When Kindness is Taken for Weakness
Does your relationship get worse the nicer you are?
Does your child or partner push your buttons until you explode?
Does your partner, child, or parent do any of the following:
- Play mind games with you?
- Act as if they can do whatever they want without having to face any consequences?
- Burst your bubble whenever you feel good about yourself?
- Seem to believe their own lies?
- Say one thing with their words; another with their actions?
- Play the victim until you give them what they want, at which point you realize that you’ve been played?
- Act nice one minute, then hostile or withdrawn the next minute?
- Criticize you for things you already feel insecure about, in a way that undermines your confidence in what you’re saying, or that makes it hard to stand up for yourself when you feel you’ve been wronged.
- Have this uncanny way of knowing just the right moment or thing to say to catch you off-guard or disarm you so that you feel intimidated, confused, rattled, or manipulated.
- Act more entitled and ungrateful the more you try to be nice, accommodating, or giving
- Create a feeling of suspense, ambiguity, or waiting that stresses you out, creates tension, leaves you hanging, and makes you feel the other shoe is about to drop if you let down your guard
If you recognize any of these things in your relationship with a family member, you may be dealing with 4 possible problems that have some overlap between them, but which I am going to differentiate for the sake of this article:
- A manipulator personality (this can refer either to an overall personality structure, or to the way in which a person is behaving in a relationship)
- Fears about losing oneself or one’s boundaries when experiencing closeness or love with another
- A lack of respect for the role and need for authority and for rules in life, society, and relationships.
- A con-artist type of personality: someone who says whatever they come up with in order to manipulate others, to get what they want, or to get themselves off the hook, rather than to be truthful
Now, some of the ideas I am going to share here are based on some complex psychoanalytic ideas about how a manipulator personality gets formed, and I’m going to give some background on this in order to frame some of the practical suggestions I will be making at the end of this post. If you want to skip this part, feel free to just go to my list of practical suggestions at the end, which I hope will be clear and helpful.
Okay, so to start off, a core problem for manipulators is lack of the “paternal function” in relationships or in one’s personality. This essentially refers to the idea that relationships need to take place within a framework in which there are rules and shared understandings; limits to how far things can go; and a sense of an outside person, authority, presence, or perspective that can buffer relationships from getting too enmeshed, overstimulating, suffocating, violent, emotionally or physically unsafe, intrusive, or exploitative for either person to manage. Traditionally, it has been the father who has provided this paternal function, using his presence and authority to set limits in the family, and to stop a mother and child from becoming too enmeshed; this is why we use the metaphor of the “paternal” to represent this limit-setting function. When a person experiences this paternal function in his early relationships with his/her caregivers, it results in the internalization of this function within one’s personality, meaning that a person will have a sense of limits, respect for authority, and the ability to accept that a relationship can’t/shouldn’t be so all-encompassing or seductive that it becomes overstimulating, manipulative, or suffocating.
In manipulator personalities, this paternal function is very tenuous, leading to relationship interactions in which behaviors that typically nurture a relationship and elicit healthy communications actually make things worse. For example, the nicer and more accommodating one is, the more hostile a perverse family member may become.
One way in which one’s personality and subsequent relationships can get corrupted in this way is when a parent (often one’s mother, but not always) uses a child for gratification of his/her own needs in a way that can feel loving and exciting to the child at first blush, but that is ultimately overstimulating, confusing, and disavowing of reality when looked at more closely. A child can also learn perverse behaviors from a parent who acts in a perverse way towards the other parent.
Some common pathways to perversion are:
- A mother who undermines the role of the father to the child
- A parent who acts as if he/she and the child are a “couple” instead of in a parent/child relationship
- A parent who confides in the child about the other parent (on a regular basis)
- A mother who gives her child the feeling that he/she is supposed to be her whole world.
In such cases, the parent is essentially exploiting the child’s innocence for the sake of his/her own satisfaction and using the child to satisfy the parent’s desire (sometimes a romantic one) instead of nurturing the child’s growth and development as an individual and within the framework of what a parent/child relationship is supposed to be.
When a parent uses a child to meet his/her own needs for love or satisfaction, and treats the child as if he/she can or should be the parent’s whole world, it leads to a lack of security about how much one can act on one’s own whims at the expense of another. There are no boundaries to let the child off the hook from having to feel responsible for being anything and everything that is missing in the parent, and this also prevents the child from learning the limits of reality and the normal rules about how society works.
Oftentimes, a child in this situation does not recognize this for the setup it is, and on the one hand, feels empowered and excited by the power the parent is giving him/her; on the other hand, this cripples the child from knowing how to function in the real the world and also leads to tremendous unconscious anxiety at the parent’s demand for the impossible or the immoral. And then, when the other parent does not step in as an authority figure, or agent of separation, to place a limit or a boundary on this manipulation of the child, that child grows up with a deficit in the area of paternal function.
Deficits in paternal function can lead to many different types of problems, for example:
- Believing that one can act on any whim without regard for consequences
- Saying whatever the other person wants to hear but never following through in behavior
- Acting innocent all the time and never taking responsibility
- Pushing the other person into a position of setting a limit
- Feeling that one is above the law
Perverse dynamics such as these create relationship experiences later in life in which love is often viewed with suspicion and/or experienced as a setup or manipulation. This can lead to manipulative behaviors in relationships and the feeling that there is always a hidden agenda when someone is being nice. Niceness is not trusted, and a person may provoke the other into being aggressive or hostile when things seem too good to be true (ie when things are going well in the relationship). A manipulator personality may also push his/her partner’s buttons the more the partner tries to stay calm or be nice, until the partner can’t take it anymore and finally explodes or reaches a limit, at which point the provocations stop. Sometimes things will only settle down the minute the partner is truly ready to leave.
