Manipulation is also known as Adult Bullying

I debated whether or not to post about a small incident with “eternal acquaintances” (borrowed from Kara).  I changed my mind when Judy reflected on this topic and the other thoughts that followed – thank you for the great insight.  I realized that adult bullying had a bit more to do with this ‘incident’ than I had originally thought.

As mentioned in the comments, we generally don’t use bullying to describe adult behavior.  It is reserved for children in elementary school and when they get older we call it “peer pressure”.  When we become adults the word changes to manipulation.  I often think that the change in word usage drives a disconnect between childhood bullying and adult bullying.  Both the same, the only difference being chronological age – not emotional maturity.

My father was adult bulled many times.  He lent people money, people who didn’t pay him back.  It was significant amounts of money that by the time I was heading to university, there were no savings left for my tuition.  His boundaries and our family’s were crossed.  We struggled financially throughout my childhood and his generosity extended beyond his means or more accurately, his savings account.  I share similar approaches to adult bullying as my father.  I have lent friends money to find that I wasn’t paid back.  The only positive is that it wasn’t significant amounts and I recognized early enough to learn my boundaries and stop.  I don’t blame my father for how I handled money in early adulthood.  Only, that I can see how we share similar vulnerabilities and how we both didn’t understand them well enough to recognize when our boundaries were crossed.

I believe that we learn how to approach different types of manipulation by watching others (as involved bystanders) and in an environment that is supportive.  Watching how someone who is emotionally intelligent approach a manipulative situation has taught me how to set limits and boundaries with someone who is trying to cross them.  Unfortunately, we are not born with this skill set, it is a ‘learn as you go’ kind of skill.  Then, we become adults and those that have found manipulation to get what they need and want (chronically) have now fine tuned their skills so the manipulation no longer looks like playground ‘bullying’, it looks like ‘normal’ everyday conversation.  Those without the skill set to handle chronic manipulators face the same challenge as children in school – how to effectively deal with bullying?

And with this recent incident, DH and I found ourselves in a predicament in what seemed to be a simple coordination task of getting six “eternal acquaintances” together for one evening and ended up being a lesson in adult bullying.

Background: We used to see Mari and her husband a bit more when we lived five minutes by car from them.  The other couple we saw occasionally and always with Mari and her husband.  After we moved further away and life happens, it was now three years since we had seen each other.

Mari sent out an e-mail to all five of us suggesting a weekend away on the coast in February.

Boundary #1: After three years of not seeing each other, a weekend away was too ‘forced’ for me.  I didn’t feel comfortable spending a weekend with people I didn’t feel a strong connection with and since DH travels during the week, the weekends are our time to regroup, run his errands, etc.

I responded with a suggestion of a dinner in any of the cities that were convenient for all three couples on a Saturday evening (as each of us live about 45 minutes to one hour by car from each other).

Boundary #2: Mari responded with an invite to her house and stated in her e-mail (written so): Option #1: we are to either bring dishes to share with everyone and a bottle of wine OR Option #2, we are to pay Mari for the ingredients and we are all to cook together in her kitchen.

It was clear to me that these were her boundaries, so DH and I responded with our preference for Option #1 – to bring dishes to share and wine.

Boundary #3: I did not hear back from the others and wondered if we were going to even have the dinner as the date was approaching.  After some time, she responds with one sentence “Dinner menu is lobster, the other couple likes this idea.”

Lobsters are cannibalistic when food is scarce

I was taken aback at first.  LobsterI realized that the four had spoken (off the shared e-mail) and set the menu (after asking a clarifying question to her on a separate e-mail).  After speaking with DH some things were clear to me about DH and our vulnerabilities (shame).  We didn’t want to appear difficult and going against the ‘popular’ vote felt like peer pressure.  The ONLY problem is that DH and I hate lobster.  Yup, we have tried it many times prepared in different ways and we both don’t like it.  And here we were actually discussing the idea of going along with it even when we were PAYING and COOKING to have a meal we didn’t like.

Boundary #4: I e-mailed her and said that DH and I will bring a dish to share with everyone and dessert and wine.  And I asked if we could use her oven to re-heat the dish.  She replied that using her oven was no problem.

Something I had thought about – what if Mari is simply asserting her wants as I had asserted mine?  Intellectually, I thought maybe Mari was simply more self-assured and she had a natural ease of asserting herself while I found it a challenge to type each e-mail asserting my preferences.

Then, the part of me that in the last three years I have become conscious of is my emotional part of my brain, where making decisions with it is equally important as my cognitive skills.  I felt ignored. Not because I didn’t get what I wanted BUT because I wasn’t involved in a decision that involved my boundaries.  I felt that my boundaries were disregarded.  If we are to pay and cook a meal, we should have been part of the discussion and all of us should have come to an agreement.  Like ADULTS, not like peer pressured teenagers.

