How do you realize you’re being manipulated in a relationship?

Psychological manipulation involves influencing someone's thinking, emotions and behavior by some hidden and even abusive methods in order to serve the manipulator’s interests. Of course, living in interdependence, we are all influenced by others, but in this article I will not discuss about the positive mutual influence as a component of any constructive relationship, but of a certain form of manipulation where the person's reality becomes so distorted that they begin to question their memories, perceptions, judgment, and even their own mental health. This is called "gaslighting," and the term is inspired by a movie from 1944 named "Gaslight" where a husband manipulates his wife to make her think she has lost her mind.

The manipulator systematically induces to the victim a sense of confusion and anxiety trying to make them unable to function independently, to lose their psychological and emotional balance and self-confidence in order to gain control and full power over them.

This extreme form of manipulation is perhaps more common than we would have expected, especially in couple relationships. It's actually a psychological and emotional abuse. Why would anyone do that? The question is of course rhetorical. As there are beautiful and harmonious relationships, but also self-conscious people who constantly seek to evolve and overcome their weaknesses, there are also toxic and dysfunctional relationships, and people who think that a relationship means trying to dominate your partner by any possible means in order to serve their selfish interests.

Such an example is when she only dedicates herself to her family and children, but at some point she decides she wants to pursue an older dream. To continue her studies and start a career. When he finds out this news, he gets angry and complains that she is a terrible wife and mother. That she abandons her family, that she is selfish and that he offers them everything they need anyway. Later in a different discussion, when she tries to clarify things and tells him that she doesn’t feel supported, on the contrary, he disregards her feelings and tells her in a soft tone that she exaggerates, that he has always supported her, that he has offered her everything she needed, but he thinks of what’s best for her, that she will always be tired and she will not have the time for what is really important for her, plus that in the current society there are so many professionals doing what she would like to do and she would put herself at many unnecessary risks that would harm her health.

We are therefore talking about a type of manipulation where he tries to make her doubt her own choices and wishes in order not to lose the advantages of the present situation.

How can you tell you're being manipulated?

This form of manipulation begins with certain psychological games through which the abuser misleads you, causing you to no longer trust your ability to perceive reality as it is. You often feel confused and start doubting the truth you know - you know things have happened in a certain way, but the one who tries to manipulate you comes and tells you "it’s all in your head", "it didn’t happenned like that, "" you're exaggerating. " Actually, they try to turn things in their favor so that you look like the irrational or "crazy" one. When confronted, they often have a false benevolent attitude, they want to seem rational and assertive to give you the idea that they are in control, they master the situation, that they are right and you are wrong. They want to show you they care, and precisely because they want what’s best for you they try to bring you "on the right path." What they actually do is that they disregard your feelings and take advantage of your weaknesses.

When you know you’re right but the other person tells you every time “it isn’t so”, “I didn’t say that”, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, “You’re wrong”, “You imagine things”, when they accuse you being too sensitive or emotional, making a big deal out of nothing,  getting angry and upset for no reason , you start doubting yourself more and more. You even start thinking  that you are too sensitive, that you are not entitled to feel what you feel. The goal is for you to lose your confidence, to think that you are the one who is wrong so that you stop having the courage to resist abuses, and more than that, to stop perceiving them as abuses. To trust them and what they say and to doubt yourself and what you think. Perhaps they have induced you the idea that they are always right or that they know better and that others are wrong so that they become that person to return to when you need confirmation, when you have doubts. Therefore, you become easy to control and silenced.

With time, you feel increasingly insecure and fearful, you feel like something is wrong with you, and you are more and more afraid to say what you think or express your emotions. You feel like you don’t know who you are, as if you lost your identity. You can no longer trust your judgment. You begin to believe what you are told to believe and behave as you are told to behave. You feel weaker and less confident than you were in the past, and it's hard for you to make decisions, be they minor. Thus, you always seek other's approval and you always live with the fear of being wrong again. Because you have been reproached too often that you make mistakes, that you are not doing things right, that you are wrong. You begin to apologize for almost anything - to avoid another conflict, to avoid reproaches, because you feel guilty.

You are tormented with uncertainties because, although you feel something is wrong, you can’t figure out what. You think you have a problem. You start analyzing the facts again, but you can’t reach any conclusion. In a way you know you're right, but you remember all those words: "you exaggerate," "you're wrong," "you're too sensitive," "you imagine things." You don’t know anymore what’s real and what’s not because the abuser has diminished your confidence so much that you have even come to believe that you are the crazy, exaggerated or the broken one.

