Many years ago, I was in a relationship with a man whose house had an odd smell to it, and there were ominous looking dark spots on his ceiling. He had been unwilling to investigate it previously, assuming it was an insignificant issue. However, by the time I moved in and insisted we have it checked out, it had gotten so bad that the remediation company said we had the highest levels of toxic black mold that they had ever seen. It had multiplied over the years, starting from a small leak in the ceiling that grew into an infestation that affected the entire house. It required us to move out and dispose of many of our belongings. I moved out, and moved on from both the toxic mold and the harmful manipulation I had endured throughout that relationship. Manipulators, like mold, can slowly and stealthily try to take over many areas of your life. It is important to see the warning signs of both, as your health and well-being depend on it.
Over the years, and especially during the pandemic, I have had a surprisingly large number of clients contact me for therapy related to narcissistic abuse and other toxic relationship issues. Sometimes, clients seek out therapy because they are well aware of what has transpired in their relationships, and other times, they are blindsided by the manipulation and emotional abuse they have endured. The manipulators have been their husbands/wives, boyfriends/girlfriends, dates, friends, and bosses. Manipulators tend to seek out those that are very empathic, as they feed off of the attention and care that compassionate people give to their partners. Often, the narcissist will be good looking, charming, intelligent, and appear to be compassionate as well. They seem to know just what to say and do. They try to give you what they think you want from them. Sometimes they use drawn out explanations of things, with more detail than might seem necessary. Despite the detail they use in relaying a story, it can seem like they are giving vague or evasive answers. They may have odd excuses for the simplest things. For example, I met a guy once who told me the reason he was late to our date was that he needed to bike ride over to his brother's house because his brother had a toothache (Spoiler alert: No, he is not a dentist, and no, he was not actually at his brother's house). If you pay close enough attention to the red flags, you may find that things don't add up. If you figure out that they are being dishonest, and they become aware that you can see through their lies, a manipulator will do anything to either convince you that you are wrong, or they will disconnect from you.
Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly, as I tend to be an empathic person), I have had my fair share of encounters with toxic people. I once dated a man for several years who I realized had been cheating on me. There were multiple signs that he was being unfaithful, such as finding women's clothes and jewelry in his house that did not belong to me or anyone that lived there. He would not always be where he said he was going to be. He would hide his phone when we were together, and be inaccessible when he was out of town. He told me when I met him that he had cheated in the past, and that he always had an exit plan in relationships, until he met me (of course). Looking back after the relationship ended, I realized how everything had to be on his terms. He would talk about how I was the only one for him, but in reality, he was the only one for him. I should have left as soon as I saw the signs, but like many people do, I tried to communicate about it and make it work, for awhile anyway.
Sometimes, you find these manipulators already in your work or social circles, which can be especially difficult to navigate. For example, I found myself in the presence of a man who raised red flags, but whom I had to see often in my regular daily life. From the beginning, I felt he wasn't being truthful, and I pointed out his inconsistencies, as well as the fact that he seemed to be trying to cross boundaries. It appeared as though he was simply playing a game for his own entertainment. He told me from the beginning "Perception is not reality." There is some truth to the saying that we see things as we are, not as they actually are. In this case, however, it seemed like an attempt to tell me that whatever negative thing I would come to think I knew about him, or hear about him (something he was very concerned about), that I would be wrong. He tried hard to convince me of his good intentions, and I played along for awhile. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to be friendly, because of the frequency with which we had to cross paths. However, there were too many inconsistencies, and a lot of words not backed up by actions. When he realized he was unable to convince me, he did what he could to disconnect.
As in the example of mold discussed earlier, when it comes to a manipulator, you might not always realize right away that there is a problem. Beautiful paint and decor (like a charming smile and lots of attention) can cover up the toxicity which exists underneath. Perception is not always reality. When dealing with a toxic person, it can be difficult to know what is real and what is not. Over enough time, however, things usually become clear. The following are ten key points to remember that relate to the examples I just described above. Keep these in mind if you find yourself dealing with a toxic, manipulative person.
1. Trust your gut. There is research to support the idea that your gut instinct is correct, and aware of pertinent information, even before your logical brain has a chance to process and make sense of it.
2. Pay attention to actions, not words. Narcissists, liars, and manipulators tend to say things they think you'll want to hear, but their actions usually fail to back them up. They may make promises they can't keep, and may insinuate a closer relationship with you than what actually exists.
3. Keep your eyes and ears open, but keep your observations to yourself. Knowledge is power, but not when it's shared with the manipulator.
4. Intermittent reinforcement is not good. Recognize it for what it is. Psychological research shows that reward delivered at irregular intervals results in the greatest effort from research subjects. In toxic relationships, it makes the person feel more bonded to their abuser, and makes them try harder to make things work. The attention and affection from the manipulator is sporadic and unpredictable, which serves to keep the person connected.
5. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. A leopard does not change his spots. If you think your partner has a history of dishonesty, it would be wise to pay attention, as it is possible for that behavior to continue.
6. Know your own worth. Once you do, you won't settle for a toxic relationship.
7. Don't engage. Don't poke the bear. Don't try to get answers or give explanations. Just Don't. You will never win with a manipulator. Freedom from their control or influence is the only way to win.
8. Peace of mind is priceless. Always put your well-being first. It is always better to be alone than to be in a toxic relationship.
9. True, meaningful connections take time to develop. "Lovebombing" is when a toxic person showers you with attention, gifts, compliments and affection in the beginning of a relationship, only to later withdraw it. It is not true love, but part of the cycle of abuse.
10. Don't let one bad apple spoil the bunch. Or rather, don't assume that every person out there (especially in the dating world) is out to take advantage of you. Yes, there are the manipulators. However, there are still good, honest men and women out in the world trying to make true connections. Take things slowly, keep your eyes and ears open, and true colors will emerge over time.