Manipulation Can Be Good For Your Relationships — As Long As You Do This, Too

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Couple in relationship looks at one another outdoors

Manipulation is bad, right?

Although most of us do not think of ourselves as being manipulative, we know that there are times when someone else is trying to or has succeeded in manipulating us. “Manipulation“ has a bad reputation.

In interpersonal relationships, manipulation is defined as one person acting in their own self-interest at the expense of another person’s interest. But what if there’s no “expense?" 

Why can’t manipulation result in a win-win? It can if it's done with the right mindset and with a light and loving touch.

RELATED: If Your Partner Does These 10 Things, You're Being Manipulated

Manipulation as a method of influence

Human beings persistently try to influence other human beings. Manipulation is one type of influence, generally regarded as anti-relational because it is intended to get something from another person without asking for it directly and without return.

We value sincerity, truthfulness, generosity and advocacy in our relationships. We want our children to do as they are told.

And we want our friends and intimate partners to behave and relate as we think is proper.

Our common thinking is that since manipulation is not direct, its intention can be hidden, a kind of subterfuge, and therefore not appropriate in relationships we value.

RELATED: 9 Signs You're Falling In Love With Someone Who Thoroughly Enjoys Emotional Manipulation

Influence is good but it doesn’t always work

Influence is part of all normal healthy relationships. In fact, John Gottman describes the willingness to be influenced by our partners as a virtue in a healthy marriage.

As our children grow we hope that we have maintained a relationship with them in which we can influence their choices and their growth without controlling them.

Healthy relational influence is characterized by directness, collaboration, and honesty. But it often is disregarded or falls on deaf ears.

The fact is that children, spouses and friends don’t always want to please us.

So we try to get what we want in other ways.

RELATED: The #1 Sign You're Being Emotionally Manipulated In Your Relationship

Just asking doesn't always work

If only we could always get what we want by just asking.

In a relationally perfect world asking for what we want would be met with agreement and collaboration.

When we ask a child to clean up her room, she would say, “Sure.” And then get down to it.

When we asked our spouse for loving attention and making love, we’d be greeted by the joy of pleasing our mate. When we ask a friend or a sibling for a favor, the answer would be, “Absolutely!”

But that’s not the world we live in.

RELATED: 6 Twisted Things Master Manipulators Do In Relationships

We’re all guilty of manipulation

Who doesn’t threaten their children with discipline if parental demands are not heeded? Do you stonewall your mate when you are angry?

Do you make promises to your children or your partner as a reward for doing what you want of them? Does your mate wheedle you for sex or pout or withdraw when it’s not forthcoming?

Michelle Weiner-Davis in her book The Sex-Starved Marriage encourages women to initiate sex with their mates. She says that women who have followed her encouragement report that their husbands are much more likely to be helpful, in better spirits, and more loving after such initiation.

Do you dress well for a job interview? Do you agree to do a favor in the hope of receiving a favor?

Benjamin Franklin is said to have visited an adversary at his home, admiring his library and asking to borrow a book in the hopes that the person would be more likely to provide a necessary vote — having been suitably flattered.

These are examples of everyday manipulation. Even though they may seem to be sneaky, in our closest relationships these kinds of win-win manipulations are necessary and therefore pro-relational.

RELATED: 10 Little Communication Tricks That'll Lead To A Much Deeper Love

Children and spouses have this in common

Children are not particularly good listeners, especially when there is something that they want from you.

When they ask for something, if you start with the word, “no" what they hear next is like a Charlie Brown teacher, “wawawaw wawa."

So, parents have to get their children’s attention.

Getting and keeping the attention of a child who is asking for something usually will require the first word to be, “yes”.

"Yes, you can go to the mall after you have cleaned up your room” rather than “no not until your room is clean."

This is not exactly manipulative behavior, but it is effectively manipulating the use of language in order to maintain a child’s attention.

Likewise, women often make a similar complaint about their husbands.

"He doesn’t listen to me" or "He’s not really paying attention."

If it’s not exactly what he wants at this moment in time there’s less than a 50 percent chance that he will remember or respond to what I am asking.

RELATED: 5 Reasons Your Boyfriend Or Husband Doesn't Listen To You

Keeping their attention

So how do successfully married women get what they want from their husbands?

I once made an unusual suggestion to a female client with a neglectful husband.

While he was watching TV on a Friday night with a newspaper or cell phone on his lap, I said to her, “Go upstairs and get nicely dressed with some makeup and maybe a pair of heels and tell your husband, ‘I’m going out.' If he looks up with a degree of surprise and asks ‘Where are you going?’ tell him ‘To the movies.’”

I knew that she knows her husband better than anybody. We did a little problem-solving about how he might respond to that.

With a therapist who has a little sense of humor and a willingness to be a little bit provocative, unusual strategies are not difficult to devise. You and the therapist can come up with a strategy that you’re willing to try and that you think will make some kind of an impression on your husband.

This is clearly a manipulative maneuver. But it is good for the relationship since intimacy and closeness builds a relationship.

Often, getting a man to participate in that building requires that he has to be interested (or a little concerned).

In my experience, most women do have an awareness of what will successfully manipulate their husbands into some behavior that would be good for her, for him, and for the relationship.

RELATED: How To Get (Pretty Much) Anything You Want From Your Partner

Let your creativity run free

Because manipulation has a negative connotation many women are not willing to let their creativity and love for their husbands work together. The anecdote I just related is not terribly different from Michelle Wiener Davis‘s direction for a woman to be sexually initiative and then see what their husbands do the next day.

When asked, teenagers will say or agree with the statement that parents and generally adults are the most manipulative people.

This often-heard opinion is not necessarily followed with examples. But it is an opening for a parent to think about how to manipulate their children positively.

They already think their parent is manipulative so what have you got to lose?

As I mentioned, responding to a child’s request for a privilege or a gift with the word yes followed by the caveat that leads to the required behavior is an excellent example of positively manipulative parental behavior.

RELATED: The 39 Best Ways To Make Kids Feel Loved, According To 39 Parenting Experts

Teamwork is critical

When there is a sense of humor and respect for collaboration between a therapist and a spouse or parent, a win-win outcome is entirely possible. All parents are capable of being creative and surprising.

Take my client Barbara as an example. She consulted with me because of her frustration with her two close-in-age teenage children who were always bickering with each other when she came home from work. She was pretty sure that they only started their bickering when they heard her pull up.

I made several suggestions about interventions and standard respectful interventions. None of them had any effect on the children’s arguing.

So, one day in frustration I said “I don’t know Barbara! I think you just have to try something completely different.”

A week later she reported that after she came home from work and heard the children arguing, as usual.

She did something completely different, all right!

Rather than say anything to them at all she went into her bedroom, and took off all of her clothes and stripped down to her underwear. She came into the living-dining area, climbed up on the dining room table, bent over, and yelled at her children between her legs.

The bickering stopped and never recurred. I am certain that I would not have devised that intervention. It goes to show how parents can be empowered to use their creativity for getting their children’s attention.

RELATED: The Creative Parenting Technique That Bonds Kids To Their Parents For A Lifetime

Find a good collaborative therapist/coach

When you’re not living a healthy relational life and asking for what you want directly doesn’t work, my suggestion is to find a good therapist who has both a sense of humor and an ability to think creatively.

With this person, you can easily and naturally collaborate. Then trust your own instincts about how to get your husband or children’s attention when you have something important to get across.

You want a better, more fulfilling relationship, don’t you?

RELATED: The Simple Secret To Having A Better Relationship (It's Not Rocket Science!)

William "Bill" Meleney is a Washington state-licensed mental health counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.