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How to Deal Wisely With Manipulative People

By Timothy L. Sanford, MA, LPC
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We’ve all known manipulative people, whether they are friends, family, or our spouse. They’re the people who know how to push our buttons. They might scare, coerce, obligate, criticize, guilt trip, bribe, blame, undermine, intimidate, abuse. Or they flatter, offer sympathy, act innocent — but not with sincerity. It’s all emotional blackmail. It’s manipulation.


Note: This article gives a broad overview of emotional manipulation. But emotional manipulation in marriage can be more complex and needs to be addressed with great sensitivity and care. If you’re married and wondering about the differences between an unhealthy exchange and verbal or emotional abuse, we encourage you to read our article Signs of Emotional Abuse.

Any number of marital issues can lead to challenges or even hopelessness for one or both spouses. And getting a sense of direction often requires understanding underlying issues and relationship patterns that led to the crisis. Reach out to our licensed counselors even if you’re the only person in the marriage willing to take action at this time. They can guide you as you take your first steps toward recovery.


The word manipulate isn’t in the Bible. Still, the behavior was as common thousands of years ago as it is today. Consider the book of Genesis: We only have to look at the stories of how Satan got Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness, at how Rebecca and Jacob tricked Isaac and Esau, at how Joseph’s brothers bullied him to the point of slavery. (And those are only a few examples from just one book in Scripture!)

In each case, the manipulators were trying to benefit at the expense of their victims. And that’s never changed. All humans are born into sin, so we all can be tempted to do whatever it takes to get our own way; we’re selfish. To make sure that we treat others well and that we respond wisely to people who try to manipulate us, we need to understand some basic principles:

What is manipulation?

In short, manipulation is a counterfeit way of getting our needs met.

We all have legitimate needs for physical survival and emotional wellbeing. And healthy people know how to ask appropriately for what they need and how to interact with others toward a good outcome for everyone. However, manipulative people underhandedly try to influence someone to reach their ulterior motive. And manipulation involves control and coercion.

  • Manipulate: Control or coerce another person by artful, unfair, or insidious (harmful but enticing) ways, especially to one’s own advantage.

  • Control: Not allow another person to choose their own action or response by overpowering them in some way.

  • Coerce: Achieve one’s own desires by bullying, restraining, or dominating another person.

Why manipulation is wrong

At the beginning of human history, God placed Adam and Eve in a garden. They could eat of any tree except one. Fast forward to that moment in Genesis 3 when God watches Adam and Eve walk toward that forbidden tree, listens to them talking about the fruit, watches them take a bite … and doesn’t stop them.

Why didn’t He? Because God allows humans to freely choose for themselves. (You’ve probably heard Christians talk about God’s sovereignty and human free will.)

Manipulation is an attempt to take away someone’s free will and replace it with our own selfish desires or twisted motives — and to do it in a way that completely disregards the value and dignity of the other person. Manipulation shows contempt for God’s Word and His creation:

  • You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)

  • Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12)

  • Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)

When we know and follow Christ, it’s our joy to love others in ways that are committed, sacrificial, honest, courageous, grace-filled, healing, and everlasting. Do we do it perfectly? No. But God makes it clear: He won’t manipulate, control, or coerce human beings into obedience. And neither should we.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the reality that some people do.

Why people manipulate

People can be manipulative because of their own woundedness, pain, or immaturity. They tend to anxiously react rather than freely relate. They lack the necessary relational skills needed for healthy interactions. They either never learned or have refused self-awareness, humility, empathy, and a willingness to take responsibility for their own actions. Manipulating is the only way they know how to relate to others.

Then there are those who rely on others to fix things, pay, or cover for them so they don’t have to be responsible. Along those lines, some people have a character disorder and enjoy manipulating others — even to the point of hurting them. (A character disorder is “a disorder characterized by socially undesirable behavior, as poor control of impulses or inability to maintain close emotional relationships, and by absence of anxiety or guilt.”)

