Like anything deeply personal, relationships are difficult to navigate and can be complex. Everyone needs healthy boundaries to feel safe and thrive in their own environments. What those boundaries look like will be different for every relationship.
Some people will also attempt to push those boundaries, using their actions and behavior to control and influence the other parties in their relationships. This is manipulative behavior and people can perform it both consciously and subconsciously. Sometimes, people use the term “manipulative personality disorder” to describe individuals who have a history of purposeful manipulative actions.
Technically, there isn’t a diagnosable condition called “manipulative personality disorder.” Some experts argue the case for one, but it has not become official. Instead, you could view this disorder as a series of symptoms that often occur in cluster B personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder. We’ll discuss the symptoms that are often grouped under manipulative personality disorder, as well as their diagnosable counterparts.
Defining Manipulative Personality Disorder: Characteristics and Symptoms
If manipulative personality disorder were a diagnosable illness, what would fall under its list of signs and symptoms? The characteristic symptom would, of course, be manipulative behavior. Everyone has done something manipulative before, but the people with this condition purposely manipulate others—sometimes compulsively. The methods could be more subtle or far more obvious. Some potential examples of manipulative behavior include:
- Using a person’s weakness and exploiting it
- Convincing someone to cut out friends, family, and other important people to build codependency
- Withholding information, lying, or actively blaming a person without taking responsibility
- Vague accusations
- Passive-aggressive behavior with a lack of communication
- Judgment and ridicule, both private or in-person
In short, any behavior that attempts to remove another person’s agency or power in a relationship could be manipulative, especially if it encroaches on healthy boundaries. However, it can be difficult to notice these actions as they occur. Look for both these subtle behaviors, as well as more blatant ones, like the ones below.
At its most basic, gaslighting is an attempt to make a person question their reality. Over the course of a relationship, the manipulator may lie about events that happened, twist the facts of what actually occurred, or use another person’s words against them. If done consistently, this can cause anyone to second-guess their experiences and feel lost. As a result, the manipulator gains power over the individual.
One of the most classic types of manipulative behavior is love bombing. At the beginning of a relationship, the manipulator will shower—or “bomb”—a person with attention, affection, and expensive gifts. Often, this includes hasty discussions about meeting family and other serious relationship steps. The relationship will often feel quite intense at a very early stage because of this.
It’s extremely common for friends and partners to tease each other lightheartedly. However, those who have manipulative personality disorder will often take it much further, using aggressive humor and cruel jokes to hurt a person or make them feel “lesser.” Examples of this might include jokes about weight gain, blemishes, or even social flubs.
These hostile comments can have major impacts on a person’s self-esteem and confidence, leading to reliance on the manipulator for feelings of validation.
Manipulators will sometimes try to take someone out of their comfort zone or bring them to a location they are uncomfortable in. This is called location advantage and it is yet another attempt to put the target at a disadvantage in the relationship. It can be extremely disorienting to be in a location you are not comfortable in, leading to feelings of fear, powerlessness, and anxiety.
Causes and Contributing Factors to Manipulative Personality Disorder
People use manipulative behavior to achieve personal goals and hold power over others. A serious issue with manipulation, such as that of manipulative personality disorder, could stem from a few different contributing factors.
One of the biggest of these would be family history. People from families with a history of manipulative personality disorder—or even just manipulative behavior—are far more likely to learn to interact negatively with others. In some cases, this began as a survival tactic at home, but it has become a serious problem in adulthood.
Additionally, a family history of cluster B personality disorders may increase the likelihood of being born with one of these disorders, many of which feature manipulative behavior as a symptom.
Individuals with a history of abuse may not feel safe communicating in a healthy manner with future partners, instead utilizing manipulative behaviors to get what they want.
Effects on Personal and Interpersonal Life
Manipulative personality disorder can have extensive effects on both a person’s personal and interpersonal lives—not all of which are negative. Because the nature of manipulative behavior puts the manipulator in a position of power, they will often succeed in business and other ventures. Coworkers, supervisors, and clients may even largely see them as charismatic and successful. However, manipulative behavior always has a victim, even if the victim doesn’t realize it.
In terms of intimate relationships, those who have manipulative personality disorder may experience difficulties. Often, manipulative behavior is a form of abuse, leading to many partners leaving the manipulator. Alternatively, if the manipulator has borderline personality disorder or a similar condition, they may feel a frequent need to change relationships without warning.
People with cluster B personality disorders often see the world in black and white, leading to flare-ups of symptoms. For example, their partner may forget their anniversary, leading the manipulator to feel their partner is no longer committed to the relationship. The manipulator may then feel a need to use manipulative behaviors to “lock” their partner back in the relationship.
Those who have narcissistic personality disorder have a need to feel powerful and admired, but lack a sense of empathy. This can lead to many relationship conflicts and connections that are lacking in real intimacy.
Diagnosis, Treatment, and Coping Strategies for Individuals with Manipulative Personality Disorder
Experts want to view manipulative personality disorder as an actual condition and not simply a form of abusive behavior. This is largely because we can often find sources for the behavior and they mirror those of other personality disorders. Until an official diagnostic criteria exists, professionals may use cluster B personality disorders as their chosen diagnoses.
Treatment for manipulative personality behavior will depend on the existence of other underlying mental health issues. Generally, psychotherapies are the most effective solution for personality disorders.
Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavior therapy and dialectical behavior therapy, involve finding the negative thought patterns that influence behavior. By targeting these thoughts, it’s possible to limit symptoms and improve overall well-being.
In some cases, a doctor may prescribe medications to help manage certain symptoms. Mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications all have potential roles to play in the treatment of personality disorders.
If you or someone you know shows signs of manipulative personality disorder, there are coping strategies you can utilize to limit symptoms. Try to remove yourself from the situation whenever manipulative behaviors start to occur. Do not guilt or allow others to guilt you into doing anything you do not want to do. Don’t get mad when someone with the condition is attempting to manipulate you. Simply point out the behavior and find a way to de-escalate the situation.
When it comes to trying to control manipulative personality disorder, it can be extremely difficult to do on your own. Reaching out to a professional is the best way to control symptoms and learn how to limit manipulative behavior. Restore Mental Health offers a team of mental health experts who can help, whether you have manipulative personality disorder or are someone who has experienced manipulative behavior. Contact us today to learn more.