Nobody likes being played.
And most people in toxic relationships – which we refer to better as “manipulationships” have no idea that this is exactly what our partners have been doing since the very beginning: using our empathy against us, and tapping on this wonderful quality to keep us “stuck,” or keep us coming back.
One of the first things to know is that narcissists and other toxic personalities have some of the most predictable personalities, and it is important to understand what these are so that we know what to expect and can protect ourselves.
There are three general phases to the manipulationship. The first is called “idealization.” Keep in mind that an abuser’s main goal at this point is to get you to trust and fall in love with him/her so that you will plan a future together.
The process by which they do so is commonly called “love-bombing,” which is essentially an example of “grooming“, a power technique involving deception in order to influence how another person thinks, feels, and acts. This begins usually from the very first encounter.
As these people are also master manipulators, they will perform a number of tests to establish a power dynamic within the relationship where they are the ones in control.
One way they do this is by reflecting the kind of person you want them to be – your soulmate – and it may appear that you have so many things in common.
Another is to try to rush you into committing to a serious relationship. You may feel flattered and special, but keep in mind that these are very calculated strategies to get you to let your guard down, since soon you may feel like you have known them for much longer than you actually have, by the false sense of intimacy they have managed to create.
Once they have installed you in their lives (or themselves in your home!) and you start to actually get to know each other the second stage of the manipulationship, known as the “devaluation” phase, begins. This occurs as soon as you show that you are a human being with your own feelings and needs, and start resisting their control – not always doing what they want, believing what they want you to believe, or questioning their judgment.
It is here when you start to question yourself, as they begin to exploit your vulnerabilities to make you more emotionally dependent on them. During this time, they will spend time drawing attention to your flaws and weaknesses, minimizing your feelings, and chipping away at your confidence.
One of the most common behaviors during this period is “gaslighting,” or denying that something happened in order to make you feel like a crazy person.
Or, they may pit others against you using “triangulation,” which can cause a sense of fear and imbalance.
“Projection” can also be unnerving, and that is when an abuser accuses you of what they’re doing or planning to do (such as having affairs).
One of the most powerful ways to keep you stuck in the relationship is called “intermittent reinforcement,” where they first create fear in you of losing the relationship, and then relieve it every so often with episodes of love and attention.
During the devaluation phase, it is common to suffer a multitude of health issues, as your brain is working hard to make sense of the irrational. There are usually both psychological and physical effects.
The third stage (and note that I am not saying final – because it often is not the end at all) is referred to as the “discard,” and this label is applicable no matter who does the breakup.
(We actually have a separate blog called Breaking Up and the Discard: How a Narcissist Acts at the End of a Relationship where we discuss this in much greater detail.)
During the discard, you will find that you are no longer useful or desirable to your partner. If they sense you are the one wanting to leave, they will continue to behave in ways that make them feel in control. Overall, note that their main goal is to punish you by going after what you value most, including your property, money, and children.
Before a discard, there are usually several warning signs that will let you know that something is about to change, often involving sudden involvement with other people, changes to routines, and lots of secrecy. You may notice changes in their habits and appearance as well.
When the discard (or breakup) occurs, what is unusual is often a lack of sadness on their part, though this can change on a daily basis to lots of blaming you, playing the victim, and calling you the “crazy ex” to anyone who will listen.
During and after a discard, it is very common for a toxic person to try to suck their victims back into the manipulationship to prevent or delay a final breakup through a method called hoovering. They will use improved, temporary behavior to do so, including saying what they think you want to hear and making empty promises. These are all plays on your empathy, and they will not last.
An unfortunately common type of hoovering a narcissist or toxic person also may try is known as a “smear campaign,” which occurs both in real life and, more commonly, over social media, as they attempt to destroy your personal reputation in others’ eyes, and even your career. Smear campaigns are also very calculated, and their beginnings often occur before a discard even takes place. The goal is to get you to come back and beg forgiveness, even if you’ve done nothing wrong.
Living through a toxic relationship is almost always a harrowing experience. But the best way to protect yourself is by educating yourself, so you’re less likely to be taken advantage of – both in your current and future relationships.
(Author’s note: If manipulation is an issue in your relationship, and you’d like to know more – especially what you can do about it – consider viewing our interactive workshop, “Common Manipulation Tactics & How to Deal with Them,” which is available in BTGO’s Sanity School now.)
Lisa Johnson is the co-founder of Been There Got Out, a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate, educator, professional writer, and founder of the Legal Abuse Support Group. She has been representing herself in family and the appellate court (pro se), which is a job unto itself, and her interviews with experts are prominent on social media, making beentheregotout.com a leading go-to resource for high-conflict divorce information worldwide.