• Manipulation can come from a lot of sources, but it hurts most when it comes from our loved ones.
  • Intimate partners with dark personality traits may use a variety of subversive tactics to exercise control and achieve their own goals.
  • Gaslighting, emotional blackmail, and the weaponization of love can all serve the manipulator’s agenda.
  • Everyone should strive for emotional safety in relationships, which means instituting a zero tolerance policy for manipulation.

We’ve already shown how destructive cults and manipulative marketing tactics can weaponize extreme psychological influence. But what about a form of “mind control” that doesn’t have an industry or a social scaffolding behind it? Manipulation by an intimate partner can feel even more insidious because it’s perpetrated by someone you love. 

Your romantic partner often knows your deepest vulnerabilities. When they want to exert psychological control over you, all they have to do is exploit your emotions. It’s useless to tell yourself that you’re too smart to fall for interpersonal manipulation and emotional abuse. It can happen gradually, sometimes inflicted by people with dark personality traits who have coercion down to a science. 

Other times manipulators try to get what they want without conscious awareness. For example, people who experienced emotional abuse growing up may not know how to express their needs directly. Then they might resort to the control tactics that were an unquestioned part of their upbringing. In either case, there’s still a victim: you. 

Here’s a guide to identifying emotional manipulation in relationships so you can learn to stand up for your own mind and body. We also explore the constellation of dark personality traits (D-factor) that might drive intimate partner emotional abuse. Finally, we define emotional safety in relationships and give any victims out there a little pep talk (which cannot sub in for professional counseling, by the way).

Types of Psychological Coercion in Intimate Relationships

Manipulation differs from healthy persuasion and influence in that a manipulator wants to serve his or her own interests by exercising power over another person. In practice this means that a manipulator might exploit a partner’s desire to please, their naivety, their empathy, their low self-confidence, or their fear of confrontation in order to fulfill their own agenda. Manipulators may do this because they have dark personality traits like narcissism and psychopathy, or because they have self-esteem issues. Here’s how manipulators typically go about getting what they want:

  • They don’t respect your boundaries. When you say no to a manipulator, you can probably expect some blowback. The manipulator might suffer dramatically (manipulators tend to be drama queens), get scary angry, or give you the silent treatment as a way of emotionally blackmailing you. 
  • They blame others for their actions. Manipulators struggle with accountability. When they treat you badly, it’s somehow your fault. They might alternate between being the victim and being the bully. You find yourself apologizing on an endless loop. 
  • They try to alter your reality. Manipulators may use lies and gaslighting to make you doubt your own perception. This can result in distrust of self and more control ceded to the manipulator. 
  • They isolate you. As we saw in the cults article, isolation is a powerful technique for exercising extreme influence over someone. 
  • They weaponize love. Manipulators might use love bombing and love flooding (inundating you with flattery and attention) to enmesh themselves in your emotional world. They may also practice love denial when they don’t get what they want, withholding affection as a form of punishment. For manipulators, love is often conditional, dependent on their own needs being met. 

This list is not exhaustive. As long as there are selfish people in the world, there will be new tactics to control others. Manipulators want to create an atmosphere of fear, obligation, and guilt that will better enable them to achieve their goals. It’s obviously not a great recipe for a safe and happy relationship.

What’s Your Partner’s D-factor?

Psychologists identify nine interrelated traits that comprise a “dark core” of someone’s personality. Examined together, these traits make up someone’s “dark factor of personality”, or their D-factor. Someone who has a high D-factor score might display the following characteristics:

  1. Egoism: “My needs are more important than your needs.” 
  2. Machiavellianism: “I’ll do whatever it takes to gain power.”
  3. Moral disengagement: “Ethics, shmethics.”
  4. Narcissism: “I’m super special. Pay attention to me. I care not for your little feelings.” 
  5. Psychological entitlement. “I can treat you badly, but treating me in the same way is unacceptable.” 
  6. Psychopathy: “I feel neither shame nor empathy and I’m morally depraved.”
  7. Sadism: “I get off on hurting you.”
  8. Self-interest: “I must focus on myself.”
  9. Spitefulness: “I’m willing to hurt myself a little if it means hurting you more.”

Do any of these seem familiar? The presence of these traits implies that someone would say anything to get what they want, be willing to inflict harm on others, and be able to justify their bad actions. If you recognize your partner on this list, beware.

Emotional Safety in Relationships #Goals

This has been a dark journey, but let’s emerge into the light now by discussing emotional safety. You cannot be emotionally safe in an abusive relationship. You may feel too tense, afraid, or disoriented to be vulnerable. After all, your partner has a pattern of using your vulnerabilities against you. 

It’s not your fault if someone has manipulated you in the bedroom or beyond. You’re probably a kind, loving person whose natural empathy was exploited. For the people in the back: Manipulation by an intimate partner is total BS, and you deserve emotional safety in a relationship. That means the following:

  • You feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings with your partner. 
  • You feel heard and validated by your partner. 
  • You trust that your partner will respond to you with warmth, care, and the benefit of the doubt. 
  • Your boundaries are respected.

Doesn’t that sound beautiful? Now your ventral vagal complex has the warm and fuzzies (neurochemically speaking) and your partner isn’t a narcissistic psychopath. 

Emotional safety is essential to a healthy relationship. Psychological manipulation that interferes with your safety and security is a giant red flag. Red flags must be identified, examined, and then posted to your bedroom door as a warning for the next person who tries to mess with you. Remember: You are better off alone than in an unsafe relationship. There’s only one person who should be in control of your mind and body and that’s you