REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News
There’s little worse than thinking someone is a manipulator who isn’t, except failing to realize you are being manipulated when you are.
We should think well of our fellow and give people the benefit of the doubt. It would be nice if we didn’t even have a doubt to begin with. Judging others favorably means thinking positively about others no matter if we think we have “evidence” to the contrary.
Given this dictum, to assume someone is a manipulator is particularly bad. But, one could argue, what if all the evidence lines up in such a way that you can find no other explanation for the behavior but manipulation? If that’s what you really think, here’s my diagnosis: I hope the person in question is not your spouse, parent, or child because, whoever it is, there has been a terrible breakdown in your relationship with this person. For the individual to need to manipulate is a sign of a relationship that has practically failed; it is also a sign of a person who doesn’t have a clue how to put it back together.
The reason for this conclusion is simple: Manipulation is deception. It’s painting half the picture or fabricating the other half in order to gain some end that would not be gained in a normal, straightforward manner. It may or may not involve lying, but it twists the truth. Why would someone feel the need to resort to that? The answer is clear. Only where the lines of communication between that person and you have degenerated to a degree where honesty won’t work will someone stoop to manipulation.
- At 15, Jessie is pretty but lacks confidence in herself. She flirts with and steals other girls’ boyfriends; it makes her feel like a winner. That’s manipulation. What she really needs, she can’t put into words and that is to be appreciated for herself. Unfortunately, her hurtful, mean behavior stands in her own way.
- Martha badly wants to buy a dress she sees in the mall. Her husband is a decent earner, but the money already has been budgeted for their children’s college account, their summer trip to see her elderly parents, and some unexpected repairs on the house. She does not work outside the home and knows her husband worries about finances. She buys the dress anyway and tells him she was depressed today so as to win his sympathy. That’s manipulation even if she actually felt down. This is manipulation because she used her mood to gain an end.
- Andrew studied amazingly hard for the exam. That test would determine the top of the curve. Although he was confident in himself, he was quite certain that Miri did at least as well as he did; they were the smartest kids in the class. He reported to the principal that he saw her cheating. Lying to gain an end is manipulation.
- Ellie and Stuart did not care for their son’s girlfriend. They asked her questions to which she could not have known the answer so as to make her look stupid. Setting someone up to look bad is manipulation.
- When Tonya Harding hired a henchman to smash Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 trials, besides being a felony, that was manipulation. She was afraid to compete fair and square.
So What Is Manipulation?
In each of the above examples, there is no relationship between the parties, with the exception of Martha and her husband. In all the other instances, manipulation was accomplished by one of the following: crossing boundaries of civil society, lying, rudeness, and felonious assault. Clearly, there were no “lines of communication” to be broken. In Martha’s case, she was afraid to be honest. Why? Is she just spoiled? Or is her husband’s anxiety so over the top that everyone is afraid to speak up around him? Her perception that she had to manipulate becomes a red flag for a marriage in trouble.
When Someone Says, “You Hurt My Feelings” Is That Manipulation?
How would you rule in the following case? Mordi, age 18, and his mother argue. At some point, Mordi tells his mother that the way she spoke, she is hurting his feelings. His mother, Shirley, is convinced that he is being manipulative. “He just didn’t want to hear my criticism,” she decided, “so he told me I was hurting his feelings to make me feel guilty and take back the criticism.”
What’s your opinion?
Let’s say, for a moment, that Shirley is correct in that Mordi did not want to hear the criticism. (Who wants to hear criticism, anyway?) Let’s also assume that Shirley was not rude but, perhaps loud. Was Mordi being manipulative? Again, what do you think?
My answer is a question: How would the fact that Shirley felt badly for talking loudly change anything? If she was a good mother, then the criticism must stand if it is deserved, regardless how she said it. If the criticism stands, then what manipulative end does Mordi accomplish by telling his mother she hurt his feelings? – Absolutely none. The two issues—her criticism and her hurtful speech—are separate. The only way she could back down and say, “Never mind,” is if she is a poor parent who allows the issues to be muddied. His behavior requires a response from her. If her behavior in responding was wrong, it doesn’t change the fact that his behavior called for criticism.
Now, suppose Mordi was used to getting his mother to back down on criticisms by telling her that she hurt his feelings. In that case, would his behavior be manipulative? No, again. The fact is that by paying so much close attention to his presumed manipulation, we totally take the focus off his mother. In my view, her analysis is what’s manipulative. She doesn’t want to look at the possibility that she hurt her son’s feelings and so throws the entire thing back on him.
If she is convinced she was not hurtful and is confused as to what hurt his feelings, all she has to do is say, “Gee, I didn’t realize that I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry.” But he still has to take out the garbage (or correct whatever mistake she was criticizing him for). It’s her responsibility to (a) criticize when required, and (b) do it without abuse. Therefore, she needs to monitor her own behavior and do a bit of reflecting regarding her style of delivery.
The Child’s Feelings Are As Important As His Character
The requirement that she not inflict pain on her child is just as important as the requirement that she give him appropriate feedback for his behavior, including criticism when necessary. The state of her child’s heart is equal in importance to that of his character. The need to attend to one does not exclude attending to the other. Thus, she must ask herself: Was I sarcastic? Did I misjudge the situation? Did I jump to conclusions that he hadn’t done his chore (or whatever)? Did I yell? Was my tone sharp? Were my words highly accusatory?
On the flip side, looking into her own delivery style should in no way stop her from appropriate chastisement. The bottom line is: If she was doing her job, then there would be no reason his statement that she hurt him should stop her from her criticism. A good parent does criticize if necessary. If she will go on with the criticism anyway, then Mordi’s claim that his mother hurt him should have no affect on the criticism. So where’s the manipulation?
Of course, we must ask, what if (1) Shirley is a wimp who backs down, and (2) Shirley did not hurt Mordi’s feelings? If she knew beyond a shred of a doubt that she did not hurt him, why would she feel the need to back down? The only explanation is that Shirley might feel guilty and back down if she knew that her words or tone were harsh and hurtful, in which case, Mordi is not manipulating; he’s being honest. In other words, if she’s certain of (2), she has no cause to go to (1).
I suspect a twinge of recognition in Shirley’s heart that perhaps she knew she did hurt his feelings. Otherwise, if she had not been hurtful in the least bit, Mordi would have no foothold with which to accuse her of being hurtful and her accusation of Mordi being manipulative would be pretty weak. (If Mordi were correct, she should still not back down, but if she did, it would be out of guilt, and she would be making two parental errors—failing to teach her son and abusing him in the process.)
If this case teaches anything at all, it teaches us to be very, very careful before making an accusation of manipulation, especially when the possible manipulation involves a close relative. The accusation alone is a stab in the heart when it is unjustified.
The other side is that the accusation of manipulation sometimes could be justified. Jessie, Martha, Andrew, Ellie and Stuart developed a pattern which is important for people in their lives to recognize. Tonya Harding spent 10 days in jail for alcohol-related violence after the Kerrigan case, so I suspect she, indeed, had evolved a pattern long before the 1994 headlines.
A good rule: Work hard, very hard, on giving the benefit of the doubt, but that doesn’t mean you should put on blinders.