What did your mama tell you to do when a playmate was being mean? “Don’t play with them.”
Even though the ways of being mean change as we become adults, your response should be the same. Don’t play. I’m talking today about people with manipulative behavior and unrealistic expectations. Manipulators have their own set of unspoken rules, and they want them to remain unspoken! But nobody has the right to make your life miserable. You’ve been playing by their unspoken, changing-with-however-they-feel rules. I’ve seen so many of my friends beat themselves up with guilt and misery, when they are not the ones misbehaving. It’s time for YOU to quit playing!
Steven Covey, in his WONDERFUL book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said a situation should be “win-win or no-play.” In other words, emotionally healthy, effective people strive to create situations that are good for everyone, not just themselves. Manipulators are self-centered, usually insecure folks who need to control others in order to feel good about themselves. But they can win this game only if you agree to play.
Parents can be the worst about not playing fair, I think because they miss the “…man shall leave his father and mother, and become one flesh [with his wife]…” passage in Genesis 2. Scripture clearly indicates that, even though we still honor our parents, they are no longer our priority relationship. The rules are supposed to change as the children grow up, and, as parents, it’s sometimes difficult to let go and adjust.
- Exhibit A: Marie Barone, from Everybody Loves Raymond, whom we all recognize as over-the-top control-freak mother-in-law.
- Exhibit B: the mother who eases into a tradition (maybe it’s lunch every Saturday, or visiting every weekend, or something else NICE) that you feel like has you in a stranglehold.
Now, honestly, many times we just imagine that we might rock the boat and cause a shipwreck if we change the plans, and they would be fine with it– they are just doing whatever it is because they are able to and you all enjoy it. But when they EXPECT you to do it because they think you OWE it to them, and you begin to resent it, and want to do something else once in a while, it’s time to do just that. If you think she might freak out, give plenty of advance warning: “Hey Mom, on the 20th we’ve been invited to xyz, and I wanted to let you know ahead of time so you can make other plans.”
Look for these types of red flags in parent/child relationships– I’ve actually seen both parents and children be the manipulators in different situations:
1. Your parent (or child) asks for money but refuses to discuss his spending habits. Healthy relationship: Don’t lend money. Give it if you can and want to, and if they need it more than once, step in and work out a budget with them. For heaven’s sake, don’t cosign a loan.
2. Your parent demands that you provide transportation for all doctor visits, arrange medication, perhaps provide household help or coordinate services, but refuses to do what the doctors order. Or refuses to allow you access to medical records, or to talk to the doctors, so that you can have an accurate picture of the situation. Healthy relationship: If you are a partner in part of their health care, you are a full partner.
3. Your parent demands phone calls, visits, or other attention in such an amount that your husband and children complain about not seeing you. Healthy relationship: God, your husband, your children are your top priorities. (Again, as I’ve said before, I’m not talking about special seasons of illness; I’m talking about normal everyday living.) You shouldn’t neglect your family for your parents.
4. Your mom says you are don’t love her and are a selfish daughter because you neglect her, or don’t do what she wants you to do. Healthy relationship: If you are honoring your parents; you communicate regularly; they are well cared for; your OBLIGATION is done. You might ask, “What would you like me to do? How can I show my love for you?” You might just be not speaking her love language, but then again she might want you to quit your job, leave your family, and move in with her so you can wait on her hand and foot. But I bet she won’t say that. If she says she wants you to come by every day, that might be unreasonable. You can tell her that you can’t, but that you can on Mondays and Thursdays, and you will call to check on her the other days. If she gripes and complains, say, “I’m sorry; I’ll talk to you when you are in a better mood,” and cut the visit short.
Coworkers and other adults can play the same kind of controlling games; only the details are different. This can be tricky to spot– it’s all about the attitude on both sides. Sometimes, somebody else making all the decisions is a good thing! They might just be people that like to take care of things, and be perfectly open to suggestions, only nobody has said anything to them. It becomes a problem when the one in charge is doing it to get a feeling of power, and the other is unhappy with the choices. Do you recognize these people?
1. When you travel, she chooses the hotel, restaurants, activities, and gets first choice of the bed EVERY TIME.
2. If you have a manipulator in your book club, she will choose the book. In your music group, he’ll pick the songs. In any group, he’ll monopolize the conversation and always have better–or worse!– stories than you, smarter kids than you, and a more spectular illness than you! In your supper club, she’ll choose the menu and tell you what to bring. In the office, she’ll set the thermostat and choose the coffee creamer, and never ask anyone else’s opinion about anything.
3. Somebody in your church knows which guilt buttons to push to get you to do whatever job is empty. (HINT: Jesus never used guilt as a motivator and neither should His people.)
So how do you not play?
- Be prepared. They won’t like your changing the rules. But you are going to be playing by THE rules, not THEIR rules.
- Pray about it. Ask God for wisdom. (James 1:5)
- Get counsel from healthy people who have good relationships.
- Read some good Christian books dealing with healthy relationships. One of the life-changers for me was Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud.
One of my old pastors said, “No control equals no responsibility.” I think he was talking about grown kids, but it works with parents as well.
1. If your grown child calls asking for a bailout, say no. If you’ve established a pattern of bailouts, you might say, “I will do it this time, but if you ask again [either NO] or [we will work out a budget and I'll need access to all your accounts.]” Don’t say it’s not your business. If they are asking for your money, it’s your business.
2. If your friend does any of those manipulative actions, decide what matters to you. (If the brand of coffee doesn’t matter to you, let them “win” on that one. It won’t hurt you.) Then take a stand. I like the plan-ahead strategy; it takes emotion out of the equation. “Hey, when we go out to eat next time, I’d like to try xyz,” or “We’re burning up in here! I’m turning down the air!” If the manipulator has a cow, offer her your jacket.
3. When the committee chair calls to ask if you’ll do xyz, say you’ll get back after you pray about it. Then do. And talk to your husband. God does not call you to neglect your husband so you can serve other people.
4. You might have to put some distance between the manipulator and you, at least until he has become “retrained” to play by healthy rules. Don’t feel guilty. He might talk about you behind your back, or tell lies about you. Oh well. People did that about Jesus too. You’ll be in good company.
Please share how you have dealt with these difficult people in your life!