You start to feel that you can’t do anything right, that you aren’t good enough. You feel more and more sad and depressed, misunderstood and hopeless. You even blame yourself for not being able to enjoy the things you enjoyed before, for not being like you were before because something has certainly changed. You are confused, restless, you feel lost, ashamed and guilty, and for this reason you tend to isolate yourself. You avoid talking to others about these things that you can’t even understand.

Near the abuser you have a seemingly inexplicable feeling of fear, somehow you feel threatened and in danger without realizing why. You can’t trust yourself, but you can’t trust them either. You are torn by an intrapsychic conflict.

You feel something is wrong, but it's hard to believe that this is really the case, because you can’t even tell exactly what this is about. Because you feel in danger, you use some defense strategies, such as becoming attached to the aggressor - when we are babies, we see the world as a frightening place, and in order to adapt we need to create an attachment bond with our caregiver, just to feel protected from the dangers that threaten the integrity of our self. But this attachment figure (generally the mother) can be both the one who protects you and the one who hurts you. From a psychological point of view, in order to get rid of the imminent feeling of disintegration, as a defense mechanism, you are looking for protection in the very same person who hurts you. So when we are repeatedly abused in order to cope with the trauma, we return from a psychological point of view in our childhood (we regress), when we defended ourselves from the dangers felt by attaching to our mother, but this time the attachment figure is the aggressor. And the fact that you are attached to the one who harms you makes you impossible to leave. In this case, you must obey the abuser's wishes, denying yourself, and going to have to compromise. You become inauthentic, you don’t know who you are anymore, you gradually start to give up your values, your beliefs, your needs. You are treated with disrespect and disregarded, but occasionally praised and appreciated, to make you think that the situation isn’t that bad. And exactly in those moments the guilt and the doubts arise: "How could I think he/she doesn’t love me / doesn’t care for me / doesn’t appreciate me / is a bad person?" In fact, these praises, if you think about it, are addressed to you only when you please them, when you sacrifice yourself  for them / when you do something in their interest even if this is to your detriment. It’s like remaining trapped into a spiderweb.

What can be done?

Take into consideration facts more than words. When you are confronted with a person who tries to manipulate you, to convince you of things that you know are not as they claim, trust your reason and confront those words with evidence from reality. As much as they try to distort reality, remember that facts speak above all else - any momentary emotions that can be induced by the exploitation of your weaknesses.

Notice the moments when you start to feel confused, when you start to question your own reality, to doubt your inner truth. What words, actions, and situations trigger that? Do you notice a pattern? What is that? Is the other one trying to convince you of something? What do you think is the purpose? How do you think he / she would benefit from it? Do you really think you are wrong, or is that person just trying to convince you of a truth that you don’t see it as truth to better serve their own interests?

Find ways to keep anchoring yourself more and more. It doesn’t seem much, but self-confidence is regained step by step when you start doing things that you want, which bring you joy, that make you feel useful and proud that you have done them - things through which you  prove to yourself that you respect yourself. Why is this so important? Because when you don’t trust your abilities and judgment, you don’t have the courage to defend yourself in front of others, to set limits and boundaries - you are like a leaf carried away by the wind, ready to be crushed at any time. You let yourself be influenced by others, you  follow them, you meet their needs and claims to the point where you lose yourself.

If you realize that you’re being manipulated and used, whether we are talking about a professional or a personal relationship, think about whether it’s worth continuing. Yes, I know you’re afraid. Yes, I know you don’t trust that you will make the best decision. But what you live right now is worth your investment? And what are you investing in? In more suffering?

Stop shutting yourself into your shell, find the courage to talk to someone you trust who can help you, seek professional help, anything you need to get yourself out of this vicious circle.

Stop seeing yourself as a victim, within lays the power to take your life in your own hands, even if you aren’t aware of that. Believe me, you can get over that too. People have an incredible power to cope with and overcome the most dreadful life experiences!

Think realistically, choose wisely, trust yourself and your decisions as I know you once did and remember that everything that links you to this present, to this abusive relationship, although I know it's hard for you to accept it, are just some fleeting emotions or destructive attachments.

You can and you deserve more than that!

Dr. Ursula Sandner




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