I was inspired to write this article after seeing the below image while mindlessly looking around online. For some reason it struck a cord with me, and then I realised something. The reason my depression suddenly crashed last summer was because of this very thing: micromanipulations. Micromanipulations aren’t just for narcissists, anyone can use these tactics.
However, I want to rewrite the classic definition of micromanipulations of someone deliberately using them in an abusive way. Instead, I want to make sure it also includes micromanipulations by people that are unaware that their behaviour could have a toxic effect. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll agree with me.
What Are Micromanipulations?
Micromanipulations are a form of emotional, and often psychological, abuse, but a lot more subtle (Metro). Hardly surprising, but people use these micromanipulations to manipulate other people for their own gains (GetToText).
There’s a belief that only narcissists engage in abusive behaviours, but that’s not the case. Any of us can display narcissistic traits because narcissism exists on a spectrum, which can be triggered by personality types, risk-taking behaviours, and life events (Stylist).
Because you don’t have to be a complete narcissist to engage in these behaviours, you can stop thinking of Donald Trump. People use these micromanipulations, consciously or unconsciously, to influence and gain control of other people through their thoughts and feelings (GetToText). However, just because they’re unaware, it doesn’t make it any less abusive, especially if they’re not willing to change once this has been pointed out to them.
According to the therapist Stina Sanders, micromanipulations are an intentional way of controlling someone by garnering of sympathy, in situations like a fight, by redirecting the narrative to gain control. This is a view also shared by Kristy Lee Hochenberger, as said in her article for Psychology Today, stating that micromanipulations are used to gain the sympathy and empathy from their partner.
This form of intentional manipulation often comes in the form of inconsequential comments, often made in passing or dropped casually into a conversation (Psychology Today). An example of this is when someone “accidentally” sends you a message that suggests something is wrong, then sending another message claiming that was a meant for someone else. They do this to hook your attention through your empathy, because you’ll likely want to ask what’s wrong.
A study by Konecni (1972) looked into how sympathy and guilt affected if someone engaged in a helping behaviour. The study found that both feelings of sympathy and guilt caused an increase in helping behaviours, with sympathy being the most effective at this.
One of my friends contacted me last year to ask for my advice about someone they knew. It turned out that the person kept using micromanipulations on my friend by suggesting they’d kill themselves if my friend didn’t talk to them. They just wanted my friend’s attention, although I don’t know why.
My advice to my friend was to set up some boundaries, explain that they can’t keep doing this with their friend as they can no longer handle the stress, and to provide them with information for mental health crisis organisations. I also packaged up my advice with a lot of reassurance around putting their own wellbeing first because they felt guilty.
The treat of harming one’s self is a common micromanipulation. I’m sure if you think back, you’ll have heard about someone using this method or have experienced someone doing it first hand yourself. I have both firsthand and third hand experience of this.
My partner’s parents also have a way of using micromanipulations that my partner always complains about, which might be quite common among parents. They frequently add, “It would be nice if…” before stating what they want, such as coming to visit and staying over. Although it doesn’t bother me in the slightest because guilt isn’t an effective way to manipulate me, it really bothers my partner. Do any of your parents do something similar?
The most common reason that unintentional micromanipulations can happen in a relationship (most likely in family and romantic relationships) is because the person needs attention or affirmation. I know this, because last summer I realised why my depression had been getting far worse than normal. Something my partner was doing had been getting to me, and I wouldn’t have realised if it wasn’t for the pandemic.
I realised that, although my partner is extremely supportive and understanding, they use a couple of micromanipulations that have been chipping away at my wellbeing. My partner has an issue with becoming defensive easily, and over things that don’t matter. As a result, they’ve unintentionally weaponised that anger.
When we have conversations about things and we have a difference of opinion, even on subjects that we have no personal investments in, my partner can get angry. This anger is likely part frustration because they don’t think they’ve explained it in a way I’ve understood, even though I have. But when they get like this, I change my behaviour to either withdraw from what we’re talking about or to wait for them to settle down.