Ignoring is a type of manipulation/bullying (Harriet B. Braiker¹ groups this under Silent Treatment while George K. Simon groups it under Selective Listening – thank you to Caliban’s Sisters for the link).  Ignoring is an effective manipulation technique to bully someone into GIVING UP (either to DO something or STOP something).  And why do we give up?  Infants know how to give up before they are taught.  Infants will cry (fight) when in distress and they eventually give up (flight).  Not because they learn to self-soothe (they don’t because they can’t tell time and understanding the concept of time is necessary in self-soothing), but because giving up is a protection against other predators.  A crying baby will eventually stop crying if you IGNORE it as to not attract other predators.  It is a survival tool built into us from birth.

We carry this primal survival instinct into adulthood and it can become a crutch.  I am really good at giving up when I’m ignored.  Knowing that I choose to flee rather than FIGHT as my default setting helped me see that my FLIGHT tendencies were in direct violation of my rights (having a say in food that I was paying for and cooking).

Lobsters don’t scream when boiled

Mari made it clear in the e-mail that she is a woman of compromise.  Her behaviors in the e-mail indicated that a compromise meant our preferences were NOT going to be considered.

CookingAfter all, everyone got what they wanted – LOBSTER for the four and anything but LOBSTER for DH and I.  That is a win-win situation (except for the lobster).

As you can imagine, after all these e-mails, the evening revealed whether this was the case of Mari being assertive with poor communication skills or Mari wanting to control (aggressive) which is the purpose of bullying.  It was clear throughout the evening that Mari found my decisions unacceptable.  She mentioned that we didn’t chose the LOBSTER three times and once brought up the fact that I couldn’t go to the coast for a weekend.  She made underhanded insulting statements and I felt the urge to JADE and explain again why a weekend away wasn’t possible or the fact we didn’t like lobster.  I bit my tongue each time and instead focused on my purpose (as opposed to her purpose) of the evening – to visit and socialize with acquaintances and have fun.

Boundary #5: Her attempts to degrade my decisions were a form of social coercion (as comments were directed to everyone at the dinner) and she lied to the other couple.  I felt guilty for having gone my own way and asserting myself.

Boundary #6:  As we drove back home, DH said it best on our drive back: “I could wait another three years before I see Mari and her husband again.”

Adult Bullying

Chronic bullying or manipulation serves only one purpose: POWER and CONTROL.  Something I hadn’t realized before. Even when each person got what they wanted to eat and the meal preparations went smoothly, Mari kept weaving my decisions into the conversation the whole evening. A chronic bully doesn’t give up easily if they had success with you.  When I reflected on the last time few times I have gotten together with Mari and her husband, they controlled everything.  When, where, with whom, etc.  DH and I were told what we were doing.  And in ACoN years, three years are a lot more meaningful and longer than Gregorian years.  DH and I learned about manipulation and that as adults we have developed our own sophisticated rhetoric to bullying.  It may look and sound different and after you remove the smoke screen, you’ll find that your boundaries are NOT respected.  The very core of manipulation and bullying.

I can relate to the meme Judy shared in her post.  I need to learn skills about how to handle bullying effectively.  Walking away sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Depending on the situation and circumstances, we can’t remove ourselves from adult bullies all the time.  Children can’t either.  Bullies are schoolmates, friends, siblings, co-workers, managers, parents, teachers, coaches, etc.  Bullies are human and like the meme said – we can’t get rid of bullying behaviors.

To be continued in the next post.  This story has a happy ending. 🙂

Further Reading & Footnotes

Five Myths Around Bullying by Dr. Peter Thomas, Ph.D.

¹Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life”. McGraw Hill. New York.

19 thoughts on “Manipulation is also known as Adult Bullying

  1. Yeap….power and control. It’s always the underlying issue with bullying, manipulation, etc. It’s unavoidable. Good post. Boundaries are hard to set, but even more hard to come up with. We feel a certain amount of guilt or concern that we are being ‘anti-social’.

    It was just a year ago that I had my own round of being bullied. It haunted me because it was former friends….but looking closer at these people, they were all with (in some cases) extreme personality disorders. Now? I don’t get close to many, or any…and that is because it makes for a lot of issues that I haven’t resolved. Like being more aggressive or assertive when I am being bullied. It also leads to ‘bad’ feelings about myself…that I allow people to do these things.

    Well, it’s a process….and when you have had a narcissistic mother and family…it is easy to allow these things because of ‘lack of self worth’. That takes time to over come.

    Spending time with bullies or people who you know have this tendency is a royal waste of life! I think your husband said it best: Another three years before you see these bullies again. But then….who knows? You might not want to because of internal growth.

    Love, Jane

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jane,
      Yup, I feel guilty and shame when trying to practice setting boundaries. I can remember times when I did this when I lived at home and how my parents changed that to being selfish when in fact it is MY boundary – food, body, etc.

