An Examination of Emotional Manipulation

My husband brings in the mail. “There’s a letter for you,” he informs me. “Who is it from?” I ask. “It’s from your parents,” he says, and puts it on the table in front of me. I look at my mother’s handwriting, and my heart rate starts to rise. I feel my stomach twist, and I want to do anything but open that letter.

My cell phone rings and I look down at it. It’s my mother calling. I feel my pulse rising and I mentally ask myself if there’s anything she could have heard from a friend or sibling, anything she might have seen on facebook, any reason I might be in trouble. My stomach tightens, and though I want to do anything but, I answer the phone.

The funny thing is, today nine times out of ten the letter contains nothing troubling at all. Nine times out of ten, the phone call is completely innocuousness. But I’ve been burned too many times for that to matter. I know what my parents are capable of doing to my sanity, and to my heart.

The period of time that I lived at home between when I started asking questions and when I left home was pure torture. The tears, the pleas, the anger – it was emotional manipulation laid on strong. In the period between when I left home and when I married this problem continued. Phone conversations meant tears followed by a week of jolted emotions, and letters were pure agony. I responded by never calling home, and sometimes I would leave letters unopened for days. My parents didn’t stop, because they believed it was their responsibility to bring me back – especially because they believed that even as an adult I was still under my father’s authority.

When I married, that all changed dramatically. The heavy stream of emotional manipulation lessened as they no longer believed that I owed them any obedience – now, they believed, I must obey my husband. In some ways, marriage was a way for me to escape. My parents do still apply the emotional manipulation, but in some sense I am now sheltered from it by my husband. (This is of course ironic, as my husband is in no way my head and we have a marriage based on equality and mutual respect.)

I think part of the reason I haven’t yet addressed the topic of emotional manipulation head on is that have very little experience with how a functional family operates. While I don’t remember facing heavy doses of emotional manipulation until I started asking questions (before this I had done my best to be everything they wanted), there was still an odd sort of enforced conformity. There was only so much difference allowed in belief and practice, and if you crossed this line you were seen as a problem. Sometimes that meant parental action, and other times it meant spontaneous shaming by the rest of the family. I made sure to never cross this line – and honestly, I never wanted to – but I saw what happened when some of my siblings tried to. Then came college, where I crossed this line in a big way.

Another reason I haven’t addressed this directly is that my parents are great people. Sometimes I’m not sure they’re even aware of how what they say affects me. I don’t think they sit around strategizing about how to emotionally manipulate me, it just sort of happens. And amazingly, it’s done in some way out of love. There’s also the reality that they think their way is functional and any other way is dysfunctional. Those parents that let their kids choose their own beliefs? Those parents that let their daughters take the lead in their romantic relationships? Those families that let their kids have secrets, and don’t demand complete transparency? Those parents are failing their kids. So it’s not that my parents are doing what they do out of malice or ill will, and this makes grappling with it complicated.

While the intensity of the emotional manipulation has lessened in the years since my marriage, it hasn’t disappeared completely. Last spring my mother hijacked a phone conversation to bring up the past. She twisted my brain into a pretzel, put my heart through a shredder, and left me in a tail spin that lasted several weeks.

What is emotional manipulation? Put most simply, it’s any time someone uses your emotions as a weapon against you. If you finish a conversation feeling like an emotional wreck, or feel emotionally drained after reading an email, chances are you’ve been emotionally manipulated.  If you start to dread time alone with someone for fear of where conversations might go and what might be said, you’re probably dealing with an emotional manipulator.

My experience with emotional manipulation comes from my relationship with my parents, but most everyone experiences some level of manipulation from someone at some point in their lives. Emotional manipulators exist around us in a variety of contexts, and we have to learn how to deal with them. What follows is an analysis of some of the ways my parents have emotionally manipulated me over the years, but these sorts of statements and tactics are more universal than anyone would like to admit.

Guilt

“Can’t you see all the pain you’re causing your father and I?”

“Remember everything we sacrificed for you!”

If someone can turn any issue around into how you’re hurting them, you’re dealing with emotional manipulation. An emotional manipulator can twist any situation to make themselves out as the victim, and you out as the aggressor.

Intimidation

“I’ve been around longer than you have.”

“Let’s go to a coffee shop for some alone time. There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”

Emotional manipulators are very good at looking down on and cornering their victims. They assert that they are older, stronger, wiser, thus putting down anything you might think or say. The cornering effect is also very powerful – if you’ve ever found yourself stuck alone in a car with an emotional manipulator, you know what I mean.

Dismissal

“Don’t you remember when you said/promised X?”

