If you experience these steps, you might be engaged in a relationship in which you are manipulated. People in such relationships are often not aware that they are being manipulated, but they feel pushed and controlled. Feelings of anxiety often center in the chest or stomach. There is a need to get away from the other person, but there is fear of not being able to make decisions without this other person. Be careful to not jump to a conclusion that the manipulator is a sociopath or even narcissist, but don't overlook the possibility, either. Look at these steps and see if this is familiar.
- First, the other person issues a complaint. It is not a request for you to do something, it is a complaint that something is not getting done. Maybe it is a mother or mother-in-law. “I never get to see my grandchildren.” The expectation is there yet unstated that you will take care of it. If you do not, this process goes to the next step. If you fix the complaint, everything stays in balance, i.e., no arguing.
- The other person inputs guilt as a layer on the complaint. “My grandchildren never get to visit and one of these days I’m going to die and they’ll never have gotten to know me. You don’t want to have that on your conscience, do you?” Maybe they bring up all the things they've bought for the grandchildren and how they deserve to see them after all they've done for them and you. It doesn't matter that these kids were at the grandparents’ house the previous three weekends in a row. If you are guilted into taking care of the initial complaint, then there is no arguing and everything feels like it is in balance. If you don’t, this process escalates to the third step.
- The other person threatens impending action. It could be something like, “If I don’t get to see my grandchildren, I am going to …” and you can fill in the blank. Maybe the threat is so extreme as to cut you out of their will. Maybe they just threaten to take back everything they bought for the kids. The possibilities are endless and a master manipulator will be very creative in this threat so that it doesn't seem like a threat. It just seems to make sense until you really think about it. Again, if you respond and fix the initial complaint, everything goes back to balance. If not, we go to step four.
- The other person becomes hostile. This is usually the step where no matter how strong and resistant you have been to stand your ground, the hostility is just too much and you give in. They yell, cry, maybe even scream. The hostility and anger is so intense that you can feel it, usually in your chest as pain or tension. It can make you physically ill. You give in so the initial complaint is solved and it goes away, everything is back in balance. If not and you manage to weather this and stand your ground, we go to step five.
- The other person will suddenly become very nice and apologize. This final step usually works in a highly manipulative relationship because you think that the person has seen the errors of their ways and wants to reconcile. You feel they are truly sorry, you kiss and make up, and you say, “I’m so sorry about all this, let me bring the kids over tonight for a while. They can miss their homework for just one night.” You've given in and the manipulator has won. The initial complaint temporarily goes away. If, on the other hand, you see through this and continue to stand your ground, this process starts all over again and the manipulator goes back to step one.
This process doesn't always proceed in this order, but it usually does. Any step can be implemented to throw you off. On occasion, the manipulator might go from step one immediately to step four. It depends on the dynamics of your situation and how long you've been trying to become free of a manipulative relationship. So, what do you do about it?
Eventually, simply standing your ground will be the best course of action. If you are dealing with a bully or even worse, a sociopath, rather than just a well-meaning in-law, your options might have to be more drastic. You cannot deal with a sociopath or bully on their own terms, or in other words, to fight fire with fire. They will manipulate others to make it look like you are crazy and that you are manipulating them. If you identify your situation as the exact steps outlined above and feel that you are dealing with a classic narcissist or sociopath, seek professional help. Also, follow these basic suggestions:
- Document everything. A sociopath will rewrite history and make you think you’re crazy. Having written and/or audio records of past facts will keep you sane and balanced.
- Don’t give in to them, but also don’t go head to head. Simply standing your ground and making your position, intentions, and boundaries clear will communicate to them that you are not to be manipulated. It is extremely difficult and the third suggestion may be your best option.
- Get out. Get away. If you’re being manipulated by a sociopathic boss, don’t try to get everyone else to believe it and get on your side. You are up against someone who will beat you at that game and you will lose. Find another job. If it is a parent or sibling, take the tough love route and cut off communications and ties with them. Do you really want your children being influenced as they grow by a sociopath or master manipulator? This is extremely difficult. Other family members will buy into the guilt. A sociopath and/or bully is highly charismatic and will win over any of the people they need to force you to do what they want. They will take the ground out from under your feet and leave you with no place to stand until you give in. Remember that your first responsibility is to yourself and your immediate family. Provide supervision if your children will be with someone you do not trust or just don’t let them visit at all. It can be extremely difficult, but you have to stand clear.
Do not let these five steps continue to control your decisions. Find your own way. Make up your own mind. Be clear on your path and maintain your boundaries. Eventually, things around you will clear up and you will be able to breathe easier.