Amateur manipulators are fairly obvious in their tactics: They slather on guilt. They goad you into doing things for them. They whine, wheedle and try to force their way. If you give in, it's because your partner wore you down, not because he or she fooled you. This is annoying, but at least it can be easily detected.
With expert manipulators, it is much harder to put your finger on what is wrong. Your significant other may make a compelling argument. But a little voice in your head says something is off. In such situations, it is important to listen for tone, attitude and approach as well as words.
Here are some common forms of manipulation:
Uses money, gifts or favors for control: Manipulation may come wrapped in conditional presents or favors: "I gave you that lovely gift, so now you must do this for me." Other people tightly control the purse strings to force their partner to be economically dependent. It is certainly thoughtful to scratch someone else's back when they scratch yours. However, a real favor is not offered in the spirit of, "What can I get in exchange for this?"
Makes you feel guilty for spending time with others: It's natural for your significant other to want to spend time with you. It's not natural for someone who "loves" you to systematically deny you other close relationships.
Plays the "If you really love me …" game: It's a predictable ploy. When you don't do exactly what your partner wants, he or she may insist it is because you really don't love him or her. This forces you to "prove" your affection by abandoning your own wishes, even when those wishes are perfectly reasonable. But the proof of your devotion is in your ongoing respect toward your partner, not accommodating his/her every whim.
Uses sexual coercion: You should never be forced into sexual situations you are uncomfortable with, nor should your partner withhold intimacy simply to get his or her way.
Makes you feel bad about yourself: Put-downs and backhanded compliments are intended to keep you in a state of perpetual self-doubt. Creating insecurity in others can make manipulators feel more secure.
Threatens self or others: When all else fails, manipulators may resort to threats of suicide or violence. Such a threat likely stems from something far deeper than the relationship itself and may require professional counseling or intervention. If your partner's manipulation is accompanied by violence or threats of violence, seek help immediately.
Ordinary manipulation often can be diffused simply by 1) exposing the manipulation and 2) refusing to bow to it. Say something like, "I'm not comfortable with how you are approaching this situation. I'd like to hear your candid thoughts, needs and concerns. Then we can discuss how this decision affects both of us and how best to respond."
With manipulators, consistency is more important than showy displays of independence. If you regularly resist your partner's efforts to control you, he or she will eventually learn that your boundaries cannot be trampled.
Manipulators are not just trying to make you into someone you are not. They are usually trying to be someone they are not - someone who cannot be hurt by others. Individuals with pronounced manipulative tendencies may need professional help to understand what is triggering their need for control.