Manipulation can be as simple as “I’m not going to answer the phone when you call, then I don’t have to deal with you and tell you how I feel” or as complex as someone avoiding sex for years with their partner. The television program Mad Men is about the beginnings of manipulating people to purchase certain products. Certainly, people have been manipulating other people forever. What is it about the process of manipulating others that is so appealing?
1. Manipulation is all about enjoying the power to get people to do what you want. Even three-year olds ‘get’ this: they have temper tantrums to win.
2. Manipulation avoids the messy uncertainty of not knowing what will happen next. Manipulators love the certainty of knowing where they want the interaction to lead.
3. Manipulation exists within the simple framework of heros and villains. Everyone wants to be a hero. The manipulator often sets up the situation where the hero does their bidding under the guise of rescuing them. In their anxiousness to become the hero, they overlook that what they’re in fact doing is enabling the manipulator.
4. The process of manipulating others has the double benefit of not risking vulnerability and if they are successful, in no one ever knowing who they really are.
5. Manipulation has a dramatic intensity that makes people feel alive as they shift through the roles of victim, rescuer and persecutor.
Often it takes years to understand how boring it really is to play this complex game. There is the excitement of blame, the potential of getting what you want and the delicious feeling of being rescued. With all these emotions floating around, both the manipulator and the manipulated feel a false sense of being very meaningful in their roles.
Manipulation comes in all shapes and sizes. A mother says to her toddler who wants candy at the grocery store “You don’t want that.” Of course the kid wants that candy. The non-manipulative response would have been “It’s hard not to get what you want.”
Guilt is a very ordinary way to manipulate. I remember my Jewish father-in-law manipulating to stop my brother-in-law from moving on to a new Temple that would be more convenient. My father-in-law insisted “Can’t you wait?” with the unspoken rest of the sentence being “until I’m dead.” If he could have recognized my brother-in-law’s need to attend a congregation more convenient to him it would have been more respectful. Manipulation prevents you from seeing someone else’s needs as being more important than your own.
Manipulation wants to make the differences evaporate. Manipulation is about getting someone to submit without the messiness of conflict. Lying by omission is manipulation. “I want you to think better of me so I won’t tell you this secret.” Secrets are often little deaths in a relationship. Secrets avoid vulnerability.
For too many couples secrets easily pile up over time. Most couples are terrible at talking about hard things and deflection is the norm.
It can be very manipulative to pile up silent resentments instead of struggling with honest dialogue. The contention that “if you really love me you’d know what I want and how I feel” is really a way to manipulate. It’s a belief that avoids the responsibility and vulnerability of asking for what you want. Making yourself known is your job, no one else’s.
Manipulation demands obedience instead of negotiation. Manipulation erases true dialogue. Manipulation requires people be either right or wrong, no shades of gray are allowed. Manipulation kills growth in relationships because there is no room for honest conflict.
Watch the actress Judi Dench in the movie “Notes on a Scandal.” She is so creepy as she manipulates Cate Blanchette. Watch Hayden Christensen in the movie “Shattered Glass.” He portrays Stephen Glass, a young man in real life, who manipulated the staff at “The New Republic” magazine and proceeded to completely make up numerous cover stories.
Becoming more aware of manipulation and how it disrupts authenticity in relationships is important to understanding the dynamics of relationships.
(Part I was posted on August 16, 2010. It is easily found in the manipulation category to the right. This was originally published as an Ezine article last month.)