You want a marriage where you both work together and are free to be yourselves. However, if your freedom to think and make decisions that reflect your ideas and desires is a little, well, stifled, you may be feeling manipulated. Nobody wants to feel that way. If that’s the case, you’re probably wondering how to deal with manipulation in your marriage. Let me tell you: it may be challenging, and it may take some time, but you’ve got to deal with it. Especially if you want your relationship to thrive.

Being manipulated can really mess with a person. It affects your mental health, self-esteem, and confidence. Manipulation in your marriage can be subtle or direct, relatively mild or emotionally abusive. Regardless, it’s not a good thing. Here’s why: It attempts to control your spouse in an underhanded and unhealthy way. 

Subtle and mild manipulation probably happens more than you realize in marriage (which doesn’t make it right). 

Take, for instance, the line of questioning from one spouse to another, “Do you have anything to do Friday night?” And when the response is “No,” the spouse says, “Good, we can have your in-laws over to the house for dinner and a game night.” 

Though this situation probably isn’t to the level of calling a counselor, it’s manipulative. It takes the spouse’s choice away regarding how they’ll spend their evening. You or your spouse may not even notice the manipulation. But when one spouse makes the other feel like their desires or thoughts don’t matter, and the spouse uses that to get what they want, that’s manipulation. And it’s painful.

Manipulation can also be more direct. 

Let’s use the same situation, but this time, one spouse says, “If you love me, you’ll invite your in-laws over for game night this weekend.” Nothing subtle there. Just a direct guilt trip if you don’t respond “correctly.” Not fun.

When you feel manipulated, you may feel:

  • Guilt, though you’ve done nothing wrong.
  • Gaslighted or made to feel like you’re crazy.
  • Isolated if your spouse punishes you with the silent treatment.
  • Powerless, because your choice seems to be taken away.
  • Inferior, if your thoughts, opinions, and wants are dismissed or ignored in favor of the manipulator’s.
  • Blamed, as though any negative results are your fault.

How can you respond?

Well, you’re in a tough spot, for sure. Here are some things that might help.

  • Self-reflect and know what your own desires and thoughts are. Try taking a step back from the conversation before committing to anything.
  • Be specific. The point is to understand what each person wants without the added expectation that you must oblige. Ask specific questions to separate their wants from what they’re doing to control you. 
  • Call it out. Your spouse should know it’s not ok to use underhanded or overt tactics to get their way. Explain the manipulation and how it makes you feel.
  • Set boundaries. Not blindly allowing yourself to be manipulated is key. Boundaries can help you make sure that you both respect different ideas without taking them personally just because they are not the same. Create boundaries to help each person hear and understand the other’s thoughts, feelings, and wants. You should agree that you won’t judge each other. 

I know this all sounds easier said than done, and it is. Here’s why: Your spouse may be used to getting their way by manipulating, whether they know it or not. If they don’t get what they want, they may react negatively. Fear is a powerful thing. And the fear of not getting what we want may cause us to be even more manipulative, deceitful, or even forceful. 

If your spouse is being mildly manipulative, it might be good to start the conversation with, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t get your way right now?”

For many situations, though, involving a counselor is gonna be your best bet. A manipulator who suddenly isn’t getting their way may react violently. They may become emotionally or physically abusive, or destructive. It can take some time and therapy to get to a place where they accept not getting their way. (If you’re the victim of abusive behavior, don’t hesitate to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org.)

Knowing yourself and finding security in who you are can help you fight the tendency to be manipulated in your marriage. It will also help you find healthy ways to move toward that mutually respectful relationship you want. In a healthy relationship, manipulation isn’t a weapon, and differing opinions are welcome.

Other helpful resources:

My Spouse Is Putting Me Down. (How Do I Get Them to Stop?)

How to Find a Counselor Who Will Fight for Your Marriage

What to Do When You Don’t Feel Emotionally Safe in Your Marriage

How to Overcome Built-Up Resentment in Marriage

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