Spotting them is harder than you might think.
Have you heard the cautionary tale about the frog boiling to death? The story goes that if you put a frog into boiling water, it will jump out immediately – but if you put a frog in lukewarm water and slowly heat it up, the frog will die, having never noticed as the water got hotter.
Being in a manipulative relationship is a little bit like that.
If you were to meet someone who was controlling, didn’t trust you, told you what to do all the time, and made you feel terrible about yourself, there’s no way you’d fall in love with them and start a relationship. But if you meet someone who seems wonderful, fall in love, and jump right into a commitment, you might not notice when things start to get scary.
It starts slowly, and the signs can be easy to miss, but over time, you could find yourself feeling miserable and trapped, and unsure how it even happened. So if any of the following sounds familiar, beware…
1. You feel confused most of the time
Manipulators are very good at keeping people off balance. One of their classic moves is gaslighting – that is, making you feel like you’re going crazy, when they’re the ones driving you there. Psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker tells PsychCentral that gaslighting is “when false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.” Here’s how to know if you’re being gaslighted. But in general, if your partner makes you feel like you’re being oversensitive or unreasonable, that’s gaslighting – and it’s manipulative.
2. Your partner doesn’t trust you
Looking at your phone, reading your emails, poking their nose into your journal – manipulative partners will do all these things, then try to convince you that couples shouldn’t have secrets from each other, and what they’re doing is normal. But having a partner shouldn’t mean losing your privacy. In a healthy relationship, people respect each other’s boundaries and allow each other to have their own lives. Insisting on sharing everything and having access to your social media, emails, and texts is a sign that your partner doesn’t trust you. And without trust, a relationship can’t thrive.
3. You’re always saying you’re sorry
If you find yourself constantly asking forgiveness for things you’ve supposedly done wrong, watch out. A manipulative partner will make you feel like everything is your fault, and put you on the defensive when you don’t even know what you did. In any relationship, people mess up; love definitely does mean saying you’re sorry, and probably on a regular basis. But both of you should be willing to admit that you screwed up, not just one of you all the time. Manipulators don’t like to ever admit fault, and while they may offer an “I’m sorry you feel that way,” they’ll never actually say, “I’m sorry.”
4. Your friends miss you
When you’re in a relationship with a manipulator, they want to control your movements as much as possible. It won’t happen all at once, but as time goes on, you’ll notice that they come up with more and more reasons why you shouldn’t hang out with your friends – and even your family. Often, they’ll give you reasons for not liking your friends and family, trying to plant the seed of doubt so you start to wonder whether your friends really are your friends. They may cast themselves in the role of protector, telling you that your family doesn’t treat you right, and only they know how to love you. Maybe your family is crappy – only you can say – but as a rule, if your partner says this kind of thing, it’s a red flag.
5. You feel nervous around your partner
It sounds obvious, but sometimes we forget: relationships should make us feel good. When you’re in a relationship with a manipulative person, however, that butterflies-in-your-stomach good feeling you get in the beginning will quickly turn into a bad case of nerves. And why wouldn’t it? You’re being told you’re crazy, spied on, and cut off from the people you care about. If you really start paying attention to how your partner makes you feel – not the way they used to make you feel, or the way you wish you felt, or the way you imagine you could feel again, if only – it might open your eyes to their true character, and help you wake up and walk away.
6. You’re afraid to walk away from your relationship
So, why do people stay in manipulative relationships? Usually, they’re scared. It might not be that you’re actively afraid of your partner becoming violent or doing something to hurt you (although that very well might be the case), but rather that you’re afraid you won’t find anyone else, or that you’ll fall for the wrong person again, or that maybe you don’t deserve better. It can be very hard to walk away from a relationship in which you’ve invested time and effort; you keep wanting to believe that things will get better. But if you see any of the above signs in your relationship, you need to know that you do deserve better – and if your partner isn’t willing to talk about any of it, or go to couples therapy, or take responsibility for the problems in your relationship, then it’s unlikely to improve.
Ending a relationship with a manipulative person isn’t easy, especially when you’ve been made to feel like you can’t trust your own feelings. But once you do it, you’ll open yourself up to a new, happy partnership that truly is a partnership. You’ve just got to have faith.
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Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.