Everyone knows that sometimes marriages just go wrong. It’s nobody’s fault sometimes; two people just don’t mesh the way they once did, or things happen that make life difficult over time. Some ex-couples even stay friends.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
About half the time, divorce comes about because someone is really, really pissed. And the general reason for that? Manipulation of some kind.
If you’re reading this, there’s at least a small chance that you clicked because you’re worried you’re being manipulated in some way. After years in the business of divorce, I have some experience in knowing what spousal manipulation looks like—and also how to deal with it. Basically, it boils down to some pretty obvious signs.
You consistently are made to feel guilty, whether you did anything wrong or not.
Everybody’s wrong sometimes, and everybody cries sometimes (so says R.E.M.). But if you’re in the wrong 100% of the time for years, and your spouse won’t or can’t take responsibility for any wrongdoing, chances are they’re full of it. It takes two, people.
You know that thing people do where they say something nice, or helpful, but it makes you feel horrendous? It’s the classic move: pretend to be being helpful while actually being critical, in order to avoid direct confrontation—then deny you meant anything by it, and the other person is clearly overreacting. It’s a cheap way to get an unfair advantage, and it’s highly manipulative.
A close cousin of passive aggressiveness, gaslighting is when someone makes you feel crazy. You have an issue with their behavior? You must be crazy. You think they’re making bad choices? You’re clearly crazy. This is most damaging when it goes beyond just saying you’re crazy, to actually acting concerned about it. The secret weapon here: playing on your insecurities. Don’t buy it.
You often feel small.
Feel like your needs don’t matter? If your spouse routinely dismisses what you want or need, minimizes your concerns, and/or calls you “ridiculous,” you’re probably being manipulated.
They isolate you.
One of the more dangerous kinds of manipulation is when, usually in multiple ways, a partner or spouse methodically isolates you from other people. This can come in direct or indirect ways—for example, by demanding you stay away from your friends, or by pretending to be sick every time you want to go out—and is usually a control issue.
They twist your words.
Feel like your spouse is a master at twisting your words into something ugly when they weren’t intended that way? Standard tactic.
They have a pattern of forming relationships with vulnerable people.
Manipulative people like being in relationships where the power dynamic is skewed in their favor. Have you noticed that your spouse’s other relationships are skewed this way? An example is someone who can only have who are significantly less attractive than they are, or someone whose friends are all significantly younger/less experienced/less worldly. The key is that they have to have the advantage in every relationship.
If you’ve consistently caught your partner in lies, particularly damaging lies, you can bet there are plenty of lies that you haven’t found out about. Big red flag.
They are distant or emotionally unavailable a lot of the time.
Everyone needs space sometimes, but if you feel like you are being pushed away for weeks or even months at a time, and your partner is unwilling to explain why, it can become a very destructive relationship for you. While there are sometimes extenuating circumstances, like depression, this is still something that needs addressing.
They “punish” you.
If you feel like you get punished when you confront your spouse or disagree with them, that’s not good. Even in the case of real wrongdoing in a marriage, there’s very little point in “punishing” your spouse. Either you deal with the issue, forgive and move on, or you choose not to forgive and move out—but what you shouldn’t do is remain in the relationship while lording the wrongdoing over the partner as a form of power. It’s understandable in some cases, I admit, but ultimately it’s not constructive, and only further damages the relationship.
I do want to say that sometimes these things pop up in even quite happy relationships, and it doesn’t necessarily spell the end. It’s important to be able to have an open conversation about what’s going on: for at least one of you to have the courage to bring it up, and for both of you to talk about what’s going on and why that might be.
Of course, if you’re reading this post you’ve probably been there, done that, and it hasn’t worked—or else you can’t even communicate with your partner about it, because they won’t have it.
At that stage, therapy is an option, and it can help. However, both people have to be committed to improving the relationship, so you’re going to have to prepare for conversation in that case, too.
The final option when you’ve exhausted all others is to muster up the nerve to leave. While difficult, I see people do it every day, and have happier lives afterward; so while it’s perhaps the most difficult option in the short run, in the long run it may be the best decision for you.
James J. Sexton