I’m a very emotional person. I cry a lot. A short and incomplete list of things I’ve cried about semi-recently include: someone with a gorgeous voice singing at my friend’s birthday Zoom party, a Cats Protection ad about a rescued kitty finding his forever home, a pitch (that I wasn’t even all that attached to) getting rejected, a near-stranger’s story of surviving abuse, and the mushy ending of my favourite TV show. My emotional nature means I’ve been accused more than once of emotional manipulation.
I’m a cryer. It’s how I process feelings, both good and bad. Fundamentally, I’m a very emotional person.
My ex hated it when I cried. Which was unfortunate, because he was very good at making me cry. I don’t know if he expected me to be an emotionless robot or if he just didn’t like to be confronted with the consequences of his behaviour. But if he yelled at me and I got upset, he’d just yell at me more. If he called me a horrible name and I cried, he’d call me something even worse. When I tried to express how he was hurting me, he’d tell me I was being manipulative.
This isn’t an isolated experience. It’s not even unusual. Spend any time in the hellholes of places like Reddit Relationships, Quora, or Facebook groups dedicated to relationship advice, and you’ll see it:
“She cried in front of me and now I feel manipulated!”
“I was upset and he said that I was manipulating him.”
“She started crying and now I feel guilty!”
“Why do women turn on the tears to manipulate men?”
This is also an incredibly gendered phenomenon. In 99%+ of the examples I’ve seen, the person being accused of being “manipulative” is a woman or someone read as a woman. It’s also usually in the context of their (usually male) partner having done or said something that a reasonable person is likely to be upset by.
But here’s the thing: having feelings and expressing them isn’t manipulation.
Some people are generally more emotional than others. Some keep their feelings under wraps while others wear their hearts on their sleeves. But to dismiss someone’s genuine emotional response as a trick or a ploy is incredibly cruel.
Is my partner manipulating me with their emotions?
If your first response to your partner or loved one’s distress is “but what if they’re manipulating me?”, you have a big problem. You either don’t trust this person at all, or you have little to no regard for how your behaviour makes them feel. Either way, you probably shouldn’t be in a relationship with them.
If someone is upset about something you did, you should at least consider that maybe you did a shitty thing. If you’ve upset someone, your first response shouldn’t be “how dare you be upset about what I did/said?”. Doing this can be part of a tactic known as DARVO: deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender. It’s a particularly insidious and dangerous form of gaslighting.
This won’t be true in absolutely all cases, of course, and sometimes it will be a grey area. It’s possible to acknowledge that you made the right decision for yourself AND acknowledge that it’s reasonable for the other person to be upset about it. You might or might not have the ability or capacity to support them through those feelings, but don’t write them off as nothing but a calculated emotional manipulation tactic.
Is it possible to use feelings in a manipulative way? Yes, absolutely. But simply having them and expressing them, even strongly, isn’t manipulation.
Am I manipulating my partner?
As one very smart person on a Reddit thread about this topic said: “manipulation is about intent.” If you fabricate or exaggerate an emotional reaction to persuade someone to do what you want, you might be being manipulative. If, on the other hand, you’re just expressing what you feel, that’s not a manipulation tactic. That’s part of being a person.
Dismissing someone’s feelings can be a form of emotional abuse or emotional manipulation. So if your partner routinely tells you that your genuine feelings are manipulative, that’s a huge red flag.
Your feelings are real and valid and you’re allowed to feel them. People who love you will make it safe for you to express your emotions, including the difficult ones. You’re not manipulating anyone by feeling sad, angry, disappointed, frustrated, or any other emotion.
What to do if you’re being emotionally abused
Again: emotional dismissal can be a part of emotional abuse. This form of abuse can be extremely hard to spot and even harder to extricate yourself from.
If you feel unhappy or unsafe in your relationship – including emotionally unsafe – you are always within your rights to leave at any time for any reason. Please consider telling a friend, family member, or other trusted person. They can help you get to safety or start making a plan to leave the relationship.
If you’re a woman in the UK, you can call Refuge on 0808 2000 247. Men in the UK can call the Respect Men’s Advice Line on 0808 8010327, and LGBTQ+ people can use Galop’s helpline on 0800 999 5428.
If you’re in the US, no matter your gender you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1800 799 SAFE (7233).
For those in other countries, there’s a large list of resources here.