If your relationship involves any of the following, you may be dealing with a manipulator:
- a constant feeling of suspense
- a feeling of being left hanging all the time
- a nagging feeling that something’s not right even though you can never “prove” what that something is
- a feeling of being caught off guard all the time
- not knowing if your partner is giving you straight answers
- mind games or word games that make it hard for you to think
- constantly blaming yourself when things go wrong in the relationship even though you know it can’t all be you
- not knowing who did what to who in a fight
- being pushed into a position of setting a limit or “being the bad guy”
Many of these behaviors (which are often subtle and unconscious) are a way of getting the other person to define a limit, rather than being someone who is limitless in their love and acceptance, which often is a reminder of the setup from the original parent, in which love without limits was really a corruption of the parent/child relationship, rather than an innocent parent/child love. If your partner (or another family member) is organized in this way, he/she may view you with suspicion and paranoia when you act too loving or kind and will take your kindness for weakness.
A similar related dynamic to manipulator dynamics, but not necessarily the same, is when a person feels that closeness with another is threatening to the integrity of one’s self (this is more of a “borderline” dynamic, due to “borderline” anxieties about boundaries between self and other in relationships). Love or closeness in such cases may feel intrusive or violating, leading to anger or rejection when you try to get close. Anxieties about whether one can maintain his/her own sense of self in relationships can lead to feeling threatened before, during, or after moments of closeness. This can lead to provoking a fight or pushing your buttons when things feel too close or too good, in order to create some distance and/or redefine one’s boundaries. This can also lead to a push/pull dynamic in a relationship, in which couples take turns inviting each other in and then pushing each other out.
Oppositional behavior on the part of a child in relation to a parent can often stem from similar anxieties as well; the behavior may be a way in which the child tries to push the parent away when closeness feels too threatening, or can be a way of telling the parent that the closeness feels unwanted and intrusive. When a parent does not respect this need for more distance and keeps trying to “make nice” the more the child acts out, the child will often escalate their aggression or rejection of the parent in order to create a boundary.
So, here are some practical strategies for how to handle situations in which your partner, child, or someone else in your life may be responding in dysfunctional ways to your attempts to be loving, kind, or close to them:
- If your partner or child seems to push your buttons over and over until you finally explode, you may need to be much firmer with them. Rather than waiting until they push you to the point of exploding (or not being able to “take it” anymore), you can settle down their anxiety by acting firm and setting a boundary right away when you notice the provocations starting. You may be intimidated by their anger or withdrawal and worry that if you withdraw or act firm, you will push them farther away. However, this is not the case. Withdrawing or setting a boundary will make them feel safer and less anxious or will put them in their place in a healthy way. Make sure to speak in a calm but very firm voice and not to sound wishy-washy at all, because any crack in your ability to be firm will be an invitation to them to start provoking again. This is similar to the way in which acting weak with a bully only escalates the bullying behavior.
- Appeal to an outside authority who is stronger or more powerful when your partner or child (or anyone else) acts as if they are above the law, becomes aggressive, lies, steals, or threatens. This can mean that you will call 911 and involve the police (or arrange for a possible hospitalization) if your ability to set limits on breaking the law or violence is being disregarded or undermined. If a parent is abusing a child, protective services may need to be involved. If someone is lying or stealing, you may need to tell them that you won’t trust them or will need to track them until you know that they have stopped engaging in these behaviors. Empty threats will not work; sometimes a show of concrete consequences is necessary since words can be viewed as empty and as delinked from reality.
- Don’t shy away from bringing up reasonable concerns you have simply because your partner or child somehow manages to disarm you and gets you to question yourself (or brings up your own self-doubts or insecurities) any time you try to hold them accountable. Just because you are not perfect, can’t “prove” something, may have misunderstood a certain detail, did something similar in the past, etc., doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to bring up a valid point. Don’t let the other person deflect responsibility away from themselves and onto you. You will never resolve anything that way. Giving in to deflection and letting the other person off the hook may give them control in the moment, but ultimately creates more anxiety because they know deep down that they are avoiding consequences that are going to catch up with them at some point. One simple tactic you can use is to simply say, “I think you are deflecting things away from the issue I’m bringing up right now. I feel strongly that there is something here that we need to look at and I’m not willing to just sweep it under the carpet or take the blame.”
- If you notice a pattern in which your child seems to get angry or distant when you give compliments, act “too nice”, give gifts, or do other things that get interpreted as your way of trying to “force” them to love you even if they don’t want to, you will need to act with more distance and more boundaries. Rather than approaching your child with desperate offers of things that you think will make them love you more, it’s best to pull back and wait until they approach you for connection, at which point you can respond to their invitation for closeness. Once they begin to show signs of needing to pull away again, or start withdrawing or acting hostile, you will need to then back away again so they can sense that their boundaries are not being compromised by having allowed themselves to get close or connect.
- If your partner seems to push you into a destructive cycle or fight at a moment of closeness or connection, don’t take the bait and respond in your usual way; rather, point out that they seem to be trying to push you away or to pull you into a negative cycle, and suggest a time out or another form of healthy distance/space that help you both regroup.
If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to let me know!
For more information about how to manage a personality disorder in a family member, check out my online course called “How to Protect Your Child (or Yourself) from the Harmful Effects of Living with a Toxic or Emotionally Unstable Family Member”