Realizing that you’re experiencing family manipulation from the people that should be the closest to you is a bitter pill to swallow.
While it’s no different than manipulation in other spheres of life, manipulation in a dysfunctional family can be much harder to handle because it’s linked to people who have been a part of your life for so long and the emotional connections run deep.
After all, if you find that you have a manipulative coworker, distancing yourself from them is much easier than from your own mother.
And if push comes to shove, you can always take it up with your boss or find another job.
Emotional manipulation in a family can range from guilt-tripping to extreme behavior such as gaslighting.
Unfortunately, just because someone is a relative doesn’t mean they have your best interests at heart.
That’s why learning how to handle manipulation tactics is crucial, not only for your mental health but for your future relationships, too, because you will know what your boundaries are and how to react when someone disrespects them.
So, keep reading to learn more about the most common family manipulation strategies and how to deal with them!
7 tactics of family emotional manipulation
1. Silent treatment
The famous silent treatment is one of the most common manipulative tactics out there, particularly among romantic partners. But don’t be fooled – a family member can ignore your wishes to communicate as well.
Obviously, the silent treatment is not the same as taking some time to yourself after an argument to gather your thoughts and prevent the situation from escalating.
In that case, some silence is a welcome change!
What I’m talking about here is you trying to initiate a conversation with a loved one, only to be repeatedly met with dismissal and silence.
If you have ever been a victim of the silent treatment before, you know how desperate it can make you feel because it seems like the other person has decided they’re done with you.
The person doing the manipulating by refusing to communicate wants to bring you to a place where you will beg and cry for them to say anything at all.
They are trying to create an uneven playing field so that you will be remorseful and give up on trying to talk about whatever issue you have.
Just to be clear – this tactic doesn’t have to mean that the other person has a personality disorder or that they’re a master manipulator.
It does mean, however, that communication has become toxic in your relationship.
Have you ever been in a situation where a family member seemed to question your perception of reality?
Perhaps they denied your recollection of events or accused you of lying?
Saying “I only pushed you because you pushed me first!” even though you didn’t do anything of the sort is a prime example of how manipulative people use gaslighting techniques.
Or they might say “Are you seriously bothered by something so unimportant?” as a way to question your perception of events and move the discussion away from the actual problem so that you’re now defending yourself.
Whether it’s used in a romantic relationship or as a family manipulation strategy, gaslighting can be extremely toxic to your mental health, especially if you’ve been facing it since childhood, because it’s a form of emotional abuse.
For example, it can lead to low self-esteem and even more serious issues such as anxiety and depression.
People who have experienced gaslighting are also at risk of entering abusive relationships in adulthood, becoming absent fathers or mothers or another extreme, becoming codependent parents, because they have a hard time discerning manipulative from non-manipulative behavior.
Bottom line, when your family life doesn’t model healthy relationships, it’s much more difficult for you to understand what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.
3. Playing the victim
Arguing with someone who has a tendency to play the victim can be simply exhausting because their emotional manipulation aims to make you feel like you are needlessly attacking them to provoke sympathy.
In their view, they did nothing wrong and you are using the situation to berate them.
In a dysfunctional family, for example, a parent might breach their child’s privacy by going through their room and reading their diary.
When the child gets angry and expresses it verbally, the parent might flip the tables and use their victimhood to manipulate the situation in their favor.
Saying things like “Well, you never want to talk to me or spend time with me so I had to read your diary to see what’s going on” is bound to make the child feel like they have somehow hurt their parent when in fact, it’s the parent who is doing all the hurting.
It brings you into the uncomfortable position of now having to prove that you are not angry without reason, and you have to ignore your own feelings to focus on the other person.
A family member who tends to play the victim can be very hard to reason with because they usually don’t see this as a manipulation tactic.
In their view, whatever they did was perfectly justified, and trying to get them to see the error of their ways can be an uphill battle.
On the surface, guilt-tripping and playing the victim can seem like the same tactic of how people manipulate. There are, however, some key differences.
Let’s say that you have a family reunion coming up but you know you won’t be able to make it because of previously made plans or your busy work schedule.
When you try to break the news to your family, they tell you “It looks like you don’t care about us anymore. Everyone else is a priority, except us. What’s the point of having a family reunion if you won’t come?”.
Obviously, now you feel guilty for snubbing your family, even though you had a valid reason to do so.
As guilt is a very powerful emotion, it can have a significant impact on a person’s behavior. All of a sudden you’re canceling your other plans to make everyone else happy – sound familiar?
I’m not trying to say that everyone who ever tried to guilt-trip someone else is an emotionally abusive person. After all, this is relatively common in both romantic and family relationships.
I know I’ve been guilty of it, too! And the closer you are to someone, the more comfortable you feel employing these roundabout communication strategies.
The problem arises when you guilt-trip too much. This can create resentment, cause the other person to lie, or avoid interaction to spare themselves the emotional labor.
Instead of guilt-tripping, we should try to express how we feel as honestly as possible.
Using statements such as “I feel hurt that you are canceling our plans” instead of “You cancel our plans all the time, and it’s clear that you don’t care about seeing me” help you get your point across without forcing someone to act out of guilt.
In addition, it lowers the chances of the conversation escalating into a giant argument where everyone simply flings accusations at one another without taking into consideration someone else’s point of view.
5. Emotional blackmail
Emotional blackmail is a more insidious form of family manipulation because it tends to pop up in relationships that can be truly described as abusive.
Compared to guilt-tripping or victimhood, emotional blackmail has a set of steps that the blackmailer follows to get what they want:
- Giving in
- Repeating the cycle
During the first step, the person makes a demand or a request from you.
