Identifying Manipulative Abuse Tactics

Trigger warning: homophobia, manipulation, abuse

Manipulative abusers can be anyone, especially trusted people. This is a longer post than usual because I want to provide a comprehensive source for what a conversation with an abuser looks like. I have multiple examples of conversations like this one, but this argument is ideal because it took place over Facebook chat, and there’s a complete record of the full text and I didn’t have to work from memory to analyze my father’s words. 

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It was August 2012, and my family was gathered in the living room for evening prayers. Today was Chick-fil-a appreciation day, when hundreds of thousands of conservatives flooded the fast food restaurants all over the country. The message was “pro-family,” that is, Chick-fil-a supported organizations that campaigned against marriage equality.

I was lying on the floor, listening to my parents and siblings talking about the great turnout. They saw hundreds of people at Chick-fil-a that day, and talked about how great it was. I kept quiet until my dad said it was a chance to “show the love of Jesus” to the restaurant chain.

“Dad – guys, I don’t think today was a good day for the love of Jesus at all.” It was the first time I’d expressed an opinion on the matter, and my parents were shocked. I continued, “Today wasn’t a message of love. It was a message that told all gay people in this country, ‘we don’t support you.’”

Mom said I hadn’t read enough about the case, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. Then I was told to be quiet because it was an inappropriate conversation to have in front of the younger kids.

The topic was important to me, though. I’d just supported a friend who came out to me as bisexual, and felt conflicted about it. I wanted to research it more – was being gay a choice? Were gay relationships sinful? Should same-sex marriage be legal?

So I did my research, and the tension at home increased. See, I still believed that my parents were open-minded people who were open to opposing viewpoints. I mean, they said so all the time. I read a book that said Jonathan and David in the Bible were gay, and mentioned it to the teenagers in the house. I got called into my dad’s office, and when I said I didn’t believe everything in the book, dad told me to just throw the book away.

I was surprised. Throwing away other viewpoints wasn’t what debate taught me, and my dad always praised debate because it helped you entertain multiple perspectives. This conversation made me wonder if he really believed the phrase he fit into all of his speeches: “we don’t teach kids what to think, we teach them how to think.”

A year later, I was back in my dad’s office. I brought up a friend who was gay, and my dad insulted my friend’s “choice.” I got quiet and said I didn’t believe that anymore. Then I said I was so firmly convictedthat it was not Christian or Biblical to deny gay rights, that I wanted to write about it.

My dad gave me a futile offer. If I could convince him that being gay wasn’t wrong, then I would be allowed to write the series on my blog. This seemed reasonable to me.

A few months passed, and I sent my dad videos and books and blog posts defending gay relationships from a biblical perspective. He wasn’t convinced, but I spent dozens of hours working on my series. I contacted a few friends who were outspoken on the subject on both sides, and read the books they recommended. The more I read, even though I had long since lost interest the bible as an authority, the more I was convinced that even the most steadfast bible-thumping Christians shouldn’t oppose same-sex marriage.

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That’s the backstory for a conversation that happened between my dad and me in January of last year. I want to provide a commentary here, to exemplify what it looks like for a manipulative person to use all the right words.

I broke the news. “I’m writing about homosexuality next week.”

Dad was instantly offended, taking my decision personally: “Great. Thanks a lot.”

My response: “Please don’t be mad at me. I didn’t think there was a good way to bring it up with you, but I really need to write about it.”

I reacted like a child that’s been hurt before, and who didn’t feel safe. To this day I have trouble with break-ups, quitting anything, and voicing frustration of any sort.

The gaslighting (where the abuser questions the victim’s memories) conflict happens here. We remembered our conversation differently. He said, “We talked about this issue, and you agreed to be sensitive to us about it.”

I replied, “I said I would take it into consideration, but you keep telling me what to do.”

Instantly, he switched tactics. Now it was time to threaten me. He carefully phrased the words so I felt like the results would be my fault, not theirs. “Your mom will be extremely upset, and I will be disappointed in you.”

The only thing that gave me the ability to stand up to him, was that I had to choose between my parents and my personal belief that God wanted me to write about this subject. I compromised: “Okay. I don’t have to avoid disappointing you in everything I write.”

Tactic switch again: “I wish you would be more patient with us.”

Today, this line makes me smirk. I was never allowed to express my own wishes, and to expect anything but getting, as one of my friends put it yesterday, steamrolled. My feelings, my wishes, didn’t matter. Mom and dad’s did, and I needed to think of their needs only.

I told him I’d waited months, and my silence was weighing on my conscience. I needed to write.

Then my dad used a phrase that sounded great: “We’re not asking too much from you.”

When an abuser uses all the right words, they efficiently confuse the victim. It’s a lie – my parents wereasking too much of me. I was 21, and I shouldn’t worry about my parents’ political views before writing on my personal blog at any age, much less as an independent adult.

I didn’t even notice the line at the time. It was added for effect, to neatly surround his demands so they wouldn’t feel unreasonable.