It doesn’t help that my partner seems to think every disagreement is an argument. From my partner’s perspective, we’ve argued a lot because of this. Whereas I don’t think we’ve ever really argued. My partner knows they do this as we’ve talked about it a few times. But until they work on their anger and the quickness of their defensive response, this likely won’t change. But this isn’t the micromanipulation that caused my depression to nose dive.
My partner and I don’t live together and we never plan to. So when we had to go into lockdown, we couldn’t see each other. To help my partner to cope with the isolation, we started having date nights by videochat and did weekly exercise sessions over videochat too.
Those that know me will know that I have problems with exercise tolerance that can leave me feeling extremely unwell for hours. This could be because of my reactive hypoglycaemia, the problem with my heart, or be an issue with my autonomic nervous system. I still don’t know why it happens.
I noticed that whenever we had these videochat interactions, I couldn’t end the call when I wanted too without having to deal with changes in my partner’s behaviour. They were using micromanipulations, by using a chance of tone to keep me in the conversation, even when I feel really unwell because we exercised.
After more than a year of this, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I stopped videochating with my partner. However, this made me realise that this happens any time we spend time together, especially if I’m at their place. It’s something we need to work on, and hopefully we will do at some point.
That’s it my personal example of unintentional micromanipulations, and how it’s still toxic, whether or not they know they’re doing it. So what do you think? Could unintentional micromanipulations exist?
Micromanipulations can be subtle, and they can easily go unnoticed. But that doesn’t change the fact that the behaviours are toxic. If you haven’t already concluded why micromanipulations are harmful to a relationship, then let me tell you. Micromanipulations are abusive, whether they’re being used intentionally or not. It doesn’t matter if they’re family, friends, a co-worker, or your lover, it will create a rot that slowly eats away at the relationship, causing harm to the person being subjected to it.
Communicating with your person about their use of micromanipulations is an important step to getting them to stop and for you to establish boundaries. If they continue to keep using micromanipulations, then maybe it’s time to consider the person to be an abuser.
For more information on abuse and what you can do, click here and here.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with micromanipulations in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Konecni, V. J. (1972). Some effects of guilt on compliance: A field replication. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1972-31445-001, https://doi.org/10.1037/h0032875, and http://konecni.ucsd.edu/pdf/1972%20A%20Field%20Replication…%20JPSP.pdf.
48 thoughts on “What Makes Micromanipulations Ruin A Relationship”
Are there parents who don’t manipulate their kids in anyway? I think there is really thin line between micromanipulation and trying to be polite and not intrusive. Also the tactics HR call nudging is similar – hinting with subtext what other person should or could do.
I guess the problem is, if you rely on manipulating your children in order to get them to do what you want, then you’re also teaching them the same thing
Micromanipulations, subtle, go unnoticed. Unnoticed, it becomes toxic. It can destroy the person on the receiving end and changes the dynamics of a relationship, and not in a good way.
This article is an informative read; thanks for writing and sharing it.
Thanks for commenting
This is interesting, you have a lot of information about this. Well, I know it but not in this term. Thank you for sharing this informative post!
Do you know about other micro-things like micromanagement and microaggressions – which have appeared in business and in pop culture?
And there are probably things even smaller than micromanipulations – like nanomanipulations.
“I’m sorry for losing my temper in the meeting. All I can say is I’ve been very lonely/sick/not sleeping/etc I know I spoil it for the whole group.” is a regular one. For such a long time we used to respond to those with “Ah but you’re such a valuable member of the team”. Until we realised that it was cyclic, the more we massaged the ego, the more we experienced explosions of temper. Now the self-critical wallowing apologies just get ignored and we don’t make a fuss over the explosions, they still happen but it’s better than it was when we were feeding/enabling/rewarding it after the unheartfelt apologies (made bc he knew he’d get told he had to otherwise).
Is it any wonder I’m starting to look for other opportunities after 10 yrs dealing with this crap.
That definitely sounds like they’ve created quite the toxic work environment around them. I’m surprised you’ve stayed there so long if you have to keep putting up with that
Yep, it’s a real pain
I can imagine
I’ve never heard of micromanipulation. I think we’ve all done at some point whether consciously or subconsciously.
It’s something to be aware of. Thanks for sharing.