      I think one of the first signs and something I’ve learned from ACoN bloggers and the book Gift of Fear is that that is often the first flag that can indicate where to put energy. I found it a challenge to see this and if I reflect back on past friendships I can see that a major boundary was crossed in the initial stages of developing the friendship. I can understand about getting to know people and how that can hinder in pushing forward even with bullies. I find it a struggle and with Mari, it was only easier b/c of the three year gap. I struggle with finding that balance of having boundaries but still develop connections and intimacy with people. I question if I handled it well with Mari and thanks for the encouragement and your comment.

      Love, TR


      • Hiya TR! It’s always a struggle, at least for me! LOL! Recently I made contact with two women, who were former friends. Now I wonder why? I think we have to realize that ‘what we know and are’ have become different over the years, with our issues of fighting and discovering the abuse of Narcissism, and not all people are worthy of being our friends. We get to choose in life and that is something I constantly forget. One women was involved with a scam Mennonite preacher: she refused to hear anyone on this man and his activities, and yet he destroyed her church. Four years later she says to me “I was right, listen to your gut”, but she didn’t want to hear WHY I was right…(and my husband)…she was just stubborn…and this man tried to enmesh both my husband and myself in illegal things….construction without permits, etc. He was a HUGE narcissist. But she didn’t want to know WHY we disappeared for those 4 years. After thinking….she was not a person that I felt comfortable with….she was determined to be blind and I just didn’t have any more patience with this sort…especially when it revolved around Narcissism. We have to feel that we are worthy of ‘good’ and sane people….and not feel that we have to curtail our intellect around them. Love, Jane


      • Thank you for the support. At the time I wasn’t sure if I was approaching it in a healthy way. One of the things that is mentioned in some bullying articles is that there needs to be a network of support in order to handle such situations. And I feel that here in the blogosphere. I don’t feel like I have that in real life and I appreciate the support from reading your blog and others in moving forward in making changes in everyday life. ((Judy))

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi TR, I think you handled it extremely well. Mari sounds to me like she’s all about control and privileging/imposing her will on others. There is nothing wrong with not liking a food, for chrissakes! And lobster is something that many people don’t like. That you were “informed” that it had been chosen by everyone (else) is THE giveaway. That an adult friend should keep making an issue of this, even after you’ve come to the dinner and are eating other food, shows that she has a serious problem. It’s RUDE, for one thing, no matter how ‘casually’ it’s put out there. You shouldn’t have to explain anything to her. Same thing about not being able/willing to spend a weekend away. That’s an intense setting, and presupposes very comfortable friendships. When you haven’t seen people for several years? I wouldn’t want to do that either! I think that once we start seeing how adult bullying works, in its covert, manipulative forms, it’s impossible to carry on as usual. Friends don’t manipulate friends. great post! xo CS

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you! Did you smell my self-doubt from across the net? If I reflect on our past interactions I have felt controlled by her. I found out during the dinner that Mari ‘suggested’ lobster to the other couple and who really knows what was communicated? It became apparent that versions of stories were changed. And that is maybe what bothered me. If someone is willing to ‘change’ the story about lobster/food, then I begin to wonder what else will they ‘change’? That is an excellent point – we find it harder to carry on as usual, friends don’t manipulate. I’m guessing Mari won’t initiate anymore ‘get-together’s’. 😉


  2. Very interesting and timely post, TR! Thanks for taking the time to post it. My NMIL is an enormous bully and I’m working very hard at dealing with this. I really struggle with appropriate ways to assert myself without feeling “difficult” or like I’m being too controlling myself. The stories you shared and the examples really helped clarify some things in my mind.
    My NMIL is very controlling and often TELLS me and DH what is going on without consideration for our time or thoughts (again, I’m going through this exact situation with her right now. She wants a family meeting so she is TELLING everyone when it is and throwing fits when we can’t accommodate her. And the worst part is, it’s a meeting in which she is going to TELL us about a huge financial situation having to do with inheritance and what we have to do to earn it. She does not interact with us as adults but rather children that she can order about.) I find this very upsetting. Especially when I often have little room for assertion, as DH is often more than willing to go along with her orders (he sees it as being “accommodating” of her. :P)
    One thing you mentioned, the social coercion. What did you do when Mari did this? This is another technique that MIL has tried on me and, I’ll admit, it often works to shame me. Mostly because it is “her” family (DH and his siblings and father) that she does this in front of and I already feel like an outcast. I’d be interested in how you deal with this. Direct confrontation would seem to escalate the situation and I can’t always walk away.
    Again, thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you and I’m glad it cleared some stuff up. I can understand the predicament you are in with your IL’s. Time and feelings and money are huge boundaries that get crossed and I find it so frustrating to deal with. Children having to earn an inheritance? That reminds me of a post of Kara’s (TTLG) on the Shakespeare play, King Lear. I’ve noticed there is a somewhat similar theme in dysfunctional families around inheritance. Making a big deal of it or being disowned from the inheritance (which is my case with my FOO).

