My relationship with my former best friend was tight-knit. I swore that I’d make her the godmother of all my children; she promised to make me the godmother of her, um, dogs (she didn’t want kids). We were even going to live next door to each other, go on family vacations together, and organize play dates (with, again, her dogs). Everything was rosy and picket-fency…until a former flame strolled back into her life. Nothing much had ever come of their mad flirtations, as he had been in a relationship when they’d first met, but he was now properly dumped, vulnerable, and aching for new people in his life. She assumed they would pick up where they left off, but he wasn’t in the right mindset to do so. He wanted to heal. He would often call her for advice and comfort, but for whatever reason, couldn’t find solace in the words she offered – so he turned to me (which tends to almost always happen when I tell people I’m in the psychology field). Unbeknownst to me, he started calling me more than her, which inflamed her jealousy. She called me up out of the blue and insisted that I stop talking to him.
“Why?” I asked. “What has he done wrong?”
I couldn’t understand what had provoked her sudden desire to burn bridges. Had he lied to her? Had he taken advantage of her? And then it hit me: I asked her plainly if she still had feelings for him, and she insisted, rather unconvincingly, that she didn’t.
“He should be calling me, not you,” she responded. “So if I decide not to talk to him anymore, as my best friend, you should do the same.”
In an effort to appease her, I told him to call her more often.
“She doesn’t get me like you do,” was his response. “And if I go out with my friends and I don’t invite her, she gets angry, like we’re a couple. I don’t like talking to her on the phone.”
When I tried to explain the problem to her (in a tactful way), she didn’t take it well, and once again insisted that I stop talking to him. Initially, I considered it. But then I realized that I was being unfairly coerced into acting out of character (I liked helping people) because of her hang-ups. When I once again refused to cut ties with him at her insistence, she turned nasty. She started bringing up all the times she had helped me, allowed me to sleep over, drove me places (truthfully, I only tagged along because she hated going anywhere by herself; so she dragged me to every appointment, every shopping spree, and even to visit her family…and would then have the gall to ask me to pay for half of her gas). She pushed every button she could, leaving me feeling like the Judas to her Jesus. That is, until I recalled how many times I had gone out of my way to come to her aid. She failed to mention how I played a role in helping her nail her first and only job, helped her get into university, and acted as her therapist after her jerk of a boyfriend dumped her, cheated on her or lied to her so many times I lost count. I finally recognized her behavior for what it was, and frankly, had always been (when I decided to be honest with myself): manipulative.
Interestingly, after cutting me out of her life, she reconnected with a mutual friend from our high school. This woman also found herself in the same position I had been and was also given an ultimatum – to which she responded exactly as I had. So another bridge was burned, and my former friend moved on to her next victim.
Here’s how to recognize when someone’s behavior is manipulative:
They always manage to find a way to justify their bad behavior or the poor way they treat you. Or they shift the blame onto you.
“I was stressed.”
“I had a bad day at work.”
“If you hadn’t annoyed me, I wouldn’t have reacted this way.”
“Why are you always on my case? Do you know how busy I am/how much weight is on my shoulders?”
After a friend of mine got dumped without cause, he called up his ex the next day for an explanation. She sidestepped the issue with, “How could you put me in this position right now? Do you know my parents are on vacation on an island that might be hit with a severe thunderstorm? God, you’re so selfish.”
They tug at your heartstrings or try to charm you.
It’s the plot of many online con jobs: The schemer preys on people’s good nature, like the poor woman on Dr. Phil who thought she had met her true love online. Taking advantage of her feelings for him (by constantly proclaiming his undying love) he manipulated her into sending him hundreds of thousands of dollars because he was supposedly stuck in a foreign country and his passport was stolen.
They guilt-trip, shame you, or play the victim.
God forbid you can’t do a favor for a manipulator, because they’ll bring up all the occasions when they were there for you, including that time in elementary school when they shared their lunch with you. Certain family members who shall remain nameless often use this tactic on me, and I always end up hating myself for giving in. It’s a dirty, low-down tactic in which you’re painted as ungrateful, selfish and self-absorbed.
Some manipulators will opt for the passive aggressive route by giving you the cold shoulder until you finally feel bad enough to give in. Others will minimize your problems in order to turn the focus back toward them. “You think that’s bad? I could tell you horror stories about my childhood/parents/boss/job/significant other etc. Trust me, you have it easy.”
They make it seem like you’re the one with the problem.
After having dealt with months of a colleague’s negative and hostile behavior toward me, I finally had enough and got angry. His response? “You’re too sensitive! Why can’t you take a joke?” And yet, despite the fact that I wasn’t the only one he had treated poorly, his statement made me second-guess myself. I had been a victim for so long that I actually thought he was right: that the problem lay with me.
They intimidate you into submission.
Whether through threats or aggression, some manipulators will resort to all-out intimidation tactics to coerce you into giving in. They may threaten physical harm or resort to blackmail. Others will withhold things from you, like the overly competitive colleague who conveniently “forgets” to share intel with you, or the partner who withholds sex. Their goal is to gain leverage over you in order to get what they want.
They lie or feign ignorance.
Manipulators will often conveniently forget things you tell them or twist your words around when it suits their needs. For example, every time I made plans with a certain friend, she would supposedly forget and make plans with someone else. I can understand forgetting once, twice, or maybe three times, but this would happy nearly every weekend until finally, I just stopped making plans with her and starting hanging out with someone else. The result: She called me up to tell me off for excluding her from my plans. “I guess your life is much too exciting and busy to include me!” she retorted. In her mind, that was the only possible explanation for my actions. Should I have voiced my frustration? I could have. But knowing who she was and recognizing the pattern in her behavior, I knew she would just opt for another manipulation tactic.