Getting stuck in a toxic relationship is a traumatic and dangerous, sometimes surreal experience. We talked about it with the psychologist Luigi Corvaglia, an expert in manipulative dynamics.

Does he love me or not? Why was he dribbling words of love until yesterday and today, in the wake of what seemed like a trivial quarrel, he ended up humiliating me ? Why do I have so many times the impression that my words and actions are being magnified and misunderstood in order to create havoc, to subvert my thinking , to trample my self-esteem? Why after her screams, mesmerized by those eyes full of anger, after her violence , do I always have the strange feeling  of being wrong ? But above all because, after months, or perhaps years, are they still here ?

These are just some of the questions that hammer the minds of many women (but also men) who have ended up in the prison of a manipulative , psychologically violent, depersonalizing and annihilating love . They often ended up there all of a sudden, without realizing how and why. But there is a “how”, and a “why” as well, and it is useless to try to get out of it by obsessively searching the web for articles like this: informing, in this case, means hoping to reach those desperate solitudes, try to move something, turn on a light bulb in them, push them to a huge, frightening act of courage : accept that the sun around which they are spinning goes out suddenly, accepting to hang around in circles around the dark. Asking for help is the only way to recover the condition in the absence of which life becomes mere survival: freedom . 

In a historical moment such as the one we are experiencing, in which perhaps disengaging from certain dangerous ties (often conditioned by economic, social and family problems) becomes even more difficult, we wanted to address the issue of toxic relationships with the psychologist Luigi Corvaglia , specialized in sects and manipulative dynamics . 

Doctor, what is meant by emotional manipulation?
Affective manipulation is the condition in which one person causes the other to commit actions that they would never otherwise have committed. In many cases, however, if there were no people there ready to be manipulated, the manipulator could achieve nothing. 

Does this mean that the “victim” of affective manipulation is actually, in his own way, an “accomplice”?
In many cases the victim participates in his own manipulation, indeed very often he is looking for people with the classic characteristics of the manipulator. 

Why does he do it?
Often he does this because he has a history such that he needs strong guidance or recognition from a significant person, experiencing a void, or having very low self-esteem, or an overly lax or overly rigid childhood training experience, from which one may derive. insecure attachment style. 

John Bowlby, a British psychologist, has shown that the attachment style develops in the first two years of age: if not completely healthy, it can soften and normalize over time, but it can also be extreme with unsatisfactory emotional experiences. Some two-year-olds have an attachment style that is so insecure that they cannot bear the “abandonment”, not even momentary, of their mother. In a normal condition, the child left to a stranger becomes agitated and then calms down when the parent returns. An insecure-resistant child, that is, a potential (future) emotional addict, does not find peace even when his mother returns because he perceives an instability in the relationship, an unmotivated fear of abandonment. A similar, and perhaps even more dramatic, discourse can be made about “insecure-ambivalent” attachments, in which there is a sort of emotional discord and inconsistency. 

He said that the victim of manipulation is “often” somehow actively participating in that perverse game. Often, or not always. 
That’s right, because there are actually two conditions. In some cases it happens that a person immediately falls victim to manipulation, although on the other side there are clear “pathological” signs: arrogance, unreliability, excessive lifestyle. In this case it cannot be defined as completely extraneous to the facts because, as mentioned, it is often she who chooses a manipulative partner. These are collusive joints. In other cases the manipulation is much more subtle and slow, and is done by approximation . 

That is?
That is, it happens almost imperceptibly. At a certain point I try to convince you of something, I put in your head an idea that you at that moment do not perceive as disturbing with respect to your mental state. So you accept it. Then there is a further step, similar to the previous one, which you continue to welcome for the same reason. Going on like this, step by step, one finds oneself in a condition very far from the starting one, where the manipulated person will come to accept situations that he would never have accepted if they had been presented to him at the beginning of the relationship. In this case the victim’s “complicity” is much less, because there was a process that was difficult to perceive and therefore to defuse.

A bit like voluntarily opening the door to your tormentor, thinking it in good faith. 
Yes, a paradoxical dynamic, which leads to a reflection on the concept of personal freedom. When this form of manipulation occurs, each of those steps was actually accepted – albeit naively – voluntarily , but no one would ever willingly accept the final outcome. So the question is: have you seriously accepted to get there or have you been induced to accept it after so many imperceptible “changes of thought” administered over time?

A model that you also apply to sectarian manipulation.
Yes. Destructive cults enjoy a large portfolio of defenders, often “on the payroll”, who argue that adepts voluntarily and freely accept to be part of a particular group, to espouse its ideology. But they don’t take into account the mechanisms mentioned above. Sectarian groups act through self-selection: they start by starting to address a large number of people and manage to approach a part of them; among these some will walk away “smelling” something strange, while others will go on. Eventually the sect will come to attract particularly inclined people, with whom it can easily continue to work by approximation, until they are permanently embedded in the network. 

affective manipulation narcissism

Let’s go back to toxic relationships: what are the characteristics of the manipulator?
The manipulator is very often a narcissist, in many cases a psychopath. It is a seemingly completely normal person, but in reality anaffective. Although he can mimic situations of affection and love, he does not know their true meaning and in relationships he tends to impose his will, directly or indirectly. 

