulation, which they may use to blur the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. This sows the seeds of self-doubt and confusion in their victim’s mind.

Manipulation is more than just a way for abusers to shift blame for their actions: it is in itself a form of abuse.

In a relationship, manipulation may include:

  • Passive aggression: long stretches of sullen silence, failure to accomplish a simple task, a comment which on the face of it is innocent enough but conveys criticism, blame shifting and denying the truth are all typical examples.
  • Guilt tripping: manipulators will often use guilt as leverage. The manipulator may suggest that you are doing them harm by establishing boundaries or not putting their needs first.
  • Withdrawal: the manipulator will withhold affection to pressure the victim into abiding by their wishes.
  • Constant criticism and blaming: a manipulator may use criticism to undermine and lower your self-esteem and will often pass criticism off as being ‘just a joke’. The victim is blamed for their own hurt, as they ‘cannot take a joke’ and are by implication, simply being too sensitive or overreacting.
  • Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation. Through tactics such as denial, minimisation, blame shifting, accusations, distortion of memories or facts, downright lies and trivialising someone else’s feelings, the manipulator leaves their victim questioning themselves and what they think to be true or real.

What are the four stages of manipulation?

  1. Targeting: a manipulator will choose a target by looking at their strengths, weaknesses, and social connections. This is all information that the manipulator can use to gauge how that person may react and who to target.
  2. Flattery: The manipulator will often start off the relationship by presenting themselves as caring, kind and helpful. This makes them appear to be a wonderful partner and creates a sense of trust with the victim.
  3. Isolation: Once they have gained the victim’s trust, a manipulator will often seek to isolate that person from friends and family. This may be achieved by monopolising the victim’s time, making it impossible to make other plans, or by planting seeds of distrust or resentment to come between the victim and their wider support network.
  4. Devaluing and gaslighting: At this stage, the manipulator will chip away at the victim’s self-esteem, making them feel guilty but also unsure of their own mind and thoughts.

The very nature of manipulation makes it difficult to even realise you’re in a toxic relationship. By knowing the hallmarks of a manipulator, however, you may be able to spot the signs that all is not well – and that you’re not the problem.

What are the signs someone is manipulating you?

Small instances of manipulation may occur in everyday life, and they don’t necessarily make the relationship manipulative; however, if the behaviour is a repeated pattern, it is important to consider if your partner is manipulating you.

You may be in a manipulative relationship if:

  • Your partner will minimise your feelings and concerns
  • You are often told that you’re overreacting, or being dramatic
  • Your partner will say something hurtful but will pass it off as “just joking”
  • Your partner will trivialise your problems while making their own seem to be much worse
  • Your partner will say negative things about your friends and family regularly
  • Your partner will make statements like “everybody thinks so” when talking about your failings
  • Your partner often twists or denies facts, saying things like “that did not happen” even when you are sure it did, so that you begin to question your own perception or recollections
  • Your partner will often make you feel guilty to the point that you find yourself apologising without even knowing what you are apologising for
  • Your partner will give you the silent treatment for no apparent reason
  • Your partner is always right and you are wrong
  • Your partner will often start arguments, then blame them on you or suggest that your own behaviour pushed them to act that way
  • Your partner will position themselves as the victim, even if they started the argument or caused the problem

If you are concerned that you are the victim of emotional manipulation, it is important to reach out to a trusted friend or family member and share your worries. If you do not feel that you can trust anyone, or are worried about your concerns being raised with the individual in question, you can turn to us. Our family solicitors can offer advice and guidance on what to do next.

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Shaoli has been a solicitor at NLS for over two years, transitioning from a background in criminal law to full-time family law. Her experience as a Criminal Duty Solicitor has equipped her with unique skills that are invaluable in her current role.
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