Dropping Manipulative Games

Dropping Manipulative Games — We manipulate because we want others to fix life for us. Learning to drop manipulation is the first step toward self-responsibility

In This Moment

Darbella’s back safe and sound, and I ended up with lots of interesting clients, so the painting projects are a bit slow taking off. On the other hand, it’s been hot in Ontario! So sitting back and watching the sweat drop from my nose has been amusing too!


A client asked, “My boyfriend insists on manipulating me — he demands that I do things his way. What can I do to change him, and if I can’t, do I dump him? And what if he dumps me first?”

One of the very first lessons we need to learn is this: None of us have any power to make someone do something (We’re not talking about pulling out a gun and making them–we’re talking about manipulative speech.)

What we typically describe as “manipulation by another” is always about our interpretation that we can be manipulated, followed by our choice to give up our personal strength.

This is an issue that affects each of us at some level. It’s an old issue, and it affects all of us because parenting is nothing more than blatant manipulation, designed to “humanize” or civilize kids.

That’s the prelude. Now, let’s dig in.

Let’s start with a definition of manipulation.

1. to treat or operate with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner

2a.to manage or utilize skillfully

2b : to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage

3. to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose

(from Merriam-Webster OnLine )

Let’s whiz through these definitions.

  1. Definition #1: We use “manipulate” in a positive sense when we’re talking about activating and controlling, for example, machinery.
  2. #2a. We also use the word to describe the techniques, say, of a chiropractor or Bodyworker.
  3. #2b, #3: We use the term negatively when describing “unfair or insidious means.”

And just to put it out there, “artful means” happens in, say, therapy (or this article!,) and the Zen term for this is “Upaya.” (skillful means.) This is “good” manipulation, Like parenting is “good.” It’s designed to provide a safe environment in which one can make choices.

Negative manipulation, on the other hand, is always about getting someone else to do what you refuse to fix in yourself.

Let’s zip back to kids, and then leap forward to us.

Let’s also get a couple of things straight. When kids are born, they are, for all intents and purposes, autistic. Left to their own devices, they die. Period. Even though they have predispositions, genetic or otherwise, to a certain way of being, children are incapable of self-socialization (we call this “going feral.”) Put a couple of 1 or 2 year olds in the same room and walk away, and sooner or later someone is going to be pounding the other over the head.

Socialization is learned behaviour, and parents set this in motion. That it becomes the sole responsibility of the child at, say 16, does not change the fact that all of this happens within a “manipulative” (hopefully skillful or artful , but often not) social framework.

Adults” provide the boundaries, the direction and the rules.

There is no one human way of being, beyond the obvious biological behaviours of eating, drinking, eliminating, breathing, screwing, etc. That’s what makes travelling around the world so much fun, so much of a challenge. People are as they are because that’s how they were brought up. That’s how they were molded, or manipulated. Without manipulation, society, civil-ization would screech to a halt.

We can’t change how we were brought up. We do, however, have myriad choices about what to do when the “official manipulation” ends.

If you don’t do what I want,
I’ll get bent

Now, in the West, ever since the accursed advent of the New Age Movement, we’ve been on a slippery slope. Since the 60s there’s been reluctance to actually parent a child. We get all this, “They have to figure it out for themselves” stuff. It’s almost as if parents refuse to parent because they don’t want to insist on certain behavioural standards. Yet, when you think about it, basic behavioural standards, repeated consistently, are the foundations upon which the future is built.

And nothing is more important than instilling the foundation of “self-responsibility.” We manipulate them out of feral-ness, and into civility, and then (I fervently wish) teach them to stand on their own two feet, learn about themselves, and become self-responsible.

So, I’m actually plugging the value of parental manipulation. But I’m using definition 2a, “to manage or utilize skillfully.”

Here’s a story from some years ago: A friend was discussing a moment with her 8‑year-old son. Forever, she’d focussed on teaching him boundaries, choice and limits, age appropriately. He was in 2nd grade and, for the first time, had homework.

The “limit” is, homework has to be done by bath-time, which is a fixed, non-variable time. The choice is, does he do it when he gets home, right after supper, or at the end of his day? He’s been experimenting with several options.

So, one day, he decides to go for “evening.” Out he goes to play. Mom calls him in at homework time. This would be her job: he’s 8, and mom is providing the structure for his experience. (If she hadn’t he’d have stayed out, playing. We all know that. The stated goal is, “homework done by bath time.” That stated goal is the structure.)

In he comes, upset, as his friends have just begun a game. During the next several minutes, mom reminded son of his choice. Son had his feelings. He cried, and with mom’s help, expressed his anger. He vented that it was all mom’s fault because she called him in. Mom encouraged him to get it out his system and talked about how she got mad at her mom. There’s more to the story, but the nifty ending is this: amid tears, son says, “I really made a bad choice.” (This is the beginning of self-responsibility.)

This is teaching (i.e.positive manipulation) at its best. Her 8‑year-old owned his choice, his behaviour and his actions. Repeated again and again, he will eventually get to self-responsible.

OK. So, structure and goals and boundaries are necessary for parenting. Where manipulation gets its bad name is when it’s used adult to adult, in interpersonal relationship.

Let’s look at the question that provoked today’s article.

My boyfriend insists on manipulating me — he demands that I do things his way.

