Are You Being ‘Micromanipulated’? Therapists on How to Spot This in Your Relationship

Clinical psychology professionals explain how even subtle, indirect comments and actions can have damaging effects—even if they seem insignificant in the moment.

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What’s behind manipulation in a relationship?

It’s safe to say almost everyone has experienced emotional manipulation in an interpersonal relationship to at least some degree, at some point. But it can be hard to identify when you’re being manipulated—because for the other person in the relationship, being underhanded with their motives is kind of the point. So what is manipulation, and what drives it for the manipulator? In 1972, psychiatrist Ben Bursten, MD, published what would become a widely cited article in the journal the Archives of General Psychiatry in which he defined manipulation in the clinical sense as “based on … a need to put something over on” another person.

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Hillary Schoninger, LCSW, MSW defines manipulation this way: “I think manipulation is general, if you look at it as a whole, it is always changing the narrative or the plot so you get what you want,” Schoninger tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. “So if a narcissist is manipulative, they are operating from a place of ‘How can I change whatever the variables might be so I can get what I want?’ Regardless if it hurts people.”

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The psychological investigation of manipulation often explores the effect in the context of clinically diagnosed personality disorders, as some psychology professionals have pointed out that chronic manipulation is most commonly seen in narcissists. In severe cases, manipulation can be aggressive and sometimes even violent. However, it’s arguable that most of us have used some level of manipulation to influence a situation at some point, employing mental or emotional tactics to get the result we want from someone else. Some clinicians in the field of psychology have started to explore micromanipulation—which is a lot more subtle in a relationship dynamic than overt manipulation.

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What is micromanipulation?

If manipulation is direct, then micromanipulation is indirect. Francesca Maximé, LMSW, SEP, CMT-P, IFOT, RLT, FOT says, “To me, micromanipulation, as described in what I’ve read to date, is a way insecure partner A—who isn’t able to safely know, articulate, and verbalize their needs, values, and wants in a clear, empathetic way to partner B—uses to try and keep their partner B close.”

Schoninger adds: “Narcissists do that: they can’t be okay with the present and they have to always be in control. It’s always about shifting the narrative back to them—what makes them feel empowered and maybe what makes them feel possibly victimized. Whatever they need, they are going to do their best to manipulate so you react.”

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According to an article published in Psychology Today, micromanipulation tends to be indirect and covert manipulations that bring attention back to the manipulator. In some cases, this can draw on a manipulator’s “victim status.” It creates empathy from the person you are trying to manipulate and draw attention from.

Schoninger says that this can also play out as “microaggressions”—using particular language that may come off as hostile or negative, even if the comment doesn’t sound like it was directly meant to hurt someone. “You can use microaggressions or intentionally gaslight someone,” she says. “It plays out in a lot of ways. Again, when the narcissist feels attacked or hurt, they will try to do something to keep that person in place. Even if it’s causing more conflict. So they’ll go for the jugular, even if it’s by using microaggressions.”

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Ways to deal with being manipulated

Schoninger is a big believer in that feeling you get in your gut. If something feels off, it probably is. “I think it’s just having this awareness of knowing that if it feels icky or not aligned with your values or your authenticity, you have to listen to yourself,” she says. “Especially if they are smaller acts of manipulation.”

This therapist also advises someone who suspects they’re being manipulated to look for cases of inauthenticity. Typically, if someone is trying to micromanipulate a situation, they are creating an inauthentic experience to establish their own power in some way. In the case of a romantic relationship, the manipulator may create some kind of inauthentic experience. For example, making you feel sympathetic because they are the “victim,” or saying something to make you feel guilty. That is likely the sign of a micromanipulator. In other situations, if friend or colleague offers a compliment, but their tone doesn’t match their words, it’s likely a microaggression—like saying “Bless your heart,” but actually meaning this in a patronizing way that’s intended to create a sense of self-doubt in the other person.

“It should be an authentic saying and said in beautiful kindness, but you’re making it gross, and that’s manipulation,” says Schoninger.

And when you realize that what you’re experiencing is indeed being on the receiving end of manipulation, Schoninger says, “It’s our jobs to work on that for ourselves and not be around it if it doesn’t work for us.” She adds: “I think it’s really important to really start to go inward and ask yourself what’s this dynamic creating,” says Schoninger. “You can just choose to take a break and see what it’s like not being in that space where you might feel disempowered. Then you can decide what the boundaries are.”

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.