Being aware of it will certainly have it’s advantages
I’ve not heard this term before, but now I’ll be watching for it—especially in my own behavior. So subtle and yet so toxic!
Indeed it is
Never heard of this term but I do you know the concept. I feel like Micromanipulations are used a lot by employers. for example, they will say things like “well the team isn’t going to do so well because you’re not here” or “that’s not a team player mindset,” oh because you set the boundaries to not go to work today on a day off
Yeah, bad managers will always be like that, and I imagine that’s more of an issue in the US because your job can hang in the balance and be fired without warning
This is an incredible post, and thank you for sharing. We know many people who suffer through micromanipulations every time they speak to their parents. That first image really stuck with us because an apology should never involve demeaning one’s self just to regain approval or forgiveness.
Parents are definitely a prime source of micromanipulations
We can definitely see that!
This is a really interesting post, and it really taught me about micro-manipulation. I think we are all capable of doing these things unintentionally- but it can definitely become a serious problem when it starts to affect your wellbeing or how you see yourself. That’s not a healthy relationship. Thank you for sharing, I think this post will help a lot of people
It certainly made me aware of an unhealthy situation in my own relationship, so hopefully it’ll help others too
A very interesting article, thanks for sharing, you’re right, I know quite a few people who suffer with depression who do this, I think it’s a much bigger issue and not intentional on their part but part of an illness that often sees a sufferer beat themselves up for everything automatically, because with depression it is often automatic behaviour. But it depends on the individual of course and there are those who use it manipulatively. I had never heard of the term though until your article
That’s a great point. With certain mental health conditions people will unknowingly use micromanipulations such as the apologies one, because of their self-loathing their condition causes, kind of like negative narcissism
Interesting post, thank you for sharing
This post is really informative. I didn’t know what these were before. This was very eye opening and I can see why this can be toxic and damaging! Thank you for sharing.
Hopefully you won’t experience these in any of your relationships, but if you do, now you’ll know what’s going on before it becomes too harmful
This is so important to talk about because this is the kind of stuff that, quite honestly, people aren’t even aware is happening. The more aware we are of what to watch out for, the better we can protect ourselves and our energy.
Indeed, it was super eye-opening when I realised it was happening to me after finding out about micromanipulations
Thank you for raising this topic of micromanipulations.
Something you do recognize when someone shows it to you. And I now realize that in my previous relationship this was going on from both sides.
It’s good to know and time to reflect on how much I do this and recognize it in order to stop it.
Knowing when to self-reflect is an important life skill
I didn’t know this had a name but oh boy have I been on the receiving end of this (in various situations: work, friendships/family). It’s so manipulative and toxic and I feel like reading this has finally made me aware of it better.
The same happened to me when I first read about it
I love that thread you share, and especially its opening thoughts on why apologizing at your own expense is not worth disrespecting yourself over. Love that it inspired a piece in you on the topic of micromanipulations and how they often sneak into our lives unnoticed!
It’s just not really an apology if you degrade yourself in the process
Occasionally, I get so wrapped up in work. I’m probably guilty of unintentional micromanipulations when I want to get things done.
Thankfully my wife is great at calling me out on this.
Communication is key and I’m slowly getting better at recognising it.
Good communication is the bedrock of any healthy relationship
What an interesting read, I love anything that digs deep into the psyche of people and behaviours. So many are built in from early childhood.
I love to learn more about that too
Interesting article. This is a big problem not just in personal relationships but also in the workplace
It could also be a problem in other relationship dynamics
This is such a interesting and very educational post. I’ve never heard of this term before but I appreciate the information you’ve shared as I defiantly understand the meaning of the word more now. Thank you so much for sharing with us. I learnt a lot Xo
Elle – ellegracedeveson.com
Thank you for commenting
So many people have said things to me. Like I was tired or I’ve had so much coffee. It doesn’t make their behavior anymore excusable.
It certainly doesn’t
What a great post! Timely for me, too (eerie how your posts have been doing that). Becoming aware of what is happening is the first step. Thank you for sharing! ✌️
Indeed it is. Although I’m a little concerned that this article was timely. Is everything ok?