When you resist, either directly or indirectly, the person doesn’t drop their demand or try to find a solution that will work for both of you but instead continues to pressure you with repeated demands.
Then, they might even use threats.
For example, an in-law might say “If you don’t lend me your computer for the weekend, I will tell your partner that you’re being selfish and unreasonable.”
If you give in, this is a confirmation to the other person that they can control you with emotional blackmail and that this strategy will work for all future conflicts.
On the other hand, you will start to feel like giving in is easier than putting up with the constant threats and pressure, while not even realizing that this family member is breaking your boundaries.
6. Abusive language
Put-downs, insults, and shaming are all ways someone can try to manipulate you into doing what they want.
Even though this is a very clear form of manipulation, I think we should always remind each other that abusive language has no place in healthy adult relationships.
When someone uses abusive language to communicate with you, their primary goal is to put you down and make you feel inferior so that you will act in accordance with their own wishes.
For instance, a relative might insult you over your modern parenting style or shame you for preferring to use a baby carrier and not a stroller.
Sometimes, the abuser will aim to downplay their words by saying they are “just joking” or are giving you the “cold, hard truth”.
This is just another type of emotional manipulation so that you begin to question whether your negative reaction to abusive language is valid or not.
If such behavior persists for years, you can start feeling like the family scapegoat who takes all the blame whenever anything goes wrong.
This can negatively impact your well-being and teach you to endure abusive behavior, instead of handling it or removing yourself from the situation.
7. Ignoring your feelings
When you are a child, there’s nothing that hurts more than a parent or a loved one dismissing your feelings as if they don’t matter.
Unfortunately, it isn’t unusual for the person doing the dismissing not to see any issue with their actions. At the same time, they are inflicting lasting damage without even realizing it.
For example, imagine that the entire family is going to the amusement park.
Their teenager is really scared of heights and doesn’t want to go on any of the rides because it will make him sick, so he would rather not go.
In a healthy family relationship, the parents would either find something the entire family could do or figure out a compromise so that no one feels left out.
In an unhealthy environment, the rest of the family would tell the teenager that he’s overreacting, being too dramatic, or is a crybaby that needs to grow up.
This not only leads to embarrassment but also to him feeling abandoned and rejected by those who are closest to him.
Handling family manipulation
When it comes to handling manipulators, everyone has their own story.
Some were able to find successful ways of dealing with manipulation tactics but there are people who had no other choice but to distance themselves from their families.
No matter what your situation is, you can try any of the following ways to handle manipulation in your own family!
1. Set boundaries
Setting boundaries can sound like very vague advice, I admit. However, this is one of the most valuable strategies when it comes to handling a manipulative person.
First off, you will need to think about the kind of boundaries you need depending on your situation.
For example, one way of doing this is to limit your contact with a particular family member.
You may decide that you will only communicate with them in the presence of others, in case they tend to exhibit their manipulative behavior only when they are alone with you.
Another way of setting a boundary is to decide what kind of behavior you will not entertain or engage in.
If someone in your family has emotionally blackmailed you in the past, you can say to yourself that you will say “no” and not give in to their pressure or demands to do as they say.
Disengage, remove yourself from the conversation and make it clear that you will not tolerate such emotional manipulation.
Be prepared to be accused of being manipulative yourself, especially if this is the first time you have tried to set any boundaries of your own.
However, these boundaries are there for your wellbeing, so don’t feel like you should justify them to anyone.
2. Confront the manipulation
When you’re being manipulated, it’s very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of arguing back or explaining yourself, especially when you’re being accused of something you didn’t do.
Once you become aware of the emotional manipulation, pause and take a moment to let the other person know that you have realized what they are doing.
It doesn’t have to be direct but it should address the core of the issue.
“I understand that you’re upset we don’t spend that much time together and we should definitely talk about this another time. However, I have a very important project at work coming up and I simply can’t make it to the family reunion.”
“I understand that you’re angry but your insults make me feel very upset and like you don’t care what I think.”
After you voice your concerns, watch for the person’s reaction and whether they acknowledge your emotions.
Understand that not everyone will respond positively and this is not your fault nor is it under your control.
If your concerns land on deaf ears, then it’s time to remember your boundaries and enforce them!
3. Talk to someone
In cases where the manipulation has been going on for a long period of time, especially in extreme situations where someone is being gaslit, it can be very difficult to decide whether you are reacting appropriately or if the other person’s actions are warranted.
Talking it out with someone, either a friend or a therapist, can help you get the perspective of someone who isn’t emotionally involved with the situation and can make a much better judgment call than someone who has stakes in the relationship.
Also, have you noticed that when you actually talk (and not just think) about your issues you gain new insights?
All of a sudden, you might realize that the situation you’re in is completely nonsensical and that you’re being guilt-tripped.
However, it’s perfectly reasonable if you don’t feel comfortable sharing personal family matters with other people.
In this instance, get a pen and paper (or open the notes app on your phone, whatever suits you) and write it out.
Writing forces you to center your thoughts and get the kind of perspective that simple thinking could never bring you.
Plus, you can always go back and revisit how you felt at the time, which is simply priceless.
Coming to terms with psychological manipulation in your own family can be difficult.
Our whole lives we have had this notion of the importance of family drummed into our heads, so it can be hard to accept we’re being manipulated by the people who are so close to us.
The truth is, difficult times are a part of every family’s journey.
Speaking from personal experience, they can certainly bring you closer together once you have weathered the storm together.
It helps to take the family bond out of the equation and see them just as people with their own hopes and desires (and emotional baggage), so don’t forget to be empathetic – even when that’s the last thing on your mind.
After all, you would want others to do the same for you, right?
But above all, remember to protect yourself against emotional abuse that could leave lasting marks on your mental health!
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