My mom wanted me to make plans for us to go see a play that afternoon. It was last minute, but it was a Saturday, and she was in a good mood. We’re going to have a good day, I thought.
She sat on her bed, Bible in her lap, her beer next to her, and she told me to look up the phone number to the venue. I did what she asked and called, but I wasn’t asking the right questions by the look of irritation on her face. I was fourteen, and for whatever reason, I flustered easily.
“Ask about parking,” mom whispered exasperatedly.
I asked the woman about it, but I didn’t think to ask how much parking was, and I hung up the phone. Mom rolled her eyes at me, and I told her I’d call the venue back.
“Mom, I’m sorry.”
“Just forget about it.”
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just stood there next to her bed, feeling like an idiot for messing it up. I’m such a screw-up.
Manipulation wasn’t a word I knew or understood until college.
I had no idea I had spent years in a manipulative relationship with my mom. I never understood why I had always felt guilty, as if every problem between me and my mom was my fault. For years a fire grew in me and rage lived just under the skin; I could never put it out. I felt crazy and out-of-control until I learned how to untangle myself from it, how to find my identity in Christ instead of my own perceptions.
Years of therapy, wisdom from mentors, and God’s gentle leading helped to put the fire out; it no longer burns me up. But I’m very attuned to the flames because they lived with me for so long, and now that I’m a mom, it’s important to me to teach my children how to identify and deal with manipulative behaviors — in themselves and in others.
Recently when my youngest daughter found herself in a manipulative situation with a friend, there was an opportunity to learn and grow.
I was sitting in my living one afternoon when I heard the friend say to her, “If you don’t do this, I’m going to tell your mom,” and “If you don’t ______, I’m going to leave.”
The little girl was trying to manipulate my daughter, so once she left, I pulled my daughter aside and asked her about her friend’s threats. She shared what they were about, and we talked about how they made her feel and how to deal with them. I said to her, “The next time your friend comes to play, and she threatens to leave or tell on you, I want you to say, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, but if you have to go or tell, you can do that.’”
My daughter is only nine, so I figured it would be a while before she felt confident enough to use this strategy — my goodness, I still struggle to use it in situations like that.
A week later, her friend came over to play again, and after she went home, my daughter came to me and said, “Mom! I did what you said, and it worked! She told me she was going to leave if I didn’t ______, and I said I was sorry she felt that way but that she could go if she really wanted to. She left, but a few minutes later, she came back and didn’t make any more threats!”
I was stunned that my nine-year-old handled the situation with such grace and fortitude. What a gift to have learned such a lifelong lesson at such a young age!
People can’t manipulate you if you don’t let them. It isn’t that we always set a boundary where we have to confront the other person (this can be difficult in a parent/child relationship, for example) but that we set a boundary in our mind.
Often in manipulative relationships, the person being manipulated feels guilty or confused. They feel at fault even when it doesn’t make sense. It’s easy to feel dumb, insecure, never knowing how to trust your instincts because you’ve learned to silence them for so long. In the midst of confusing emotions, we look to the truth and ask, “Lord, what do You say? Who do You say I am? What is the truth here?”
When you ground yourself in your identity in Christ, you begin to see clearly, to believe truth, to set boundaries without fear of response. You can know that even in your humanness, your mistakes, and your weakness, you are loved, seen, known, and secure.
God never manipulates. He offers us freedom and the freedom to love others, even when it hurts, even with boundaries.
Today, if you’re struggling in a manipulative relationship, I call you to the truth, to believe that you are not crazy or stupid or a failure. I know the voice in your head is loud and the discouragement can cover like a heavy blanket, but the truth is strong and real and gentle. Ask God to help you attune your mind and your heart to the truth. Ask Him for the courage to set boundaries and the wisdom to do it in love.
You can be free.
