In an earlier column on toxic friendships, I described the “social exchange” theory of friendship development: Friendships and other relationships involve their own versions of economic systems, in that we make investments in these entities using “relationship acumen” akin to “financial acumen.” This may sound callous, but it is true that few of us are willing to invest time and energy in activities or relationships that do not promise some measure of return. In business, we hear about the metric called ROI–the return on investment.
When the expected return outweighs the projected cost, whether in terms of cash, publicity, goodwill, exposure, leverage, or other advantageous exchanges, it is more likely that the investment will be made.
Friendships also involve an analysis of ROI, even if we are not consciously crunching numbers or measuring our expectations about outcome. Friendships are often established on the basis of shared interests, proximity, or similarity of acquaintances. We slowly open ourselves up to a growing relationship with another person with whom we feel an affinity.
Friendship relationships grow as individuals provide increasingly deeper levels of self-disclosure. We gauge how much to reveal based on how deeply we perceive our acquaintance to be sharing. Yet there are “friends” who may encourage us to “tell all the gory details," or ask for “blow-by-blow descriptions” of fights with our lover,parenting mistakes we may have made, or details about interactions with other friends. Some friends may ask us to go above and beyond the level of instrumental or emotional assistance that they themselves would provide us. For many of us, giving to others is satisfying and brings us pleasure; however, being taken advantage of by relational manipulators only brings frustration and resentment.
Manipulators are expert at convincing us to give them more than they give us. Initially, it might feel good to have a friend who encourages you to open up, share your thoughts, and reveal your weaknesses—someone who listens to us when we are down is valued, but someone who uses what he or she learns about us during those weak moments? Not so much.
These manipulative friends know their needs and they know how to get them met at little expense to themselves, but significant cost to others. Master manipulators know ways to coerce your assistance that can leave you confused, bewildered, or angry. They may make dire predictions of what will happen if you don’t step up and give them a ride, a meal, or the shirt off your back; or they may make you feel special by playing on your soft heart. Successful manipulators are keen evaluators of human nature and can create a dynamic in which meeting their needs makes you feel good—even as you are stuck eating Ramen noodles for dinner because you just gave them your last $20 bill.
How Do You Know When There Is a Problem?
We all know that you must admit there’s a problem before you can begin to find a solution. So what are the signs of being manipulated?
When you feel an imbalance in the level of self-disclosure between you and a friend.
When you feel like you are always “on call” to assist your friend, but he or she’s a no-show when you are in need.
When you realize that his or her needs take precedence over your own.
When your other friends begin to make pointed observations about the equity in your relationship with this individual.
Unfortunately, ending or exiting a manipulative relationship is probably easier than trying to realign it. Manipulators spend a great deal of time creating a world in which their needs are met by others, and in which they maintain control. Trying to shake up that foundational operating system is biting off a lot.
Break the Cycle
As counselors say to clients, the only person you can change is yourself. The best way to handle the manipulative people in our lives is to become less vulnerable. We are only as easily manipulated as we choose to be—manipulators make us feel good when we bend to their needs. We need to realize that there are many better ways of building our self-esteem than giving in to the manipulations of another.
It’s okay to say no—and sometimes it is essential to your well-being.
Practice saying, “No, I am not available to help you with that,” over and over in the mirror if you need to.
Create boundaries that you can enforce. What would this friend do for you, if you asked? Use the answer to that question as a guideline to decide how far you should go for him or her.
Recognize that healthy friendships include “give and take” and that there is a limit to what even the best of friends would ask one another.
Manipulation will only continue as long as you allow a person the power to do so. Friendships are seldom fully equal in what is being given and received at any specific moment in time. Over time, however, a healthy relationship provides both members with a sense of commitment and support from the other.
Friends don’t let friends do all the work!