The tightest bonds arise from the most intense affective bonds. And the tighter these ties are, the more damage they can do to us. Although we’re not always aware of them. In fact, in many cases the worst manipulation originates in our closest environment, in the nucleus that should be our source of security and emotional validation but ends up becoming an unfathomable source of worry, anguish, oppression and guilt.
The dynamics of manipulative families
In some cases, instead of referring to manipulative people, it is possible to speak of family manipulation, since a dynamic of control and submission is unleashed within it. In practice, family members begin to follow a pattern of manipulative behaviors.
Within the dysfunctional family a mechanism of manipulation is established by means of which one or several of its members are controlled. This type of manipulation can acquire different nuances. One of the most common dynamics is to turn one of its members into the scapegoat that will carry all the family faults. That person will be a victim of what is known as the “black sheep effect” and will be systematically blamed for all the problems that occur within the family.
Another quite common manipulation dynamic consists of forcing one of the members to assume the responsibility of the whole family nucleus, whether on the affective or economic level – or both -, resorting to feelings of guilt, emotional blackmail or simply taking profit of his sense of responsibility. In these cases, the victim carries on his shoulders the responsibilities and obligations that, in a functional family, would be distributed among all its members in proportion to their abilities.
The dynamic of family manipulation ends up consolidating an unhealthy equilibrium in which one of its members is “crushed” under the weight of the others. In some cases, this “weight” is more evident because it translates into insults, humiliations and devaluations, but in other cases it’s much more subtle and can even be masked in the form of praise whose true objective is to keep that person still subject to manipulation and continue to act as the main provider of the family nucleus. In fact, victimhood is a manipulative strategy used in family manipulation to control the real victim.
Sometimes, that manipulation is not exercised in a fully conscious way. It’s likely that the members of the family will begin to depend more and more on one, to settle in that situation and manipulation becomes the only way they find to maintain the state. After all, your fear to get out of your comfort zone can make you prefer a “better known evil than good yet to know”, which perpetuates the situation of manipulation. In other cases, this manipulation can be conscious and it’s even probable that some members of the family “align” to keep the other or the others submissive.
Why is it so difficult to recognize family manipulation?
There are two major obstacles that make it difficult for us to detect family manipulation:
1. Deep emotional bonds. Family is supposed to be one of our main sources of emotional security, where we should feel understood, accepted and loved. This leads us to establish deep emotional bonds that, in many cases, prevent us from seeing reality as it is. In many cases, the person who is being victim of a manipulative family unconsciously refuses to recognize the reality because this would imply recognizing that this source of security transmuted into a source of oppression and anguish. It also implies recognizing that people you have trusted have taken advantage of that trust. And that represents a blow to our worldview that often leads us to rethink many of our certainties, behaviors and feelings.
2. Belief in the family as a sacred unit. The firm belief that the family is a sacred unit can lead us to overcome some barriers that we would never cross with other people. Thinking that those links are indissoluble can make some take advantage of others, and others let themselves be taken advantage of by those some. “Before the sacred one loses all its power, feels impotent and humbles himself. Nothing, however, is sacred in itself, I only consecrate it. What canonizes is my thought, my judgment, in a word, my conscience. The sacred inspires fear, so that the object of fear becomes an inner power from what I cannot subtract myself; what I honor takes me, ties me, possesses me, puts me completely in his power and doesn’t let me free”, says a Max Stirner’s quote which referred, among other things, to the alleged indissolubility and sacredness of family ties.
Family manipulation is not good for anyone
Family manipulation creates a dynamic that is not positive for anyone. A toxic dependency relationship is established in which the victim is drained emotionally and the manipulators become cramped and not only stop growing on the personal level but also tend to involute.
The victim of a toxic family will see how his responsibilities and obligations grow with each passing day. It’s probable that his family members demand more and more from him and show themselves more and more discontented and dissatisfied with his dedication. This person will feel anguished and irritable, but it’s probable that he doesn’t even understand where those feelings come from, which in turn will generate more conflicts within the family. Since his personal freedom is severed, the victim will not be able to continue growing due to the drag he carries.
On the other hand, although at first it may seem that manipulative family members are the ones who gain in this dynamic, in reality they are also losers. They lose because they become dependent, because in a certain way they are also conditioning their life to their victim, and because they refuse the possibility of developing the necessary skills to face the problems and conflicts in life for themselves.
It must be considered that, in the manipulation dyad, although the manipulator seems to have control of the situation, he is also dependent on his victim since he needs him to maintain the state of things. Therefore, family manipulation is a situation in which nobody wins in the long term. Never.
How to end the dynamics of family manipulation?
Perhaps one of the most liberating steps, but also harder to take, is assuming that family ties do not have to be indissoluble, especially when they become a noose that tightens every time stronger. As the writer Richard Bach said: “The bond that unites you to your true family is not that of blood, but that of respect and joy that you feel for their lives and they for yours.”
The family, although not exempt from conflicts, must be a refuge where we find understanding and love. Each member of the family must assume their responsibilities, respect the others, support them and, above all, leave them the freedom they need so that everyone can grow in their own direction.
The family therapist Virgina Satir pointed out: “Valuable feelings can only flourish in an environment where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, where communication is open and rules are flexible, the type of environment found in a loving family”.
When the family becomes a source of oppression, tension and manipulation, limits must be set. You need to be clear about your red points, those that you are not willing for others to pass. And you need the other members of the family to be clear that you will not allow them to go beyond those limits.
If you consider that certain family dynamics are harmful, don’t let them become normal routine, take it out, propose ideas to solve it and listen to the perspective and proposals of the other actors. Don’t feel guilty for not wanting to carry a weight that doesn’t correspond to you. After all, a family in which each of its members works to mature and assumes their responsibilities, is a family that is more enriching for all.