      I felt often ‘outside’ of my IL’s. Like I too could not assert myself. I really felt like I didn’t belong and well, I still don’t. And I still was being socially coerced to do their bidding. And to answer your question, I didn’t respond to it in the case of Mari. I still am in the ‘stage’ of recognizing it in real time and ‘freezing’ and not JADEing. My next steps are figure out the right words (so your question is great to share some ideas). I have been spending time looking into what is right for the type of social coercion I am facing. It seems that social coercion in my FOO and friends is about making blatant statement about me – what I DO and who I AM and what I FEEL (mostly false). So whenever a statement comes that starts “TR doesn’t like…” “TR doesn’t do that…” (Mari said: “TR and DH never had lobster”). Those are controlling statements that control other people’s perception of me. Recently, I was reading about US law system (burden of proof) and how it is the prosector’s job to ‘prove’ his/her assertion. The only job of the ‘defense’ is to create DOUBT. Not to disprove the assertion. And I realized that JADEing is about disproving this assertion and why it feels like I have exhausted myself emotionally in situations where I become the ‘defendant’. From this, I started to think of phrases (to keep handy) that create DOUBT in the social/group situation. Because by creating DOUBT the ‘group’ then can think for themselves whether that statement is true/false. The other aspect of JADEing I read in a book. The author of Verbal Judo stipulates that by JADEing you actually confirm that the assertion is TRUE. I’m not sure about this however, I can see how JADEing is wasted energy b/c people are going to think what they like. So then, I went back to creating DOUBT through one sentence (minimal energy) such as – “That’s false/not true” or CS’s and Kara’s “Think what you like” and another one sentence came from a comment on another post “That’s an interesting assumption”. If the social coercion is in the form of a negative control question, “Don’t you…?” I answer with only Yes or No and don’t explain after. Great question b/c I am in the middle of investigating how to answer and regulate my emotions in such situations so I can answer (next time). I hope this helps with ideas in handling the type of social coercion you face with you IL’s. Much support and if you have any thoughts, I would be curious to hear them as well. xxTR


  3. I don’t care for lobster either. I appreciate how you pointed out that Mari kept bringing up the issue. I hadn’t thought of the aftermath of setting a boundary. It is like they are kicking against the fence. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome and nice ‘fence’ analogy. That was the telling sign. Perhaps Mari’s behaviors reflected her issue with anyone asserting themselves? From what I could make from Mari’s e-mails and the conversation during dinner, the other couple went along with Mari’s suggestion. It’s when someone does something ‘different’ (broad definition) that it seems in my circle of friends that it gets the most aftermath.

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Hi TR,

    Thanks for sharing this experience. What struck me when I read it is how complicated it’s to arrange things with people like Mari. Something that should be relatively straightforward becomes a headache. I have some Mari-type “eternal acquaintances” too, and they also over complicate things. (Maybe we should add this to our list of red flags 😉 ) Your suggestion of meeting at a restaurant was very reasonable. It makes no sense to me that if she was prepared to go to the coast, that she couldn’t travel to a restaurant within an hour’s drive from her house.

    Also, her message: “Dinner menu is lobster, the other couple likes this idea.” is bullying. She’s basically forcing you to “comply with the majority”. She was basically “strong-arming” you into going along with her plan. You did great, and I bet you learned a lot from the experience. I can’t wait to hear part 2.


    Kara xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kara,

      That is it, exactly. It is complicated. I remember a post of your’s about how arranging stuff becomes complicated. I think it is a ‘flag’ and a good one to add that I had considered before.

      From the dinner conversation, I found out the lobster was her suggestion to the other couple. And it was unfortunate it was the one seafood I didn’t like and I felt guilty like I was making it complicated as well. I learned a lot about myself and the way DH and I work through this stuff in the past. It was an eye-opening experience with DH b/c I could see how the ‘old’ ways still pull in such social situations. And how our old behaviors attract other couples who are more domineering (like Don & Lydia). And in the end, which feels even stranger, we both felt ‘good’ about the ‘change’ in the way we approached it even with the initial dread.



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  7. TR, I love your emotional intelligence and your “high sensorium”. That you see all of the subtleties in the behaviors and dialogue of the people around you. Just as you mentioned that you don’t really have narcissist convo peeps to talk with in your real life, but only in this online community, I feel the same about that, and also about not having people in my real life that seem to have this highly keen emotional intelligence observational insights skills / intuitive observational skills and sensorium. So, it’s refreshing and wonderful to listen to your experiences as you tell/describe them, with all your sensitive observations and insights, on this blog. Great lobster post.



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