Putting a Stop to Manipulation

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Reader’s Question

My boyfriend blames everything on me. We have been together for a year. I love him very much, but he is so hard on me. Every time there’s an issue, he blames me or manipulates it to make it my fault. For example, he wanted to order something online and, since I owed him a little bit of money, I said I could order it on my card, which he was psyched about. Well, when we ordered it (me typing, him next to me), the website didn’t give shipping details about what parcel service it would use. It ended up being USPS, and it took a very long time. So it became my fault because I “didn’t stop before completing the order and send the company an email asking what shipping they use”.

He turns things around to try and convince me that I messed up, so I feel like an idiot and feel bad for him. This kind of thing happens often with him and I just end up saying sorry to stop the fighting, even though I know it wasn’t my fault. Then he will ignore me for a day or more, to “teach me a lesson”.

One time, we were meeting friends for drinks and before we walked in, I choked by swallowing down the wrong tube. It made me cough and my eyes water, and his response was “can you get yourself under control so people don’t think you were crying; I don’t wanna look like we had drama”. So we had to wait to go in, because he didn’t want to look bad.

I don’t know what to do, I love him a lot and we have a lot of good times, but this really hurts. He thinks he’s never wrong, and is constantly making me feel like I’ve done something stupid.

Psychologist’s Reply

Whenever I work with couples, one of the first things we discuss is the fact that, in a relationship, everyone brings something to the table. While one partner may be more at fault than the other, each person has flaws. Consequently, healthy relationships are ones in which both partners realize and acknowledge their mistakes instead of always blaming the other. As such, a boyfriend who never admits that he is wrong seems like a big red flag. While it takes only one person to change a relational dynamic, if both partners are not committed to working at it, the relationship may be doomed to failure.

Another potential pitfall in a relationship is when one partner punishes the other one for perceived misbehavior. Thus, the phrase “teach you a lesson” tends to rub me the wrong way, because it’s meant to be punitive. There are a lot of healthy ways for people to let others know how they want to be treated, but being vindictive is not one of them. Good relationships thrive on effective communication and appropriate emotional expression, so a more appropriate strategy would be to inform the partner of how you are feeling and then make a request for different behavior in the future. For example, you could let him know how you feel about him ignoring you by saying, “It really hurts my feelings when you ignore me for a day. In the future, could we sit down and talk about what happened so we can come to a mutual understanding?” In this way, you can communicate your feelings and a potential solution that allows everyone involved to maintain their dignity and autonomy.

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From what you described, it does sound like your boyfriend may be manipulating you. However, he can only take that so far. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This means that you may be allowing him greater control in the relationship than he deserves. If you aren’t the one who messed up, then don’t take responsibility for it. If he decides to “teach you a lesson” by not talking to you, then spend time with other friends or do things you want to do. It’s only punishment if you let it be. Similarly, he can try to make you feel stupid but only you decide how you feel. Ultimately, how you participate in the relationship is up to you. Only you can decide if you’d prefer to be in a relationship with someone who manipulates, or if you would prefer a partner who is supportive and nurturing.

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