How a Verbal Abuser Manipulates in Relationships

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Being manipulated by someone you care about is already a negative experience, but it's even worse when you don't realize it's happening. Verbal abusers are often masters of the craft; with tendencies to turn their wrongdoings around on you, it's not always easy to tell who's in the right. Sometimes, even the kindest actions can have underlying motivations that harm a relationship.

While verbal abuse may be obvious in cases of threats or shameful words, manipulation can be more deceitful (and intentionally hard to pick up on). Does it feel like the favors they do to help you are actually building an invisible list that says, "You owe me"? It might even be more subtle, like using their love to detract from a lack of effort in daily responsibilities. Some of the tactics that verbal manipulators use can be so discrete that we feel crazy for being upset—but these methods of communication are actually very common, and there are plenty of ways to tell if your partner's words are problematic for your well-being.

Below, read on to learn the signs of manipulation in relationships, and how to know when it's happening to you.

Psychological manipulation is the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits, and/or privileges at the victim’s expense.

You Feel Defensive

Imagine a scenario where you've completed all the chores or taken on responsibility for things your partner is expected to help you with. When everything is done, does your S.O. come home with excitement and thanks, or do they point out something that you missed?

This is an example of emotional manipulation. Rather than thanking you for your help, your partner focuses on your faults—and expects you to explain why you were wrong. This tactic is often used to make the manipulated partner feel like they need to defend their actions. It goes hand in hand with the "foot-in-the-door" technique: Making a small request that you agree to, followed by a larger (related) request.

"It’s harder to say no, because you’ve already said yes. The reversal turns your words around to mean something you didn’t intend," says expert Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT. "When you object, manipulators turn the tables on you so that they’re the injured party. Now it’s about them and their complaints, and you’re on the defensive." Pointing out things that are irrelevant to your current situation is a method for your partner to establish power over you.

GETTY IMAGES/ANCHALEE PHANMAHA
 GETTY IMAGES/ANCHALEE PHANMAHA

They Play the Victim

Verbal manipulators often find themselves in situations that are a direct result of their actions, but instead of recognizing their role, they play the victim. This "woe is me" line of thinking can prevent you from having the constructive conversations needed to solve problems in your relationship. If you try to address their behavior, you might be met with further assertions that your partner is not at fault—leading you to comfort them or drop the topic entirely when you're frustrated.

"Your compliance breeds your resentment, damages the relationship, and encourages continued manipulation," says Lancer. When your partner's behavior is repetitive, you may eventually tire of it to the point of agreeing just to end the conversation. While this tactic is the opposite of victim-blaming, the manipulator uses similar methods of guilt and shame to make the other person empathize when it's not warranted. "Guilt-tripping and shaming shift the focus [onto you, and] weaken you while the abuser feels superior…Martyrs use guilt when they say or imply 'After all I’ve done for you,' sometimes combined with criticism that you’re selfish or ungrateful."

Your compliance breeds your resentment, damages the relationship, and encourages continued manipulation.

They Avoid Their Commitments

If you're no stranger to difficult conversations, think about how your partner usually responds when disagreements come up. What's the goal of their communication? When you feel like your only role in the relationship is to serve their needs, both partners aren't sharing the emotional responsibilities equally.

They might expect that, as a couple, you'll only do the things they want to do—even spending time with people or visiting places which only they can choose. For example, if you've made plans to see your friends, spend time with family, or attend a work function, your partner should agree to come along in the same situations you'd join for them. "If you loved me, you wouldn't make me go," is a response that shows your partner's lack of interest in their commitments to you. That's not to say we can't pass on events from time to time—but avoiding your desires regularly could be a sign that they don't value your expectations.

"Some manipulators deny promises, agreements, or conversations, or start an argument and blame you for something you didn’t do to get sympathy and power. This approach can be used to break a date, promise, or agreement," says Lancer. When you love your partner, you might go out of your way to show it. What better way for them to shift the responsibility than to question how you feel?

They Lie or Change the Truth

Another method that verbal manipulators use to control their partners is gaslighting. Your partner might change the narrative of specific events, or convince you that what actually happened isn't the truth. "Perhaps the most common and strident trait of gaslighting is the invention of a false narrative by the gaslighter, which they utilize to brainwash, attack, belittle, discredit, and/or disempower their victim(s). Rather than basing assertions on facts, evidence, objectivity, and proof, the gaslighter’s accusations are often blatant lies or gross exaggerations," says expert Preston Ni, M.S.B.A.

Gaslighting is common with maintaining a "savior complex," Ni says, in which the gaslighter convinces the other person that they are the only one with real power over a situation. An example of playing the savior is one partner saying things like, "No one else will love you as much as I do," or "You could never survive without me." These tactics are an attempt to rob the other person of their individuality (and make them feel like they have no choice but to stay in the relationship). When your partner displays these behaviors, the objective is to gain control over your actions. It can damage your sense of autonomy, or even make you question your ability to make choices for yourself.

If you're concerned that your partner is manipulating you, it might be time to seek help or re-evaluate your relationship with them. Because of the nature of verbal abuse, it can be especially hard for victims to leave—but the first step is recognizing what you're dealing with. Reach out to friends and family to express what you're going through. Most importantly, remind yourself that it's not your fault: You have control over what you'll accept in a relationship.

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