My words were diplomatic and hesitant: “I’ve sent you resources and you just keep saying that I just shouldn’t write about it. Mom won’t even talk to me about it.”

Dad shot back accusations: “That’s not fair. You’re growing impatient.”

These were easy enough for me to refute, because it was fair. I told my dad that I didn’t agree with everything he posts on his blog. I added, “I think I’m doing extra by having made my views clear to you guys and giving you a head’s up.”

Then we started going in circles. Manipulators need to look strong, so they often paint the people around them as vulnerable, and say the victim is hurting them. Many parents threaten older siblings by saying they’ll hurt their younger siblings, which, for us, is like threatening our children. In this case, dad used my mom: “This is a contentious issue with your mom, perhaps me, and you will do great damage if you parade this issue.”

It takes a mindset of blame to phrase things this way. I would do great damage. It was me doing it, not them.

I went back to my conviction to write my series. I was scared because until then, few people knew about my changing political views. I might lose a lot of my audience members, and I was afraid I might be wrong. I said, “Do you think I’m not scared about what it’s going to do to me? I have to do what God’s been telling me to do for months and months.”

Now it was down to a choice: God or my parents. Dad asked, “What has God been telling you?”

“I told you this,” I wrote, and I had. “He said I need to write about what I’ve learned, that gay marriage is acceptable in Christianity.”

Manipulators distance themselves from the situation. As I said earlier, sometimes this means making the victim feel guilty for hurting a weaker person, like children. Sometimes it’s about phrasing. Dad started referring to himself and my mom in the third person: “How about you try to convince your parents first? They have asked you to be sensitive to them about this. Is God telling you to ignore them?”

After distancing himself, he tried flattery. “Look, Cynthia, you’re doing great things, and you are pulling me in a direction that I suspect is very good.”

The whiplash was familiar to me when he switched from spiritual manipulation, to flattery, to accusation: “But you’re pretty much telling me to hell with your convictions. We’ve asked you to pause on this one issue and consider us, and you’re saying God is telling you to ignore us.”

What I pointed out next is hypocrisy – another thing abusers use as a tactic. Because I was trained to see more flaws in myself than in my parents, it was easy for them to accuse me of what they were doing. I said, “You’ve told me to hell with my convictions over and over again, and you can only see the way it is for you.”

“That’s not fair to us at all,” he said again. “We would give you consideration if there was something you valued so much.”

It was a lie mixed with a promise, flavored with insult. This was something I did value, but he clearly wasn’t considering me. Abusers are constantly moving the goalposts. He was promising to consider me if it mattered. If he wasn’t considering me now, then my feelings, my conviction, didn’t matter enough. Validation was just beyond my grasp, and I realized I might never get it from him.

I told him I was ready to move forward.

Manipulators make their feelings more important than their victim’s feelings. If all else fails, they’ll say something like what my dad said next, again bringing in my mom as a pawn to guilt trip me: “You’re really hurting me, Cynthia. And this will be incredibly painful for your mom.”

I said, “This isn’t at all because I have a grudge against you.”

My dad’s next monologue is full of things a non-manipulative person might say. He used positive things to hedge his threats, guilt trips, and blame. He claimed to understand and to validate my feelings.

“I know this isn’t about me. I’m asking you to consider me and your mom.” These contradictory sentences came as a pair. If it wasn’t about him, then why did he follow it up with a request that, well, made this about him? The phrase “I know this isn’t about me” is one I heard regularly growing up. It was always followed with something that reinforced what they’d just denied. Manipulators like to slip in phrases that make them look good.

“If you’re not going to do that, than [sic] I’m really betrayed. I would not do this to you.” Another guilt trip, along with another lie.

“I have considered you guys,” I said. “That’s why it’s been so long.”

This time, dad was desperate enough to give a legitimate concern: my audience, subscribers, and commenters. He phrased it in a way that shows little understanding of the political situation, though. Here are his words: “The homosexual lobby is ruthless. They make the anti-family trolls look like children…If you bring them into the conversation about grace and love and church and everything else, I suspect you will destroy your momentum.”

Then, a threat in disguise: “I very much suspect you will destroy our support for you.”

Not “We’ll stop supporting you.” No, that would make it look like he was doing it, and he needed to make this feel like it was my fault.

“I know.” I said.

He kept talking. “I say ‘very much’ because who knows, you may be right. But I don’t think you are.”

“I know.” I said.

“Then why are you doing this?” My dad asked.

I’d already told him why. My conscience, my political philosophy, my study of the Bible, my support for my friends told me that I’d regret not writing.

“We’re going in circles,” I said. “I have to go…I love you. Even though I have to do something you don’t understand right now. I hope the series will help you and mom understand the issue better.”

The next day, I started publishing my series about how I came to support same-sex marriage. A week later, I finally went to see a professional therapist because in the midst of family conflict, my depression was getting worse. It was something I’d given up on going to my parents for help about.