August 7, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

For several years, I had the privilege of traveling the country to present a seminar for mental health professionals entitled “Inside the Manipulator’s Mind,” the chief focus of which was to equip professionals to help clients who were experiencing relational manipulation. Some seminars focus on treating the manipulator. Mine focuses on helping those who get manipulated. More often than not, it’s the latter group that makes its way into my office.

Many of them come in complaining of mood struggles like anxiety or depression. But when I explore the context in which the distress originated, I usually find that they’re embroiled in some relationship where manipulation is occurring. Distress is the complaint; manipulation is the cause. And if their mood is to improve, they must find ways to stop the manipulation or, at least, insulate themselves from the drama.

I’ll explain more about manipulation exit strategies in subsequent letters but this week, I’d like to walk you through a manipulation example. Any potentially identifying details have been altered to protect confidentiality, but the process I’ll describe is real. It’s been my experience that when people hear manipulation stories, they often think, “Man, that sounds very similar to what happened to me.”


Jack and I were doing a post-mortem analysis of his recently deceased marriage. “Hindsight is 20/20” as the saying goes, and he was seeing now what he’d missed before. He was very self-deprecating about how he could’ve been so “stupid.”

I had seen Jack for quite some time before he ever met Jill, whom I’ll tell you more about shortly. Jack is a successful physician who spent so much time ensconced in his medical training that he had neglected his own growth and development. To his credit, he initially came to see me to address the more personal aspects of his life.

Jack’s a nice guy who grew up with a natural tendency to help those in need, which likely explains his choice of a people-helping career. Helping people is a good thing but it can be a bad thing if that’s all you’ve got. Jack had been taken advantage of numerous times by people who had presumed upon his good graces. So, he came to understand that, while his helping muscle was Olympic-strength, his protection-from-exploitation muscle was atrophied. Like a personal trainer making you do crunches till it hurts, I was helping Jack develop that muscle.

Then, Jack met Jill. Jill is an attractive and highly-paid businesswoman who, by all appearances, would make a wonderful life partner. Things were moving in the matrimonial direction and Jack asked if he could bring Jill with him to a session since I had been so instrumental in his growth process. He also thought it might be helpful to have few sessions of premarital counseling to ensure they got off on the right foot. I agreed and we had her come with him to a session to discuss if that was best way to proceed.

Jill seemed nice enough and it wasn’t hard to understand Jack’s attraction. I’d say things were going swimmingly until the end of the session when I broached the subject of the need for couples to handle their differences well. I told them that perhaps the most determinative factor in marital success was not compatibility but how well they handled their areas of incompatibility.

As I elaborated on this point, I noticed Jack’s head nodding approvingly while Jill sat there stone-faced. Her whole demeanor had changed from tropical warmth to arctic frostiness, but I wasn’t sure why. Jack told me much later that when they got in the car, Jill insisted—with no explanation—that they must see different therapist. I never saw Jill again and they never saw anyone else for premarital counseling… because she refused. But they did get married.

Jill made a six-figure salary but refused to contribute anything at all to their joint expenses. I could give you a long description of their short marriage, but I would say its chief characteristic was this: Jill would demand that Jack meet all of her materialistic needs and Jack would acquiesce to her demands. Indeed, that was the only way they could “get along.” If Jack ever tried to talk about the pros and cons of a costly purchase, Jill would lapse into stony silence, which was broken only when Jack gave in.

That’s how dramas work. Relational “success” is contingent upon the players staying in their designated roles. In this case, Jill’s role was to take; Jack’s role was to give. For them, there was no such thing as arriving at mutually agreeable resolutions. With the benefit of hindsight, it makes perfect sense that when I talked about resolving differences being the sine qua non of a successful relationship, Jill turned into a stone pillar.

I kept seeing Jack during the course of their marriage and every session, I’d hear the latest exploitation story. More entitled behavior, more scolding for refusing to give, more comparisons to her friends’ generous husbands, more freezeouts, and more brief periods of thaw outs when he’d acquiesce to her demands.

But enough was never enough and she eventually filed for divorce, explaining that she couldn’t live with someone so selfish. That’s what manipulators do. They take what’s true of them and project it on to others so that they become the possessors of their bad qualities.

And Jill seemed to honestly believe her own misportrayals, which brings us to another feature of manipulators. They create alternate realities in which they are the good guys in a world of bad others. Jill believed her revisions so strongly that Jack would often question reality himself. “Am I being selfish,” he would ask himself. “Maybe she’s right.” But he would always return from these visits to The Twilight Zone reminded once again that hers was a constructed reality of her own devise.

All this left Jack so distraught that he fell into a funk and found it hard to stay in top form, which he certainly needed to do as a physician. He talked with his own doctor who prescribed an antidepressant medication. This alleviated his symptoms but then he felt like a weak person for having to take medication (a misperception, btw). And when he came home at night, it was always more of the same.

And this is true of all dramas: they drive us crazy, make us sick, and wear us out.

Unable to get Jack to submissively play his drama role, Jill filed for divorce and will likely later remarry someone whom she deems to be a more willing participant in her need-meeting drama. She walked away from a marriage to a good man having convinced herself that she had mistakenly married a selfish jerk. This is the recrafting of the narrative she now tells her friends who lavish her with reassurance that she did the right thing. “We’re so glad you had the courage to get out of that marriage, Jill. Good for you.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

So, here are the main take-aways from our post-mortem analysis:

  • Jack is a giving person but to a fault. He has an exploitable weakness: a tendency to say yes when a discussion would be more warranted.
  • Jill, a taker, exploited his giving nature. In a way that reflects her reptilian cunning, she sensed his weakness and exploited it, knowing that if successful, she could drain from him all the goodies she felt were hers to claim. He couldn’t see it then but sees it now. His was an after-the-fact realization.
  • While Jack felt so foolish for having been exploited, he understood that such things can happen to us all and excessive self-deprecation served no useful purpose.
  • Jill’s response to my resolving-differences input was telling. She froze up. All well-functioning relationships require that differences be resolved in a healthy manner but since manipulators lack those capabilities, they resort to their sole relational alternative–drama. She was unwilling and unable to reach mutually agreeable resolutions with Jack, so differences could only be “settled” when Jack gave in. But the differences were, in fact, settled in only one place–inside of Jill’s alternate reality.
  • Jill had suckered her friends into believing her version of reality. It was unfair, but Jack had to come to terms with the fact that others now viewed him inaccurately but there was little he could do to correct their misperceptions. That was hard.
  • Finally, Jack understood the importance of making use of the lessen learned so he’d never repeat it again. The old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” now made a lot more sense to Jack.

Till next week.

2 replies
  1. Tere rohret
    Tere rohret says:

    I have seen this replayed many times, I’m sorry to say that it took me some experience to catch on to what was going on. I reposted with political take on how this is playing out in our country. Thanks for another great article.

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