Manipulation, by definition, can be a pretty crazy mind game. (“Wait. What just happened? Is my spouse manipulating me?”)
It can leave you feeling guilty, angry, confused, insecure. You might feel like you just got played.
It can be subtle: “Does this dress make me look fat?”
“If you want to put our family first, you’ll make sure you’re there at the picnic.”
Maybe you’re wondering how to qualify your spouse’s manipulation in the first place.
The Oxford dictionary will tell you it’s about controlling or influencing a person or situation cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.
We all influence each other and try to persuade one another. So it’s worth asking a few questions if you’re wondering, Is my spouse manipulating me?
How can we tell whether or not we are being manipulated?
Manipulation has a lot to do with how direct we’re willing to be. But “direct” can still mean “controlling.”
At times, indirectness can preserve a relationship, fitting relational protocol, or someone’s dignity (think Queen Esther’s approach to her husband). It can be good manners (“Would you be open to spending some time together this weekend?”).
Acceptable “manipulation” varies widely by culture. Many cultures would find directness similar to reaching across the table for the salt, rather than asking politely for it to be passed.
Consider our own more appropriate forms of indirectness, i.e. sarcasm: If an American says, “Yeah, right,” none of us assume that person actually agrees.
In fact, your spouse learned to navigate a certain subculture in their family of origin. Not all of their methods may be appropriate or healthy. (Pro tip: Yours aren’t either.)
Are your spouse’s actions…
- beneath what the receiver easily notices?
- inconsiderate of the receiver’s personal interests (from his or her perspective)?
- not really allowing them to make an unbiased decision?
- anything less than honest?
What can you do to dismantle your spouse’s manipulation?
1. Tell yourself what’s happening. When you wonder, Is my spouse manipulating me?, attempt to look at it from a remove of emotion. Pray for wisdom (James 1:5-6).
2. View your spouse with “charitable judgment.” He or she may not realize they’re manipulating. From childhood up, we’ve all acquired healthy and unhealthy ways to obtain what we crave.
3. Ask questions and make calm statements to help reveal your spouse’s true desires and behavior. Do this as gently as possible. Defensiveness will make it harder to expose the heart!
Here’s one example of how you could confront.
- I hear you saying …
- I can’t speak for you, but it seems like underneath __, what you’d like from me is … (Is that right?)
- I think your desire for __ is valid. But the way you’re __ feels manipulative.
- I want to choose to give you things freely, rather than feeling like I have to.
- Are you asking this, or telling me I have to?
- This may make you feel angry, but I think we need to be more honest with each other.
- I want to meet your needs, but could you ask me straightforwardly for what you want?
- Will you respect my answer if I say no? I know neither of us want to feel controlled.
- Or: Those expectations aren’t reasonable/aren’t something we’ve agreed on.
4. Stick to your guns, because you are defined by who God says you are. Don’t communicate that your spouse’s manipulation doesn’t bother you. Being a doormat does not help your spouse grow in Christlikeness—so it doesn’t truly love them.
If you think your spouse is right about something, be willing to admit it. (This isn’t a marital game of chicken.) But don’t back down just because you don’t have courage.
Model security in your relationship apart from performance or perfection. God says your value is because of His image in you, and because He gave Jesus for you—not whether someone says you’re okay (see 1 Peter 1).
You can and should be both truthful and loving (Ephesians 4:15), which requires strength. Paul writes in Galatians, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10).
5. Admit the log in your own eye (Matthew 7:4). We rarely go through conflict without fault. But having fault does not mean your spouse isn’t responsible for their actions. There’s no need to grovel or throw out your concerns.
6. Remember your spouse’s manipulation can be motivated by deep, destructive patterns. Don’t be afraid to get help from a counselor or even the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Your spouse’s manipulation creates isolation through its careful—even oblivious—scheming. But when you’re aware, it doesn’t have to leave you both victims.
Wondering ways you might be manipulative?
What if you’re on the other end? And have a feeling your spouse might be the one wondering, Is my spouse manipulating me?
I’ll admit, I am a former manipulator … I hope. Would you believe sometimes I was the last to figure out I was manipulating my spouse?
From childhood up, we’ve all acquired healthy and unhealthy ways to obtain what we crave. Certain dynamics in our home of origin, like addiction or other emphasis on appearance, can make us even more prone to manipulating. and the longer we’re married, the longer we’ve studied what buttons to push to produce a specific product, so to speak, from our spouse.
If you’re manipulative and you know it, clap your hands! (Clap, clap!)
Proverbs reminds me that “The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death” (21:6).
So, along with me, get relentless in your effort to purge yourself of shrewd, cagey speech designed to control someone. Our talk is the overflow of our hearts (Matthew 12:34). This means words are the symptoms of underlying desires.
Ask God to reveal:
- when and why you’re tempted to manipulate.
- why you may feel uncomfortable with speaking truthfully.
- how to trust him with people and circumstances in which you feel powerless.
- ways you can be truthful without sacrificing kindness, gentleness, and the other person’s dignity.
- to help you discern between rightly, courageously influencing and cleverly controlling.
Stopping Manipulation in Real Life: 12 Ideas
What do those principles look like in the trickle-down? A few ideas from a recovering manipulator.
- Ask kindly for what you hope for without demanding it.
- Give without strings attached.
- Seek to champion the image of God in your spouse (rather than your image). What would it look like for your mate to be the fullest version of the person God created them to be?
- When you’re thinking “no,” say it, without being stubborn or hard. Earnestly seek not to hedge, backpedal, mislead, wheedle, etc.
- Push yourself to loving honesty. (And when you’re wrong, admit it humbly.)
- Don’t rely on your spouse to fill the place of God in your life. He or she is not created to fill your soul’s holes.
- Ask yourself, “Am I influencing my spouse in a way that’s aboveboard, or seeking to control them without his or her consent or knowledge?”
- Refuse to punish your spouse when your desires aren’t fulfilled.
- Forego self-deprecation and over-apologizing.
- Consider honestly whether your sarcasm is cutting.
- Even in criticism, speak with an attempt to build rather than corrupt.
- Be willing to lay bare to yourself—and maybe even your spouse—your motivations at any given moment. Ruthlessly assess your “whys,” and don’t always believe the best about what drives you.
If one or both of you is wondering, Is my spouse manipulating me? it doesn’t mean you’re headed for the jaws of divorce. But it does mean we can recognize when we’re trying to play someone—or vice versa.
And we can choose to walk in the truth. But that’s part of the beautiful process of marriage that makes us more holy.
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.