Emotions are part of the human experience. We all experience them, although some people are more comfortable feeling them, showing them and expressing them than others.
But some people use emotions to get their way.
So, where do you draw the line between a healthy expression of emotions and emotional manipulation?
„Simply being an emotional person in a relationship doesn’t necessarily constitute manipulation. It is important to remember, however, that everyone has different needs and boundaries regarding emotions,“ according to Heather Wilson, LCSW, LCADC, CCTP.
If you feel uneasy about the way emotions are handled in your relationship, here are three key differences between being emotional and emotional manipulation to help you figure out whether a healthier dynamic is in order, or whether you simply need to align on the different ways you and your partner handle emotionally charged moments.
Differences Between Being Emotional & Emotionally Manipulative
Emotional Manipulation Is Calculated
„Throughout my experience as a divorce attorney, I’ve been able to observe the emotional responses versus the emotional manipulation that exist in relationships, particularly when they have deteriorated beyond the point of no return,“ says Nicole Sodoma, divorce attorney and author of Please Don’t Say You’re Sorry.
„Emotional manipulation is where you are trying to inflict or trigger emotions in your partner because you believe it will strengthen your position or weaken their position. For example, we often see guilt and shame used in a divorce to weaken the other party’s resolve.“
On the other hand, being emotional is about expressing feelings spontaneously — there is no agenda. „Emotional manipulation has the intention of controlling the other, while simply being emotional is when the person expresses genuine feelings,“ adds Wilson.
Emotional Manipulation Is Damaging
While intense emotions can sometimes lead to uncomfortable moments, emotional manipulation is destructive. If your sense of safety and self are attacked during emotional conversations or you feel suffocated or controlled, you may be experiencing the latter.
Emotional manipulation is damaging and can take different forms. According to Wilson, common examples include guilt-tripping, criticizing or belittling a partner, refusing to show affection or support unless certain conditions are met, and using threats of abandonment or other consequences to control another person’s behavior.
„In addition, emotional manipulation often makes one person feel like they don’t have any choices and must comply with another’s wishes. This sort of manipulation is unhealthy for both people in the relationship,“ she says.
Emotional Manipulation Is About Weaponizing Emotions
Sodoma says there is a core difference between being emotional and emotionally manipulative — and it lies in how you handle your emotional experience and the emotional experience of others.
„The primary difference between being emotional and emotional manipulation is that emotions are something everyone experiences, even if we experience them differently,“ Sodoma explains. „Emotions are a part of life and often we have little control over the way we feel — though we do have control over the way we react.“
„Emotional manipulation is using what you know to trigger, inflict or cause a response or behavior that will strengthen your position or weaken the other’s,“ she adds.
How to Avoid Emotional Manipulation in Relationships
Some people may unconsciously use manipulation without realizing that they’re doing it. It’s important not to enable emotional manipulation. Set boundaries. Call it out and bring the discussion back to what really matters: Open, safe, constructive communication.
Lean into your emotions — but do it without ultimatums, shaming, belittling, or any other agendas than understanding each other. Pause before reacting impulsively to emotionally charged situations.
„Being able to express one’s feelings openly can be healthy and beneficial for both parties in the relationship,“ says Wilson. „Examples of expressing yourself emotionally include having honest conversations about your thoughts and feelings, making sure you are heard by your partner, and taking time to recognize and process your emotions before responding to any given situation.“
Remember that it’s OK to have emotional differences. Acknowledge that your experiences may differ. Recognize that talking about feelings can be challenging. And keep aiming for clarity and compassion over control.
„Emotions vary from person to person and relationships can see a wide variety of emotions,“ Sodoma says. „Expressing emotions with your partner can be difficult for many, but it is important to have open communication, talk about things upfront and be as clear as possible.“
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