Almost everyone has felt subject to manipulation at one time or another, but no one wants to think of themselves as a manipulative person. But some behaviors are so common, you could be engaging in emotional coercion without even realizing it. New York-based psychotherapist Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT, boils manipulative behavior down to, in its essence, “communicating in a roundabout way,” which can take many different forms, from the silent treatment to more subtle behaviors. Tactics of manipulation. Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS. Journal of personality and social psychology, 1987, Aug.;52(6):0022-3514. Essentially, it’s getting someone to do or think something without addressing it directly. “It’s strategic,” Hendrix says. “It’s taking my needs into consideration over theirs.”
The problem is that indirect communication can cause problems in personal relationships of all kinds, including with your family, love life, colleagues, and friend group. Irina Firstein, LCSW, a New York-based therapist who specializes in couples’ counseling, warns that habitual manipulative behavior can lead to bad blood over time because it may force the recipient to do things they don’t want to do by putting them in a position that’s hard to simply say no to. “When this happens frequently, it results in resentment,” she says.
Here are some habits that you could be guilty of, and better ways to navigate the situation, to improve the health of your relationships.
1. But wouldn’t you like... ?
One prime example of manipulative behavior comes in the form of “innocent” suggestion, Hendrix says, which is “when somebody suggests something instead of really saying what they’re feeling or thinking.” For instance, if you’re on your way to a friend’s and text them saying ,”Don’t you want some wine? I’ll pick up a bottle,” when perhaps your friend isn’t a big wine drinker, but the truth is, you could totally go for a glass or two. The tactic at play is making your own idea or desire seem like someone else’s, when a more genuine way to phrase your desires would simply be: “I think I want some wine with dinner; would you be interested?”
2. Totally up to you, but…
A similar habit is to present someone with a choice when you’ve already decided what you want. Hendrix gives the example of asking a friend which of two movies they’d rather see, then explaining why one option is better, but maintaining that the choice is still theirs. One potential phrasing for this false-choice scenario: “I’m totally open—but this movie is much more historical, and we could probably learn a lot.”
Presenting something as a choice when you’re hoping to push someone into a particular option is somewhat coercive. A more direct way to ask the same question is to be open about your own preferences: “I’m leaning toward this movie. What do you think?”
3. I forgot again (and again).
If you’ve ever, ahem, “forgotten” to do a shared task like a household chore because it was late, you were tired, or you just didn’t feel like it, you wouldn’t be alone.
But if you’re consistently leaving your partner or roommates with the dishes, or leaving your colleagues or classmates to pick up your slack with team projects, you may want to check yourself. Perpetually failing to pick up the slack with things that affect everyone is just unfair, and if you really are too tired or swamped, you should talk about it. “It’s better to honestly discuss what needs to be done and communicate about ways things can be handled,” Firstein says.
4. Promises, promises
Overpromising is another behavior Firstein identifies as one that can be manipulative. This could be in the form of overselling an event you want a friend to go to (“It’ll be incredible! Tyra Banks is on the guest list!”) or offering a bargain (“I’ll make dinner every night this week!”) without following through. But when your end of the deal isn’t upheld once you’ve heightened the expectations, the other person is going to be disappointed or angry, and might feel deceived. “Be direct, and if your friend or partner doesn’t want to do something, honestly explore what is going on.” Ask why, and most importantly, don’t try to strong-arm them into doing what you want.
5. I’ll just do it myself…
Casting oneself in the role of martyr can be a way to get others to do what you want, albeit an unhealthy way. If you pressure someone to do something in an indirect way that’s likely to induce guilt, that’s an ineffective way of asking for help when you need it, Hendrix says. Phrasing your needs like, “If you don’t do this, then something bad is going to happen, but it’s not big deal,” is manipulative, Hendrix says. First make sure your ask is as fair and reasonable as possible (i.e., did you give the person you’re asking enough lead time?), then be straightforward about what you need.
6. Radio silence
Believe it or not, saying nothing can be emotionally coercive as well. When you deal with a conflict, or even a feeling of being wronged that goes undiscussed by not talking about it, you leave the other person with few options other than to try to appease you.
“It’s often done to ‘break them down’ into an apology,” Firstein says. “It’s OK to take some time and cool off, but when it’s long, it can be manipulative, as it forces the other to give in.”
The irony is that this behavior often comes from a place of hurt. “People are unknowingly manipulative when they use silence as a weapon. It’s an ineffective way of dealing with the hurt,” Hendrix says. It’s always better to clear the air; that way, your friend or partner has a chance to explain their behavior without buckling to an apology that they might not feel is due, which can lead to resentment down the line.
Ariana DiValentino is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn. She is very, very worried. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.