Love Vs. Manipulation: How To Spot Red Flags

Updated March 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The desire to find true love is deeply entrenched in many of us. So much so, that some people will go to any lengths to get it. Manipulation is an unfortunately common tactic that someone may employ to entice or maintain a romantic relationship. The very nature of manipulation is calculated and cunning. Someone using manipulation tactics may not even be doing so consciously. 

For these reasons, manipulation tactics can be especially difficult to recognize and pinpoint. While there are glaring differences between healthy love and manipulation, it can be exceptionally challenging to tell the difference when you are in the midst of it. 

In this article, we will explore the inner workings of manipulation and how to spot potential red flags in a relationship. 

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 a number of 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 is using similar methods. 

Still, there are a number of thoughts and feelings that 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.

Typically, manipulation is employed by a person who wants to get you to do something you don’t necessarily want to. In this sense, a manipulator will typically 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” will typically make you feel as if you are making them suffer 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 will often employ tactics that force the people around them to question their reality. This is commonly referred to as “gaslighting”. Gaslighting is defined as a form of emotional abuse used to coax a person into no longer trusting their own reality, and living entirely 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. 

  • The Feeling That There Are Always Strings Attached. 

Though the nature of doing favors or good deeds is thought of as kind and honest, a manipulator tends to use this to their advantage. While reciprocation is a fairly 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 is 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 a victim of domestic violence or abuse, there is help available. Reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or visit their website

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 Clear, While Manipulation Is 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 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 has great potential for toxicity. 

  • Healthy Love Has Disagreements Where Manipulation Leads To Fights. 

It is perfectly natural to disagree upon things with a partner. Even the healthiest of couples can go through difficult times, but typically these difficulties will 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 are common, frequent full blown arguments should not be. 

  • Healthy Love Is Honest, While Manipulation Is Hypocritical. 

A healthy relationship requires both parties to take accountability when wrong. Where a healthy relationship will have an open and honest communication about the various challenges of a relationship, a manipulator will 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 Is Free, While Manipulation Controls. 

While it is 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, where 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 are 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 are characterized by a number of behaviors, the main one 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 an early warning sign. 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 are many less obvious signs that you could be getting manipulated. Since every situation is 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 dangerous nature of prolonged manipulation in relationships, professional guidance can often play a crucial role in the matters of safety and emotional well-being.  

Because of its increased accessibility, online therapy may be a good place to begin the process of seeking guidance. 

The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

In addition to the various benefits of online therapy, studies show that it works on 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. If you believe you may be the victim of a manipulative partner, it can be helpful to reach out to a licensed therapist. 

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