Manipulation is a painful and destructive relational dynamic. As a pastor and counselor, I’ve tried to help people work through these confusing and turbulent waters. Today, much of the current literature and counsel on the topic focuses on establishing “boundaries” or getting rid of “toxic relationships” in your life. God’s ideal for his children is a life in which we flourish in relationship to him and others (John 10:10). This can’t happen in the context of manipulative relationships.
How Do We Recognize and Define Manipulation?
A good definition of manipulation is almost as slippery and elusive as the people who practice it. After seeking to find the concepts and language from Scripture, I have landed on the following definition: Manipulation is self-will combined with some other sinful behavior, designed by our deceitful desires to get what we want.
There are many forms of manipulation. Perhaps the most obvious is self-will combined with some form of deceit. Jacob lied to his father Isaac to manipulate him into giving him the blessing instead of his brother Esau (Genesis 27). More commonly people use half-truths or withholding information to illicit a response they want. A teenager may say he is hanging out with friends his parents know and like but fail to mention the other kids from the “wrong crowd” who will also be at the party. This deceit could even take the form of crying to illicit sympathy, or anger to force a person to give in. Using threats, making accusations, creating false dichotomies, and giving ultimatums are also very common.
Understanding both the self-will behind it and the category of sin that is being used to control the situation is the key to loving confrontation.
How Should We Respond to Manipulation?
Responding to someone attempting to control and manipulate you can be difficult. You are usually emotionally involved in the situation, making it difficult to think straight. It is best to have a path to follow before you are experiencing a high degree of emotion, and these strategies are a way of “preparing your minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13).
Here are four possible strategies to remember and apply when you are being manipulated.
Strategy 1: Ask, “What Do You Really Want?”
The point of this question is to humbly acknowledge the fact that it is not always wrong to give someone what he or she wants. Sometimes it’s possible to compromise. Often you can see a measure of manipulation in certain situations and your fleshly tendency would be to resist giving the person his or her way simply because you feel manipulated. By asking “What do you really want?” you make a subtle move toward the person before things escalate.
Strategy 2: Listen for and Expose Any Falsehoods or False Premises
This is part of the loving confrontation. It is always best to have a straightforward discussion about what you are seeing and hearing in the person’s words and tactics. Proverbs 26:5 says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” The goal of exposing false premises, untruths, or ultimatums is to not allow the person to be wise in his or her own eyes and to help the person see that his or her tactics were wrong and unloving. That’s why it’s good to learn to recognize the many tactics and forms of manipulation. Armed with these categories you should be better equipped to recognize them.
Strategy 3: Appeal to the Person’s Conscience Regarding Their Responsibilities
It is very common in circumstances involving self-will that the manipulator puts all the burden and responsibility on others. Often it is necessary and helpful to appeal to the responsibilities they have as well. When grandma says, “If you don’t visit at Christmas you don’t love me,” she needs to be reminded that making demands is itself unloving. How can we compromise in a way that enables everyone to love one another is a better approach?
Strategy 4: Appeal to God’s Word as the Standard for the Person’s Conduct
Obviously, you should always appeal to biblical principles as you gently confront falsehoods or self-will. The responsibilities you point out in strategy 3 are typically biblical responsibilities. This point is not intended to suggest a confrontational approach. Even Jesus’ response to manipulative religious leaders appeals to their moral responsibility without always being condemning (Luke 20:21–26). He told them to “render to Caesar” and “render to God” what each is due. Both were biblical responsibilities.
Not Always Conscious
Perhaps the most troubling part of this topic is that some people have made such a habit of being manipulative and controlling others that they’re not always consciously or intentionally devious. The pattern is recognizable, but the conscious intention is hard to prove. In fact, it is impossible to assert directly without sinfully judging that person’s thoughts and motives.
As you try to proceed with the suggested strategies for assessing and responding to manipulation, you do need to be careful to avoid presumption, sinful accusations, and unrighteous attitudes. In the heat of conflict and manipulation this requires the grace of the Spirit’s strength—love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness. Praying for God’s help and wisdom in these relationships and circumstances is vital. But this approach should help you love God and love others in a way that addresses the sin of the manipulator without simply avoiding them.
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