Emotional manipulation is always something that someone else does, right? We often attach labels to the offending person, with “crazy ex“ serving as a particularly popular prefix to the boss, wife, boyfriend, etc. whose behavior created havoc for our lives. Even as we learn to recognize it in somebody else, often after years of resenting the person without really understanding why, we fail to own all of the ways in which we too are emotional manipulators. Surprise! We all do it to an extent. Here’s a breakdown of why this occurs and how we can recognize and kick this destructive habit.
The origins of emotional manipulation are actually quite innocent. Infants learn to express needs through actions long before they have language abilities. They cry, they fuss, they coo, all as expressions of need and affirmation or negation of its fulfillment. They need our love and our protection, and they ask for it in the only way they can. We each began understanding and conditioning the world around us through the only means we had (after all, infants aren’t so much Machiavellian as they are wanting of a clean diaper, food, sleep, etc.)
As children develop, they learn that certain behaviors are associated with desired reactions from caregivers. Any parent who’s given in to a pouty tween and bought the ridiculous thing that the child wanted but didn’t need understands how this works. The child comes to understand, as well. By acting in a certain way: pouting, screaming, weeping, smiling, cheering, or whatever else, she or he learns exactly what buttons to push to get a desired response.
Even children who live in neglectful or abusive homes learn these skills. In these cases, survival can mean learning how to elicit a parent’s guilt, limited affection, or whatever other positive emotions exist in a climate of scarcity. Even a parent’s anger is a form of attention to an especially lonely child.
Do you see how foundational the skill of emotional manipulation truly is?
The problem for adult relationships is that people don’t learn to verbally express their needs merely as a rite of passage from adolescence. Whereas verbal skills play a progressively larger role in our interactions, we tend to use them poorly in our engagements with others. This is one of the chief barriers I see when I counsel couples. Consider this example:
Laura and Chris have been married for some time. Laura wants Chris to mow the lawn today and determines that she must prompt him to do so. Instead of stating her wish directly and talking with him about household responsibilities, she opts for a deep sigh that’s followed by, “Don’t worry about the lawn. I’ll do it when I get home tomorrow night after picking the kids up and fixing dinner.”
Not to be outdone, Chris retorts with a clipped, “I was kind of hoping that after working 12 days straight so we can pay off those new countertops you wanted, I might be able to rest for one day. Don’t worry about me, though. I’ll mow the lawn!”
Do you see what happened? Rather than engaging in a necessary dialogue about how to care for their home and lawn, both Laura and Chris used emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping in this case, to express their needs.
We can see that this isn’t an easy situation to fix. Managing a household on limited financial and physical resources is hard work, but it’s certainly something a couple working together can figure out how to do. Laura and Chris are making their life together infinitely harder though by using emotional manipulation, the inevitable outcome for which is resentment. Once resentment exists in a relationship, it spreads like a cancer and creates many additional problems.
Don’t be like Laura and Chris.
Instead, when noticing that tendency to use a behavior like sulking or yelling to get a response, or trying to otherwise get your needs met by eliciting a person’s guilt, anger, frustration, or other emotion, consider what you really want and why. Do you have a real need that’s associated with the matter, or it is it really about something else (control, for example)? Spend some time with that.
Once you’ve clarified what’s important to you and why, you can think about how and when to ask for what you need. A good rule of thumb (from the good folks at Alcoholics Anonymous) is to never take action when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. You’ve got it. HALT! It’s best as well not to seek things from others who are experiencing these conditions.
Nobody wants to be thought of as an emotional manipulator, for each of us understands how manipulation feels on the receiving end. Even still, does it ever feel especially good to manipulate? There’s perhaps an affirmation of power or control. Although seductive, control is elusive. How much happier we can be when we make a concerted decision to deal honestly with our relationships, stating our intentions and needs as clearly as we can, and creating opportunities to have real dialogue and connection with the people around us.
We’ve each had a lifetime of learning how to manipulate others’ emotions in order to get our own needs met. By clarifying the how, what, and why of our needs, we can cease this destructive pattern. We can also spend a lot less time pouting and hinting at what we want and then getting angry at the other person for failing to guess correctly. This doesn’t generally go too well.