People manipulate because it works. If I have a need or a want, and I discover that whining, griping, berating, begging or insisting causes my partner to cave in and give me what I want, why wouldn’t I do it? However, and it’s a big however, this only works if my partner chooses to give in to the manipulation.

let go

Short of physical violence, (which is never, ever, appropriate) there is no way anyone can make me do anything. Further, there is no way anyone can make me feel anything. We’ve been here endlessly, and we’re here again. No one makes me angry. I make me angry. I choose anger. Hey, the 8‑year-old in the story, above, got this one. Wake up and get it!

So, the way to stop being manipulated is to stop caving in.

Oh, sure. Here come the, “If he really loved me he’d stop doing that because I asked him to” swill. Phooey. On some other planet maybe what you want would matter more than what your partner wants, (to him,) but not on this planet. On this planet, you get to be responsible for yourself, while engaging with your partner as if he is solely responsible for himself.

And, of course, such a sentiment is a blatant attempt at manipulation. He wants you to change your behaviour from “x” to “y”. You want him to change from manipulating to not manipulating. What’s the difference?

Let’s all repeat this in chorus: no one can manipulate me into doing anything. If I give in, I made a choice.

I once had a client who was having problems with her partner. She said, “I made a list of all the things he does that drive me crazy. I said, “If you love me (gag, gack) you won’t do any of these things ever again.”

She was actually pleased with herself!!!

I said, “Good! Clever! You made it ever so much simpler for him. Now he knows a whole pile of ways to push your buttons.”

She: “Oh! He wouldn’t do that!”

Me: “Has he in the past?”

She: “Yes”…Oh!”… my… god!”

Now, hopefully you know what I said next, and I hope you don’t think I said, “Well, maybe some day he’ll stop torturing you.” What I said was, “You gotta get over yourself. Disconnect the buttons. Stop torturing yourself. If you wait for him to change so you can be happy, this is going to take forever.”

Second part of the question:

What can I do to change him, and if I can’t, do I dump him? And what if he dumps me first?

Answer: you can’t change another person. Only they can change themselves. Your choice is to absolutely and completely stop reacting to the manipulation. Period. It’s your life. Who’s responsible for it? YOU!

Now, if after ending your reaction, and letting your partner know that this is your new way of being and choosing, your partner continues to attempt to manipulate, your choice is to either:

accept the fact that s(he) refuses to let go of that behaviour, and you choose to stay, or

you leave.

In other words,

  • the first step is to stop acting like and seeing myself as a helpless victim of another’s manipulation.
  • The second step is to make better choices by not giving in, ever, to manipulation.
  • The third step is to observe what happens in the relationship when I stop biting. In the vast majority of cases, the manipulating stops, and dialog starts. And we reach an understanding. In some cases, not biting makes no difference, and the relationship becomes attempts at manipulation with no response. Some people choose to stay in this dynamic. Most leave.

More on leaving and being left next week!

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

2 thoughts on “Dropping Manipulative Games”

  1. I love the story of the mom and her 8 year old son. You wrote, “For­ever, she’d focussed on teach­ing him bound­aries, choice and lim­its, age appro­pri­ately.”

    I didn’t have such parenting. For the first time, when reading this, I realized that’s why I still sometimes have difficulty predicting the outcome of my choices. I accept responsibility after the fact, but seem to be stupid about seeing the (often obvious) outcome in advance. I proceed with making a bad choice, am surprised by the results, don’t like resulting situation, then invest much time and energy into revamping those results into something more palatable. I also engage in “magical thinking”, believing that SOMETHING will happen to cure whatever gaps or problems exist in my fuzzy plan.

    So… how to short-circuit this behavior? I think I’m going to write down plans. Then look at the plan from various standpoints — financial, investment of time, likely problems and how I’ll cope with them, probable outcomes. I rely very much on my intuition and make decisions quickly and based on my gut feelings. That has served me well in business, but not in my personal life. I’d guess I’m more rational about business decisions, more detached, and so bring more logical analysis into play, even if I do it quickly and seem to be relying on intuition.

    I hope I can reconcile taking a more measured rational approach, with still being willing to take a leap of faith.

    • Hey Beth,
      I was reading an article today about “happiness” and choices. The author suggested that the problem is that when we project into a “happier” future, we think of a moment in time as opposed to a continual flow. In other words, we select a scene and declare it the “happy future.”
      We might call this “intuition.”
      The other approach is to recognize that everything is part of a chain, and that, at any point, we can shift to another path.
      A client is trying to figure out her future plans, which seems to include going back to school for a BA. Last session, she was totally enthused about a programme she’d discovered. The logical next step would be to write an application and submit it.
      Today, a week later, she posted on Facebook, wanting to interview someone local who had attended the programme.
      She’s been interviewing people for months.
      Said she was interviewing to avoid deciding.
      I think she’s looking for someone to guarantee her future happiness.
      So, given that the programme turns her crank, what to do?
      Apply. Attend for a semester. See, first hand. Evaluate, correct course. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
      Life is like sailing a sail boat. You’re always off course, making corrections, aiming at the horizon. (Apparently airplanes are off course well into the 90% range, and still manage to land where they are going.
      The leap is starting. The measured approach is “filling in the forms.” Same thing, different stage.


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