Manipulative people may have different reasons behind their actions, but they usually fall into three basic categories or styles:  

  • Master. This person comes across as the one in charge, and it’s your job to do what they want without question — because, they say, It’s for your own good. They tend to be pushy and easily angered. They’re a bully. Force is their primary tactic — but they might also sweet-talk you into submission with mesmerizing charm.

  • Savior (enabler, rescuer, messiah). This person has done something for you and believes that, because they “saved” you (from whatever), you owe them a debt of gratitude forever and are expected to do things their way. To make you feel guilty and bend to their will, they usually use you should comments followed by reminders of things they’ve done for you. And like the master, the savior personality might also leverage the phrase, It’s for your own good.

  • Victim. This person is often overlooked as manipulative because they’re the poor me individual. Victims know that there’s a lot of power in appearing powerless. Yes, something legitimately bad could have happened to them — but their primary tactic is to use that as an excuse to get you to give in to their wishes and demands.

Regardless of the manipulator’s style, their script is the same: They command the action you’re supposed to take, and you’re supposed to do what they want without pushing back. If you notice that pattern in any of your interactions, you may be in an unhealthy relationship with a manipulative person.

Signs you’re being manipulated

“Emotional manipulators are typically very skillful,” writes Travis Bradberry, Ph.D. “They start out with subtle manipulation and raise the stakes over time, so slowly that you don’t even realize it’s happening.” So, what should you watch for? Bradberry suggests nine signs of an emotional manipulator:

  • They undermine your faith in your grasp of reality.
  • Their actions don’t match their words.
  • They are experts at doling out guilt.
  • They claim the role of the victim.
  • They are too much, too soon.
  • They are an emotional black hole.
  • They eagerly agree to help — and maybe even volunteer — then act like a martyr.
  • They always one-up you.
  • They know all your buttons and don’t hesitate to push them.

That’s not an exhaustive list, of course. And it’s notalways easy to recognize when a person is trying to manipulate or control you; the more devious a manipulator is, the harder it is to recognize their end game.

Nevertheless, because manipulation is so destructive, it’s important to have a general sense of what to look for. (But be careful not to assume that somebody who’s boisterous and animated is trying to coerce you. They might simply have an outgoing personality.)

The impact of being manipulated

Having another person take, or try to take, your freedom by retaliation, projection, or gaslighting (abusive behavior that makes you question your sanity) can have a hugely negative impact on you — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You may develop:

  • Increased mental stress and physical fatigue.
  • Depression or anxiety.
  • Compromised self-confidence, which can lead you to doubt yourself.
  • A threatened sense of reality, which can make you think you’re going crazy.
  • Feelings of helplessness or shame.
  • Unhealthy, self-soothing behaviors to deal with stress and fatigue.

Whether manipulation is in the form of physical abuse or threats, verbal put-downs or name calling, trying to guilt you into doing what they want, or gaslighting, you need to put a stop to it.

How to stop being manipulated

If you think you might be in a relationship with someone who’s trying to manipulate you, we suggest you follow these steps:

  1. Be aware and open-minded. Ask yourself, Is this person truly attempting to override my choice and make me act the way they want? Keep in mind that there’s a difference between exhortation (strong encouragement) and manipulation.

    Exhortation is when someone speaks truth to you that’s sincerely for your benefit, and then lets you to make your own decision. They accept and respect your final decision even if they disagree.

    Manipulation is when someone tells you something that may be truthful, but it’s ultimately for their benefit. The key here is that they won’t let you make your own decision and won’t accept or respect your final decision. They’ll keep pressing until you make the decision they want you to make.

  2. Get input from a licensed Christian counselor. This is especially important if the manipulator is your spouse or relative. A counselor can help you identify underlying personal issues you might need to address, and they’ll walk you through the best ways to navigate your interactions with the other person. An outside perspective can help you see things more clearly.

