Covert emotional manipulation tactics are underhanded methods of control. Emotional manipulation methodically wears down your self worth and self confidence, and damages your trust in your own perceptions. It can make you unwittingly compromise your personal values, which leads to a loss of self-respect and a warped self concept. With your defenses weakened or completely disarmed in this manner, you are left even more vulnerable to further manipulation.
- Positive reinforcement: Praise, flattery, adoration, attention, affection, gifts, superficial sympathy (crocodile tears), superficial charm, recognition, appreciation, intense sex, and declarations of once-in-a-lifetime love. When all of these are present continually at the beginning of the relationship with no negative behavior in sight, it’s called “love-bombing,” and it’s designed to hook us deeply and bond us tightly to our abuser.
- Intermittent reinforcement: This is a very effective manipulation tactic, one abusers use to great effect. Intermittent reinforcement occurs when your relationship goes from nonstop positive reinforcement to only getting attention, appreciation, praise, adoration, declarations of love, etc. once in a while, on a random basis. This will create a climate of doubt, fear and anxiety, while compelling you to persist. You’ll know s/he’s withdrawing and you’ll fear you’re losing him, but he’ll deny it. This replays over and over until you’re riding an emotional roller coaster, with no way to stop the ride and get off. S/He is doing this on purpose to increase his power and control over you and to make you even more desperate for his love. You have become the proverbial lab rat frantically pushing the lever for a randomly dispensed treat. The rat thinks of nothing else, and neither will you. The bond can become even stronger during this phase, believe it or not. It’s a well-known psychological phenomenon known as traumatic bonding.
- Negative reinforcement: The manipulator stops performing a negative behavior (such as giving you the silent treatment) when you comply with his demands.
- Not allowing negative emotion: The victim is typically chastised for emotional behavior. The focus is put on the emotional upset itself, not the cause behind it (which conveniently takes the focus off of him). He refuses to hear what it is she wants to talk about. The only subject is her emotion, which is unacceptable; in fact, it’s an issue she needs to work on, and one he finds unattractive.The silent treatment usually follows, which increases her frustration at not being able to express her thoughts and feelings.
- Indirect aggressive abuse: Name-calling is direct and obvious, but an underhanded way to make it much less obvious is to drop the angry tone of voice that usually accompanies it, and disguise the insult as teaching, helping, giving advice, or offering solutions. It appears to be a sincere attempt to help, but it’s actually an attempt to belittle, control and demean you.
- Manipulators share intimate information about themselves, their lives and families early on to create a false sense of intimacy. You’ll automatically feel obliged or free to respond, and afterward you’ll trust him more and feel closer to him. Later, you’ll find out most of what he disclosed wasn’t true, and that he’ll use everything you told him about yourself to manipulate you or hurt you.
- Triangulation: This is a common and effective tactic of a psychopath’s covert emotional manipulation. The manipulator introduces other women into the relationship in any way he can — by talking about a woman at work, talking about his ex girlfriends, flirting with other women in front of you, or comparing you unfavorably to another woman — just to hurt you, knock you off balance and make you jealous. In a normal relationship, a man will go out of his way to prove he’s trustworthy. The manipulator does just the opposite, and he enjoys watching your pain and angst. He is usually grooming his next target, who he conveniently uses to manipulate you devalue you.
- Blaming the victim: This tactic is a powerful means of putting the victim on the defense while simultaneously masking the aggressive intent of the abuser. This usually happens when she questions him about something he wants to hide (such as his involvement with another woman). The victim finds herself put in the defensive mode, and she can’t win. He tells her that her concerns are rooted in her problem with ‘insecurity’ or some other flaw and have nothing to do with his behavior or with reality, and that he finds her insecurity very unattractive. Since this is very unpleasant she learns not to question him, and silently puts up with his bad behavior in the future.
- The manipulator will make carefully chosen insinuating comments to evoke an uncomfortable emotional response or even several responses at once. He knows your weaknesses and your hot-buttons, and he will enjoy dropping a bomb like this and watching the fallout. If someone says something that has multiple negative meanings and causes negative emotions while leaving you flummoxed and without a meaningful response, you’ve experienced it.
- Empty words: The abuser can turn on the charm and tell you exactly what you want to hear: “I love you,” “you’re so special to me,” “you’re so important to me,” etc. The problem is they are just words, backed up by nothing. Filling your need for approval, validation, and reassurance with these empty words gives him incredible power over you.
- Denying/ Invalidating reality: Invalidating distorts or undermines the victim’s perceptions of their world. Invalidating occurs when the abuser refuses or will not acknowledge reality. For example, if the victim confronts the abuser about an incident of name calling, the abuser may insist, “I never said that,” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The same as gaslighting, really, a tactic which is explained below.