Indirectly, how?
Sometimes he can do it in a mechanism of almost constant “disguised” disqualification, making statements like: “Of course I love you, otherwise how would I be with someone like you?”. An absurd phrase, in which one thing and its opposite are stated at the same time, feeding in a perverse way the relationship with the manipulated person. 

Is love bombing also a manipulative technique? What is it exactly?
Love bombing is a massive pouring on a person of what appear to be manifestations of care and affection. It can take the form of a warm welcome in a group or a close courtship full of attention and care in the case of a couple. If aimed at bringing down the defenses of the individual it is certainly a manipulative method. 

What is meant by gaslighting instead?
It is an action through which you try to convince the other that you are crazy: I say or do something, then I take it back or deny it. Faced with a similar situation, when repeated, the manipulated person stops trusting what he knows, what he remembers, he no longer trusts himself and no longer knows what reality is. 

Why does the manipulator manipulate? What kind of “emptiness” does it have? 
There are at least three types of manipulators, namely the intimidator, the seducer and the good guy. However, all are characterized by a lack of self-esteem and a need for control disguised as self-confidence. Especially in the intimidating type, the fragility of this mask is evident, as he is quarrelsome and reacts aggressively to any behavior of the other that disqualifies his image and his power. The seducer’s armor is subtler and more evolved, looking for a partner who satisfies his needs for consideration and his public image as a winner. The sneakiest is the so-called “good guy”. The latter may even appear accommodating to the victim’s requests, and then adopt behaviors that deny such acquiescence. This creates confusion and bewilderment in the victim and closes her in a paradoxical condition from which she cannot escape. All different manifestations of the same need for control as a food for one’s hunger for self-esteem.    

Is the “good guy” the most dangerous?
It can be, because it is in relations with this type of subject that the silent manipulation we were talking about finds its most fertile ground. In these cases, control takes place from below. While the narcissist who acts in an extreme and arrogant way is easier to spot, because a friend is enough to point him out, in the case of the sneaky narcissist this is much more difficult because his control mechanisms are more subtle from the beginning: they create feelings of guilt, moral blackmail, detachment from reality, extreme confusion.

That the “good guy” and the “seducer” attract is somehow understandable. But the intimidator? Why does he also attract?
According to psychologist Peter Jonason, for girls, especially young ones, the man who has the characteristics of reliability, presence, sweetness, has less appeal than those who have typical elements of the narcissist. This means that even non-“addicted” personalities are often attracted to completely unreliable men, for biological reasons, because there is something in the evolutionary world that says that man has stronger genes. We think of James Bond; the maximum of charm and at the same time the emblem of the psychopath: infidel, lover of speed, alcoholic. Yet he is loved by most women. So if even “healthy” people are often attracted to the narcissistic type, with the affective / insecure addict the match is perfect. 

Is the manipulative attitude necessarily linked to a pathology?
It depends. Many manipulators are below the threshold, that is, they live subclinical conditions that cannot always be defined pathological, but nevertheless have very distinct traits: narcissism, control and Machiavellism, that is the tendency to be strategic. They always act in a programmed way, nothing is extemporaneous but built to preserve power in the relationship. 

Are they aware of it?
Yes, they are aware, but at the same time theirs is an innate behavior. Somehow that is the only relational modality they know, but they are very good at concealing. Those who have been “victims” need a long time to look back and re-examine the months or years spent with him (or her) and realize that they have lived in a state of total awe.  

How to get out of a relationship with a narcissist?
At a certain point you should be able to get out and watch the film, abstract yourself from yourself, get out of the “close to you I suffer, far from you too” loop. 

Easier said than done, it seems. 
Yes. Opening the eyes is a traumatic event, because it shows the whole previous story in a different light, but only when this epiphany arrives is total detachment possible. When this happens, it is essential to rebuild one’s self-esteem and stifle the sense of guilt through a course of psychotherapy.

How to recognize a narcissistic and manipulative person?
Assuming that it is not healthy to go through all relationships, the most typical alarm signal is the distressing and anxious feeling that seizes the person being manipulated in some situations without knowing why. He feels a sort of nervousness to which he cannot give a name, without valid reason, even – for example – after an apparently calm confrontation. Because obviously he implicitly grasped that something is wrong. When this type of discomfort occurs, the situation should be carefully evaluated and, if the state of anguish persists, leave immediately. This includes the ability to recognize one’s emotional reactions, which is not always taken for granted. 

Photo: Katarzyna Białasiewicz

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