“You may say that, but in your heart you know that what we’ve taught you is true.”

“You’re just following physical pleasure and your pagan peers.”

Emotional manipulators will hold you to anything you’ve ever said, even if you said it years and years ago, and deny your ability to change, form your own beliefs, and grow as a person. An emotional manipulator may even view you as frozen at age 14. Furthermore, an emotional manipulator may pretend to have the ability to read your mind, and deny that you have any agency or ability to make choices for yourself. An emotional manipulator uses these tactics to dismiss your views, experiences, and perspectives.

Conditions and Threats

“Unless you do X things will never be right between us.”

“I’m worried about the kind of example you’re setting for your siblings.”

In healthy relationships, there are no threats or conditions set, but the emotional manipulator is not above such tactics. In a healthy relationship there is give and take, cooperation and attempts at mutual understanding and mutual problem solving. This is where the conditions emotional manipulators set are so pernicious: they’re completely one sided, and they contain implicit threats.

Tears and Anger

“We still love you.”

Emotional manipulators are not above using tears and great emotion in order to rip your heart into little pieces. And they do it because it is very effective. The other side of the coin, of course, is anger. My father has only once ever yelled at me, but it was traumatic enough that the threat of such anger now colors my every interaction with my father, whether he realizes it or not.

So, what to do?

One thing I’ve learned is that pointing out the emotional manipulation to an emotional manipulator does not always work. I’ve tried, and my mother’s response was that I “clearly have a guilty conscience.” Yes, that’s right: she essentially told me that if the emotional manipulation is working, it shows that she’s in the right and I’m in the wrong. So unless you are dealing with a one time offender, approaching an emotional manipulator with his or her emotional manipulation in all likelihood isn’t going to do any good.

Furthermore, emotional manipulation works as well as it does because the emotional manipulator generally knows every weakness of his or her victim, and is a master at using these weaknesses to elicit a response. The most successful emotional manipulators are frequently someone close to you, a parent, a sibling, or a significant other, and this closeness and intimacy only makes it worse. So it’s not enough to say “just stop letting it bother you.” Sometimes, such as in the case of an emotionally abusive boyfriend, the solution is to leave the relationship entirely. Other times the solution may involve putting distance between yourself and your abuser and cutting out the intimacy. When emotional manipulation is inflicted by a relative, though, simply cutting off the relationship is rarely an option (though that might be necessary in extreme situations).

How, then, is one to cope with emotional manipulation? I don’t have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination, as I’m still figuring this out myself, but I’ll offer a few tips that I’ve gleaned over time.

First, realize that the guilt tripping is completely illegitimate. When my mother speaks of the pain I have caused her, and cries as she does so, I have to remind myself that none of this is my fault. I haven’t caused her any pain, her beliefs and her unfair expectations have caused her pain. It’s not my fault, and I am not responsible for her pain.

Second, it takes two to tango. Some time ago I told my mother that I did not think conversations on X, Y, and Z topics were healthy for us. When she brings them up, I will refuse to discuss them. If she won’t stop trying, I can always walk away and hang up. After all, it takes two to carry on a conversation. The same goes for being cornered – I make sure to never be alone with my mother, and to always have a sibling or two around as a buffer.

Third, you don’t have to be completely transparent about everything. This has taken me time to realize, because I grew up in a family where no thoughts were personal and everything was up for conversation. But the truth is, there’s no rule saying I have to tell my parents about my political leanings, or what I think of their conception of God, or what my future plans are.

Fourth, actions have consequences. My mother thinks she can say anything she wants to me because I’m her daughter and can’t ever stop being her daughter, but the truth is, actions do have consequences. My therapist suggested I try saying “mom, when we talk about that, it makes me not want to call home,” or “mom, when you say things like that, it makes the idea of coming for a visit unattractive.” It’s not a threat, it’s a mere statement of fact, and a way to make my mother aware of the consequences her actions do have.

Fifth, remember that you have every right to form your own beliefs and to make your own decisions. And you know what? You don’t have to justify them! There is no rule that says you have to prove anything to anyone, least of all to an emotional manipulator.

While my parents have decreased the level of emotional manipulation since my wedding, I have also gained more confidence and learned to better identify and diffuse emotional manipulation when it does happen. This is not always an even process, and I experience moments of elation when I think I can take on the world and moments of weakness when I feel like retreating into a bunker and never going out again. But on average, I’m maturing and growing and learning to deal with my parents in a more healthy manner.

Feel free to offer any additional tips you might have on dealing with emotional manipulation, as well as additional tactics emotional manipulators use. This is an important topic, and the more knowledge and understanding about it there is, the better.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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