  3. Ask yourself: Is this person safe enough (physically, verbally, emotionally) to confront, or will there be negative backlash against me if I do?

    Confronting a person one-on-one is the best way to approach disagreements between two people (see Matthew 18:15-17). But if the person is not safe or you’re not sure, follow the advice of Proverbs 9:7-8 and don’t confront them; things will likely get thrown back in your face and blamed on you. Here again, a counselor’s input can be important.

  4. Set and enforce healthy boundaries. Stop playing by the manipulator’s script. Boundaries keep you from being harmed, and they have consequences for the people who try to cross them. The more destructive the manipulation is, the stronger the boundary must be. 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 manipulative behaviors cease.

    Not sure where to start? Listen to our broadcast with Gary Thomas titled “Setting Boundaries in Toxic Relationships” (Part 1 and Part 2). We’ve also listed more resources at the end of this article.

What to expect when you stop playing along

When you stop following the manipulator’s script, you can expect one of three things to happen:

  • They will be upset for a while but will eventually own up to their behavior and make changes in their personal life. Manipulation will stop. This is the best outcome — the one we hope and pray for.

  • The person will become a worse version of themselves. They’ll become more forceful, more verbally degrading, or they will increase pressure on you to make you back down, return to the script, and do what they tell you. You might even see all three styles of manipulation in the same person as they work to get what they want: The master turns into the savior who becomes the victim who changes into the master who turns into the savior … and the cycle repeats.

    It’s always possible that this person will change, but not likely. That’s why you need to a good support system.

  • The person becomes a worse version of themselves and becomes dangerous physically and relationally. They may try to ruin you financially, even file trumped-up charges against you. Because you won’t do what they want, they make every effort to hurt you in some way. These people can be extremely dangerous, and you will need emotional support — and likely legal protection — to weather the storm.

    Thankfully, this type of fallout isn’t as common, but you still need to plan ahead and stay safe. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org. Your safety is the most important thing, and the hotline can help.

Where to find more help

We live in a broken, fallen world with hurting people. We must be discerning with those in the community, our workplace, our church, our families, and our marriages. And as much as it depends on us, we should live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).

At the same time, we need to be perceptive, especially with a manipulative person. Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

Would you like to better understand what that means? If you or someone you know is struggling with a manipulative relationship, call our Counseling department for a free over-the-phone consultation. One of our licensed or pastoral counselors would be glad to hear your story, help you make sense of your situation, and offer suggestions for next steps. They can also point you to professional Christian counselors closer to home. In the meantime, dig into the resources and articles below.

Resources

Boundaries
Boundaries in Dating
Boundaries in Marriage
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage
The Controlling Husband
Men Who Love Fierce Women
Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse
Mending the Soul
No More Bullies
When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic People
Reclaiming Hope and Safety in a Destructive Marriage
Harnessing Your Strength to Transform Your Marriage
Directing Your Strong Will to Improve Your Relationships
Finding Hope in the Midst of Domestic Violence (Part 1 and Part 2)
Marital Challenges (resource list)
Healing From Emotional, Verbal, Physical, & Spiritual Abuse (resource list)

Articles

Understanding Emotional Abuse
How to Know If You’re in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
Setting Boundaries to Create Safety
Signs of Emotional Abuse
Help! Is My Spouse Manipulating Me?
My Spouse Is Verbally and Emotionally Abusive
Emotional Abuse in the Local Church
Healing the Wounds of Emotional Abuse
Emotional Safety in a Troubled Marriage
Setting Godly Boundaries in Marriage
FAQs About Abuse
Codependency: What Is It?

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About the Author

Timothy L. Sanford, MA, LPC

Tim Sanford is a licensed professional counselor and the Clinical Director of Counseling Services for Focus on the Family’s counseling department. He is also a pastor, a public speaker and the author of several books, the most recent being Forgive for Real: Six Steps to Forgiving. Tim and his wife Becky have two grown daughters and reside in Colorado.

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