You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
John 8:32 (ESV)
Michele Morin says
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything before that puts tools in the hands of a potential victim like this post does, Sarah! When we give our children words, we give them power to protect themselves. So often, even as adults, we need help in identifying the truth of a situation, and setting healthy boundaries (even in our minds) is so freeing.
Blessings to you as you labor over your next book.
Sarah Mae says
Thank you, Michele, and yes, I love offering tools to others as I’ve been so grateful to have others offer them to me!
God never manipulates – remember that. And because he doesn’t we don’t need to either.
The other take away – our children learn from us. Because she trusts and loves you and knows that you do, she was able to confidently put what was taught into practice. Love makes all the difference.
Sarah Mae says
I still can hardly believe she did it. I’m so grateful and I hope it sticks with her.
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
Thank you for sharing such a personal story. It’s the side of relationships we are hesitant to talk about, but need to. Whether is a manipulative or a verbally, emotionally, or physically abuse relationship, what we allow we condone. It is great that you are teaching your children to set boundaries, because without them a manipulative or abusive person will just keep on until you start believing that it IS all your fault (which it isn’t). The goal of all these abusers is to cast the blame elsewhere. Counseling, getting out and getting help, and most importantly getting someone to speak God’s Truth into your life about who you are in Him is so important. There is healing and forgiveness that can be had. Thank you for tackling a very tough subject with such wisdom.
Sarah Mae says
“what we allow we condone.” Boy is that a complicated one! But yes, learning to set boundaries and walk when need be is so important!
Kathy Holmes says
Oh, Sarah Mae. YES.
I loved this Sarah-Mae,
It sure is refreshing to hear the tools you have provided for your daughter. Having that love and belief in someone enough to show them they are not at fault when on the receiving end of a manipulative relationship is equipping the victim to not only have the tools but builds their own confidence to value themselves enough to disentangle themselves from being dragged into the manipulation. It took me a lot of my adult life to realise if someone has a problem you can put it back on them and it’s their issue, saying I’m sorry you feel that way gives the onus back to them it allows you to engage but not get dragged into the scenario and somehow be manipulated into being blamed for their issue. I hope this makes sense! What a lovely mum you are! Great post x
Sarah Walker says
I completely agree with you Jas! I am still working on that myself, as an adult.
Great article Sarah!!
Thank you for sharing with such honesty!
Robin Dance says
It’s amazing how our parents teach us to parent; to replicate what they’ve done in some instances, and never duplicate in others. Your daughter will be so strong because of what you’ve endured, and for the boundaries you’ve learned to set (and are now teaching her!). Isn’t that the lovely redemption of broken things in our lives? Learning so much–especially to see and seek Truth. xo
This is a powerful piece, Sarah! I’ve been in the situation several times in my life where a friend was manipulating me. You describe it so accurately and offer up such a healthy response. I’m raising 3 daughters now and long to give them these tools. Thank you for your courage to write this.
Theresa Boedeker says
Great article addressing a common problem. Thanks for your tone and honesty. We need to learn to set boundaries and not allow our self to be manipulated. But often this is hard because we don’t know we are being manipulated or how to stop the cycle. If we have these tools to stop the manipulation, though, than the game quits. I love that God never manipulates.
Patricia Raybon says
Thank you so much, Sarah Mae. In teaching your lovely daughter, you have taught us. You are a powerful writer and much appreciated.
Lynn Koukal says
I so agree about the importance of learning the truths of God’s ways along our way, that build our confidence in valuing ourselves as He does. And how He strengthens us to walk and live securely in the freedom He provides. Thank God for all caring mentoring mothers and friends, to help us in his plan.
Thank you.❤️Your words have encouraged my heart more than you know as I walk through different relationships in my life.
This was awesome Sarah Mae, thank-you for your wise, helpful words.
Have a blessed day all,
“how to untangle myself from it, how to find my identity in Christ instead of my own perceptions”
This is familiar.
Thank you for sharing this story. What a great way to handle that situation that you overheard with your daughter and her friend.
