Is He a Manipulator, Or am I Just Too Sensitive?

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Reader’s Question

I recently had an odd dating experience. We had common interests and seemed equally matched. But things quickly became one-sided for reasons I’m not sure about. I have struggled to trust my judgment and reaction to this guy and am looking for outside advice.

This guy was dominant in terms of body language and eye contact and on several occasions even insisted I that a particular word would accurately define what I said or meant. I would say “No, that’s not what I meant” — but he would press his point, killing any conversation.

He made it clear he had a preference for short hair on our second date (my hair is long because I like it that way), and he would ask odd questions, like who gave me the jewelry I wear every day. Sometimes I felt distrusted, like I was being tested, like the time he asked me about my values and then told me about a girlfriend who had chosen her religion/family over him.

He also complained that a man is expected to ask a woman out in the beginning of a relationship, but this only gives the illusion that he is in control. This seemed odd and bothered me. He was already controlling when we met up and how we spoke between dates. I felt a power imbalance because he wasn’t very open and kept me guessing about if/when he would want to see me again. I once also felt he was giving me the cold shoulder when I said I wasn’t ready to sleep with him. He suggested we get to know each other more slowly, but later seemed to withdraw; he made it clear he was ready to leave my apartment by getting ready to go, but he didn’t say anything like what I would expect from almost anyone (like “Thanks, but I have to go now, see you soon”).

I have noticed signs of insecurity such as his hands shaking, fishing for compliments but perceiving criticism when complimented, or rejecting nice things I said. I felt he was pushing me away by asking/talking about past relationships a lot, and he appeared bothered by the past. When he talked about his exes, his stories showed him to lack empathy and to have difficulty seeing his role in conflict (and letting go!). He also talked about a girl he had obviously hurt badly without any remorse and even seemed to look down on her for being upset about other women he saw during an on/off relationship that was clearly on his terms.

I didn’t feel relaxed with him and became increasingly defensive and finally decided to walk away. But I was confused to be in a dysfunctional pattern of behavior with him for a few weeks. I can see now that I was shocked and passive and that it would have been better for me to be more assertive. Still I question my perception.

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Is someone who verbalizes a need for control necessarily “controlling?” Was I right to feel manipulated, or is being hurt by this a sign that I am just being too sensitive?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your situation sounds very involved and complicated. But some things you mention suggest certain possibilities for the ambivalent feelings you’re having.

Sometimes, we can find ourselves in a relationship with someone who makes us feel crazy. Our gut tells us they are dominance-seeking, possessive, disrespectful of limits, and controlling. In short, we’re intimidated by their aggression. Still, we find it hard to pinpoint objectively just what it is that they’ve said or done that should make us feel so intimidated. This makes us doubt the legitimacy of our gut responses and question our judgment, and as a result, we feel crazy. I describe this situation in detail in my first book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. It describes the heart of manipulation: that a person goes unconsciously on the defensive while simultaneously doubting that the controlling person they’re dealing with is on the offensive and trying to take advantage.

There’s no way to adequately advise you in this situation. But you might find the material in the book and some of the blog posts I’ve written on manipulation techniques helpful in resolving your questions.

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