- Gaslighting: An especially frustrating manipulation tactic where you know you heard him say something or saw him do something but when you confront him, he simply denies it. It seems obvious enough but if it’s repeated often, victims can begin to question their “version” of reality. We also want to believe whatever it was didn’t happen, so we may let this absurdity slip by.
- Minimizing: The manipulator will tell you you’re making a big deal out of nothing or that you’re “exaggerating” when you confront him with something he’s done.
- Withholding: Includes refusing to communicate, refusing to listen, and using emotional and/or physical withdrawal as punishment. This is commonly called the “silent treatment.”
- Lying: It’s often difficult to know when someone’s lying, but psychopaths are pathological liars who will say anything to get what they want. You may notice they lie so much they can’t keep the details straight. If you question them, they will usually revert to denial or victim-blaming.
- Lies of omission: A form of lying where a truth is left out if it’s not convenient. For example, the manipulator may not tell you s/he is married.
- Projecting the Blame: Nothing is ever a psychopath’s fault, and he will always find some crafty way to find a scapegoat.
- Diversion and Evasion: When you ask the manipulator a question, instead of answering it he may use diversion (steering the conversation to another topic) or evasion (giving an irrelevant, vague and often rambling response).
- Selective forgetting: The manipulator pretends he forgot something important he once said. If you feel the need to use a tape recorder when speaking with someone, covert emotional manipulation is at play.
- Refusing to take responsibility for his behavior, for the relationship or for your reactions to it. He somehow makes you responsible instead.
- Attempts to turn the tables and make you look like the abuser: These skilled manipulators have an arsenal of tactics at their disposal, and they will be pushing as many buttons as possible to get you to lose control. They can inflict so much psychological warfare and make you suppress so much emotion that you can be backed into an emotional corner. When this happens, the intense frustration you feel, but are not allowed to express through normal communication, will cause you to blow up in a reaction of self-defense. Emotional reactions in self-defense to an abusive situation do not make you an abuser.
- Brandishing Anger: The manipulator will put on an act of intense anger for the purpose of shocking you into submission. This is also called ‘Traumatic one-trial learning,’ because it will quickly train you to avoid confronting, upsetting or contradicting your abuser.
- Diminishing and belittling your opinions and ideas either verbally or non-verbally, by using eye-rolls, scoffs, smug smiles, etc.
- Putting you on the defensive: Most of the covert tactics listed here will put you on the defensive, meaning that they cause you to react in a defensive manner. These covert manipulation tactics trigger us to react emotionally instead of responding rationally.
- Trance: This is a very powerful manipulation tool in a psychopath’s arsenal, and it is related to charm. The technique of trance induction comes naturally to the psychopath, and he mesmerizes his victim to gain emotional control. Hypnosis and trance are the “attraction heat, attachment magnet and bonding glue,” according to Sandra L. Brown, M.A., author of “Women Who Love Psychopaths.” Trance leaves you psychologically defenseless. Messages and experiences during trance states (during which you are hyper-focused on him) become fixed in the psyche and are especially persistent.
“Always remember, he knows EXACTLY which buttons to push.”
Here are some signs that you might the victim of a manipulator, even if you can’t identify specific techniques:
1. You always feel you’re falling short of your partner’s expectations.
2. You often feel guilty in your relationship and are always looking to repair the “damage” related to the “trust issues” or some other issue he says you have.
3. You often don’t know where you stand with your partner because most of the time he keeps you in a state of emotional angst and in fear of losing him.
4. You feel like you’re walking on eggshells around him, carefully controlling your words and actions to keep him from withdrawing his affection again.
5. You feel confused in the relationship and have the feeling that it’s a very complicated one. You keep blaming yourself for making your partner pull away from you. Manipulators are very skilled at never being the one to blame for any problem in a relationship.
6. You’re unhappy in your relationship most of the time…yet you desperately fear losing it.
I highly recommend the books,
“Who’s Pulling Your Strings? How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life” by H.B. Braiker. This book “will help you end a current destructive relationship, understand how it occurred – and prevent you from ever getting involved in a manipulative relationship again.”
- “In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People” by George Simon, PhD in clinical psychology from Texas Tech University. He has studied and worked with manipulators and other disturbed characters and their victims for over 20 years.
Also, read the blog post, “How to Tell if You’re Being Manipulated.” There’s no need to know any specific tactics being used; you need only recognize the signs of the manipulation in your thoughts and behavior, and there will be plenty.
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