Thank you for this!
I’m sorry you had to live through that in childhood, Sarah Mae. ((Hug)) — My childhood home was one of dysfunction as well, and part of that dysfunction included a manipulative mother and a passive aggressive father. It takes a good while once we’re adults to recognize the guilt isn’t ours, doesn’t it? — Love that your daughter is learning early how to handle these types of situations. It will make such a difference for her in life. — Prayer and responding without drama is the best thing we can do, and you’re right—so freeing. 🙂
julie e says
So much of my life was spent in these relationships! I lost myself and the ability to trust my instincts. My depression was serious. Thankfully I’m out of that way of living—God bless my therapist! Such wise words to your daughter, you’re giving her such a great foundation.
Maureen Jenkins says
Manipulation can be so subtle and so destructive. You have beautifully addressed this, Sarah Mae. It’s not just parents with children. It can happen in any relationship. My daughter-in-law is one of the most manipulative people I have ever met. When she and my son were expecting, we were not told. When the baby grandson was born 5 weeks early, we were not told. When birth announcements were sent out, we were not included. Other relatives notified us of this “happy” news via Facebook. Our entire family has tried over and over to be as kind and welcoming as possible, to no avail. Our son says he just wants to keep the peace which I respect him for, painful as this is. We can teach others how to treat us only when we hold some of the cards. When someone else holds all the cards, our only option, as I see it, is to let God be God. God works things out in God’s time and in God’s way. The opposite of hate is forgiveness.
I’m still in the middle of “years of therapy”. I hope I grow enough to one day be able to talk about the pain and healing the way you do. Do you have family or friends who are mad at you for talking about your mom’s problems so openly?
Sarah Mae says
“Do you have family or friends who are mad at you for talking about your mom’s problems so openly?” Yes. It’s not a road for everyone, and you have to be doing it (IMO) to tell of what God’s done. It’s about His goodness more than it is about the pain or the ugliness.
Thank you for sharing. Maybe right now I just need a few more people to walk with me through the pain and ugliness. I want to be able to share more and not feel so alone. Praise God for therapy and my kind husband and a new church.
I absolutely love this! I have always been easily manipulated, especially as a child, and while I knew it felt wrong to allow, I didn’t know what to do about it! I am learning so much about boundaries as an adult now, but seeing a picture of these tools being given to children is so inspiring! I will definitely be passing these along to my sons as they get older!
Betsy Willard says
Thank you Sara Mae; this message could not have come on a better day for me! It was just the reminder I needed so that I didn’t allow Satan to pull me back down with the quilt and confusion that comes with manipulation. God’s timing is perfect!
Beth Williams says
Thank you for a great open & honest post. This is something people don’t talk about much. The victim often hides the pain deep down inside. Causing much pain & anguish. We need to talk about this more. Most importantly we need to teach our children God’s truth. We are free. We don’t have to take manipulation or abuse from anyone! “Even in your humanness and your mistakes, you are loved, seen, known, and secure.”- such a great truth. Everyone makes mistakes and no one should put us down for them. God loves us no matter what! He will forgive us all our mistakes or sins.
Rebecca Jones says
It is a choice, I don’t like feeling that I am being controlled, God doesn’t work that way. I wasted a lot of time letting people manipulate me, good for your daughter.
Becky Keife says
Sarah Mae, thanks for continuing to trust us with hard parts of your story and help equip us to move through the hard part of our own. What a lucky one your girl is to have you as her mama. xx
Thank you Sarah. Things like you described have been the story of my life. It’s such a struggle to not feel like a failure and receive the truth.
Tilly Honey says
This is such a fantastic post Sarah Mae, it must have been difficult to write. I think people think about manipulative relationships and automatically think about partners and romantic relationships, but of course they can happen with the family set up. But it is even harder to recognise a manipulative relationship with someone like our own mother, of course it would be – our mom’s all we have ever known.