On emotional manipulation

Part of having a relationship with someone involves certain responsibilities towards them; the most relevant to me at this moment being the responsibility toward maintaining their well-being. Obviously the amount of responsibility depends on the type of relationship, but I think it’s safe to say a friend that tries to murder you is no friend at all. A friend who helps someone try to murder you is also not a good friend, and a friend who stands back and takes pictures while you’re being murdered is also not a good friend. Friends should, at the very least, try to prevent your murder.

With parents, the responsibility is significantly greater; they’re responsible for your very existence  and in charge of your emotional and physical development through childhood, which is a significant amount of power that can easily be abused. Simply not-murdering your child isn’t enough; you’re also responsible for ensuring that they grow up healthy and, to a certain extent, happy. Emotional wellbeing is a bit less cut-and-dried than health, of course. The emotional discomfort a toddler undergoes when being told ‘No’ is important for his psychological development. However, the emotional turmoil that comes from being told that your parents wish you were never born and think you’re worthless has profound, lasting psychological effects. Clearly there’s a line that a parent should not cross, no matter how frustrated they get.

Which brings my to my main point: emotional manipulation, by which I mean, the abuse of the power that you have been granted over someone’s emotions due to their relationship to you to obtain your own desires to the detriment of the subject. Telling a boyfriend that you’d kill yourself if he left you is one good example; he has a responsibility to not aid and abet your death, and usually that outweighs his own desire for happiness, so that even if he is deeply miserable, he feels he cannot risk the tragedy that might occur if he pursued his own happiness in life. The total disregard for his happiness is what makes this abusive. You, as well, have a responsibility to help safeguard his emotional wellbeing, but you have decided to abandon your own responsibilities while holding him to his.

A lot of otherwise good parents fall into this trap as their financial and social power over their children begins to wane upon the child’s reaching adulthood. They start using the one power they have left, emotional power, to enforce their will on the child, even to the detriment of the child. A parent telling their child that they’ll wither away and die if he leaves home to pursue a job offer is clearly abusive. If the parent has medical needs that the child is filling, a conversation can be had about the practical implications of the child moving away, but it needs to be an adult conversation predicated on logic rather than emotional sucker-punches. That allows the child and adult to reach a decision that is mutually satisfactory, such as the child pursuing a different job offer or hiring a nurse to look after the parent while the child is away. It allows the child agency — which is something that terrifies a lot of parents. What if the child chooses “wrongly”? But if the child is not allowed to make a decision on their own, they are not being treated as a person but being used as a tool or an extension of the parent, and that’s not ethical.

As soon as a relative begins emotionally manipulating me, I stop trusting them. I don’t necessarily cut them out of my life entirely, but I don’t give them the power to hurt me like that again. I approach each conversation carefully; I remain polite, but I give acceptable answers even if I have to lie, and I do not volunteer information about my life. Some of the people I know don’t do that. They continue to trust the parent, even though the parent has broken faith and shown that they are not concerned about the child’s wellbeing to the extent that they should be. I don’t understand this. I mean, I guess I do, but it seems so foreign to me. To trust someone merely because of their status and the implied relationship that ought to be rather than the facts of what the relationship is seems the height of folly. But some people keep going back to the ones that hurt them, convincing themselves that it won’t happen again, it was just one time, or three, or seven, but really, it’ll be better next time. And it’s not. And I can’t help them if they’re not willing to help themselves.

I’m not doing well this week, as you can probably tell by the academic tone of this post. It’s one of those weeks where a million things are happening, attacks coming from every quarter, and if I start unloading about my emotional state the post will turn into a rambling, tear-stained mess. But I did want to open the discussion on this topic because I know my views are… unusual, differing significantly from the general population.

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5 Responses to On emotional manipulation

  1. Firedrake says:

    This sounds horribly, horribly familiar.

    If someone – a relative or not – manipulates you ten thousand times you probably shouldn’t trust them any more. If they do it once, maybe it was an accident. Somewhere between those points one has to change one’s mind.

    I’m not a parent but I am sometimes a teacher. And while I will tell my pupils as much as I can, I still have to let them foul up in their own ways.

    • yamikuronue says:

      True, I suppose allowances could be made for accidents, but it’s like…. if they’re genuinely upset, accidental manipulation is possible. But if they’re prone to pitching a fit over email, where they have a chance to stop and think before sending, or doing something huge like threaten suicide, even if they didn’t mean to do it, they’re clearly not healthy to be around, you know? Apologies and acknowledgement that it was wrong go a long way toward restoring trust, but I’ve never seen a family member actually acknowledge that they’ve behaved badly, so I don’t have much experience there.

      • Firedrake says:

        Of course they have not behaved badly: it’s “all your fault for misunderstanding them”.

        Unfortunately I have nothing to offer being “bummer” and a sympathetic virtual ear.

        I have found that when people claim never actually to be in any way wrong (not in so many words, just that that’s the only consistent explanation) that’s a good sign that it’s time to cut off contact.

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