Love Vs. Manipulation: How To Spot Red Flag

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The desire to find true love can be deeply entrenched in many of us—so much so that some people may go to any lengths to get it. Manipulation can be a common tactic that someone may employ to entice or maintain a romantic relationship. When you’re being manipulated, you may experience feelings of fear, obligation, and guilt. It’s possible you may begin to question yourself and your reality. You may also feel that there are always strings attached when your partner does something nice for you. Healthy love often feels honest and free, while manipulation generally feels confusing and involves an element of control. For professional guidance regarding questions about manipulation, it can be helpful to schedule a session with an online therapist.

Feeling uncertain of your partner?

What is manipulation? 

“Manipulation is an emotionally unhealthy psychological strategy used by people who are incapable of asking for what they want and need in a direct way,” says Sharie Stines, a California-based therapist who specializes in abuse and toxic relationships. 

In an article published by Time Magazine, Stines describes several feelings that tend to arise when you are being manipulated. An underlying suspicion that you are being pressured or controlled is typically a good indicator. While it can be fairly easy to spot manipulation tactics used by an obtrusive salesperson, it can be far more difficult to recognize when a partner may be using similar methods. 

A number of thoughts and feelings may persist in a situation where you are being manipulated. These feelings may include, but are not limited to: 

Feelings of fear, obligation, or guilt

Manipulation is usually employed by a person who wants to get you to do something you don’t necessarily want to do. In this sense, a manipulator may take the role of the “bully” or the “victim.”

A manipulator acting as a “bully” might use aggression, threats, or intimidation. For example, they may threaten to leave or take something of value to you if you do not do as they say. 

A manipulator acting as a “victim” can attempt to make you feel like you are the reason behind their pain simply by not doing what they want. This can present in the form of exaggerating their emotional pain or imposing excessive feelings of guilt onto you. 

Feeling “crazy” or constantly questioning yourself

A manipulator often employs tactics that force the people around them to question their reality. This can be commonly referred to as “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is typically defined as a form of emotional abuse used to coax a person into no longer trusting their own reality. A person who is gaslit may function solely based on perceptions and realities the manipulator has created. 

Gaslighting tends to happen gradually over time. Someone who gaslights you may also attempt to isolate you from friends or loved ones. A lack of input from outsiders can help the manipulator convince you that only their perception of reality is dependable. 

Feeling that there are always strings attached

Though the nature of doing favors or good deeds is often thought of as kind and honest, a manipulator tends to use this to their advantage. While reciprocation can be a necessary part of any healthy relationship, the feeling that someone is only doing favors for you to get something in return is typically a good indicator of manipulation. 

Typically, this manipulative behavior will present as a pattern and may worsen over time. If you feel a sense of dread or anxiety when your partner does something kind for you, it’s most likely because you are aware that they will now follow this up with a demand or become disappointed when you don’t reciprocate in the way they expected.

It can be important to note that many of these behaviors in a romantic relationship may indicate or lead to emotional or physical abuse. If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence or abuse, there is help available.


Healthy love vs. manipulation

In a medically reviewed piece published by the HuffPost, clinical psychologist Dr. Sherrie Campbell goes over some of the most apparent differences between healthy love and manipulation.

Healthy love is usually clear, while manipulation can be confusing

If you find yourself constantly wondering where you stand with your partner, it may be a sign of manipulation. In a healthy relationship, partners typically feel there is a clear and consistent dynamic between them. Feeling constantly confused by your partner's feelings toward you or the status of your relationship can have great potential for toxicity.

Healthy love may have disagreements, where manipulation often leads to fights

It can be perfectly natural to disagree upon things with a partner. Even the healthiest of couples can go through difficult times, but typically these difficulties can be handled with a level of love and composure. In a manipulative partnership, otherwise small disagreements may turn into full-blown yelling matches resulting in harsh words being said or ongoing silent treatment. Again, where disagreements can be common, frequent full-blown arguments generally should not be. 

Healthy love is normally honest, while manipulation can be hypocritical

A healthy relationship typically requires both parties to take accountability when wrong. Where a healthy relationship may have open and honest communication about the various challenges of a relationship, a manipulator will usually refuse to admit wrongdoing. 

Along with a lack of accountability, someone that is manipulating you may get upset with you for certain behaviors that they themselves perform. For example, a manipulator might get angry with you for coming home very late, then do the same thing while continuing to place blame on you. 

Healthy love often feels free, while manipulation typically seeks to control

While it can be common for romantic partners to merge many aspects of their day-to-day lives, it is typically important for a person to maintain certain independent aspects of their own personality. Healthy partners tend to maintain outside friends and hobbies, whereas a manipulative partner may actively work to remove or distance you from these things. 

Due to the gradual nature of manipulation, it can be difficult to spot red flags, but there may be a number of early signs you may be able to recognize. 

The red flags of manipulation

Early red flags of manipulation in a romantic relationship can be characterized by a number of behaviors, the main one usually being “love bombing”. An article published by the New York Times describes love bombing as the use of excessive flattery, attention, extravagant gifts, and isolation from family and friends. 

While many of these gestures may come off as kind or romantic, they may serve as early warning signs. Excessive compliments or expressions of love very early on may indicate that a person has fallen for an idealized version of you. When you do not live up to the unrealistic standard they have set for you in their mind, this is when manipulation tends to occur. 

Still, there can be many less obvious signs that you could be getting manipulated. Since every situation tends to be unique, it may help to seek guidance from a licensed therapist.

Feeling uncertain of your partner?

The benefits of online therapy

If you suspect your partner may be manipulating you, it is typically best to consult a therapist or mental health professional. Due to the potentially dangerous nature of prolonged manipulation in relationships, professional guidance can often play a crucial role in matters of safety and emotional well-being.  

Online therapy may be a good place to begin the process of seeking guidance. You may speak with a licensed mental health professional from any location with an internet connection.

The effectiveness of online therapy

In addition to the various benefits of online therapy, studies show that it usually has the same level of effectiveness as face-to-face therapy. Due to the complexity of identifying signs of manipulative behavior and navigating the differences between a healthy relationship and a manipulative one, guidance from a therapist or licensed relationship counselor is likely to serve as an effective tool.


While the gradual nature of manipulation can make it difficult to spot red flags in the early stages, it can be crucial to trust your instincts and maintain a support system outside of your relationship, whether it is friends, relatives, or a mental health professional. You might look out for warning signs, such as love bombing, hypocritical behavior, frequent fights, and feelings of confusion and guilt. If you believe you may be experiencing manipulation, it can be helpful to reach out to a licensed therapist.
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