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There’s a clever manipulation that can happen in some emotionally abusive relationships. It starts with superficial kindness and vague promises and leads to blameshifting and avoiding true accountability.

This very subtle form of gaslighting will drive you crazy. I’ll share with you how to spot it. 

I’m going to discuss a form of manipulation that is very much under the radar that someone might be doing to you. It is notoriously difficult to detect because it disguises itself as vulnerability and honesty.

In my observations of couple interactions, I’ve become adept at spotting emotionally abusive patterns—some of which are glaringly obvious. Statements like “You’re the problem, you made me hurt you, ” or “You’re such a disappointment to our child” are clear-cut emotionally abusive behaviors.

We can usually tell when words are meant to hurt us – but it can be harder to tell which words are meant to deceive or even gaslight.

What’s challenging to detect, and this is something I’ve only recently begun to notice as a recurring pattern (one that I myself was guilty of in the past), is what I’ve come to term as “ingratiating deflection.”

Ingratiating behavior involves performing kind acts or offering pleasant words to seem more credible, reputable, or caring, with the underlying intent to deceive.

When someone is ingratiating, they’re essentially building credit with you, so you view them in a more favorable light. For instance, if they were caught stealing a cookie and, instead of addressing it, they offered to cook for you or do the dishes, it becomes difficult to remain upset with them. But there’s always an ulterior motive behind their kindness.

It’s that moment when someone does something considerate, seemingly to divert your attention or cover up something else. Perhaps you hadn’t noticed it before, but upon reflection, it’s clear.

It’s especially confounding when they acknowledge their own faults, claiming they need to reflect and improve. You might find this familiar if you’re in such a situation. Yet, despite their seemingly positive actions or words, you’re left feeling bad.

Why do you still feel bad when the conversation should have been productive? How does it end up that, despite their promise to work on their own issues, you’re left feeling guilty or wrong?

This is where ingratiating deflection comes into play.

Deflection is the act of diverting attention from oneself to someone or something else. It’s about shifting the spotlight. So, if you accused me of scratching your car, I might retort with a reminder of when you dropped my laptop, redirecting the focus from my actions to yours. The initial issue, the scratched car, becomes minimized or even forgotten amidst the new topic of discussion.

Deflection is a close cousin to blame-shifting, where the conversation is redirected, excuses are made, or there’s an outright avoidance of addressing the issue at hand, particularly dodging accountability.

I’ve witnessed these exchanges play out in online conversations and also people have confided in me with their own experiences with people in their life.

Reflecting on my past behavior in relationships, I recognize that I engaged in this type of behavior, too. I wasn’t as adept as others I’ve seen, but the word “adept” isn’t a good thing when it comes to manipulative behavior.

When someone weaves words in such a way that makes us feel secure, trusting, and open, we’re less inclined to point fingers at them. We’re less likely to perceive them as the source of our troubles.

When someone uses ingratiation, it’s a way to amass a sort of “emotional credit” with us. And because we think they are reflecting on their own behaviors, we, ourselves, then become introspective, considering how we might be contributing to the problem, which conveniently keeps the spotlight off them.

Caring, kind, generous individuals naturally want to be respectful and loving to others. So, when they acknowledge they are reflecting and will work on their own issues, we feel comfortable knowing that perhaps they will improve their behaviors. Now, we don’t have to point their behaviors out to them because we believe they already know what they need to work on.

When someone who has hurt you acknowledges their own faults and is willing to work on them, you are inclined to stop focusing on them and look inward at yourself. After all, you want to show up as the best version of yourself, too.

And that’s what they’re trying to accomplish. Someone who is ingratiating wants us to focus on our own actions instead of theirs. This is the crux of the matter—you might be with someone who acknowledges their own faults in the relationship, claiming they have issues to work on, and subsequently, this admission makes you feel more at ease and less worried that they aren’t taking steps toward healing and change themselves.

When they say, “Yes, I’ve looked at myself, I see the problems, and I’ll take responsibility,” it disarms you. When this happens, pointing out their missteps would seem like nagging because they’ve already told you what you both already know. They’ve acknowledged their need for improvement, which should be a good thing. However, these admissions often come from a place of intellect rather than genuine reflection; they’re analytical rather than heartfelt.

Some people are very eloquent at expressing the issues they need to work on but fall short when it comes to actually working on them. They promise to improve their behaviors, and while that sounds reassuring, it creates a false sense of security in you. You become more vulnerable and may end up taking on blame for things that aren’t your fault.

There it is: ingratiating deflection. They’ve set you up to fail and take the fall. They’re preparing the stage to criticize you, to make you feel guilty as if you’re the sole bearer of the relationship’s problems.

They seemingly accept half the responsibility for all the issues (implying or outright saying that you need to own your part, too, as if they don’t want to be seen as the sole problem in the relationship). A conversation like that might sound equitable, and some might even long for such a conversation, but there’s an ulterior motive here.

If you find yourself committed to working on your issues, yet you can’t shake the feeling of unease, then you might be being set up to get shot down. They could be preparing to attack you.

An ingratiating deflection might look like this: They apologize for getting angry, acknowledge their temper, and promise to address it. This makes them appear vulnerable and reflective. In the moment, their acceptance of fault feels positive.

But then comes the assault. Because you appreciate that they are going to work on themselves, you feel safe to go into a self-reflective state. And in that moment, they turn the tables, insisting you need to change certain things about yourself for their sake.

This entire process is about them first claiming responsibility, to only then pivot and direct the focus back onto what you need to work on.

This is the groundwork for the attack. They speak as if they are going to change their ways, knowing you’ll feel that is not only fair but honorable. And as you look up to them, admiring their humility and vulnerability, they’ll tell you the hurt or damage you’ve done.

To top it all off, they never follow through with what they said they were going to do. And that is the completion of the manipulation. They make promises they don’t keep and point out all your faults to keep you focused on yourself.

Their promises to work on their own issues might seem significant, but in the end, the focus shifts back to you. You might leave the conversation feeling like you’re not showing up as well as you could, and perhaps even believing that they are doing their best, which leaves you puzzled and frustrated.

This is a form of gaslighting. They confuse you by saying they’ll change, so you focus on your own changes. But since they never follow through with theirs, you’re left wondering what happened. And you may not feel this way for a few days because they make promises in the moment, but that moment turns into never.

During an exchange like this, you might feel an unshakeable discomfort inside, something that doesn’t quite sit right. After all, you’ve had these discussions before! And they always seem to end the same way: with you feeling unhappy and no progress being made.

How many conversations will you have where they make promises they never keep? This creates a recurring dissatisfaction and is a form of gaslighting because their actions don’t match their words.

Another thing to watch out for is that their commitments often remain ambiguous and vague. They might say, “Yes, I need to work on things. I take responsibility for what I said, and I shouldn’t have said those things.”

But when you’re in the midst of such a conversation or argument, it’s crucial to get into the specifics. For instance, let’s say they’ve promised not to say certain hurtful things to you anymore. You should ask them to clarify exactly what they won’t say.

This creates accountability. You’re asking them to confirm that they will indeed stop using that hurtful name they called you because it’s not loving or respectful, and you don’t want someone in your life who speaks to you that way.

“I promise I’ll change” is not enough. Get details. Ask them exactly what they’re going to do to change.

When someone says, “I’ll work on it,” it’s like a placater. It might make you feel good because it shows they are not only aware of their behaviors, but they know those behaviors are hurtful to you.

But if they specify exactly what they’ll work on, now there’s a chance they may actually do it. It shows a commitment to not cause you any more pain or make you feel attacked. Someone who truly cares about you wants to make sure their actions aren’t hurtful to you.

Someone who cares for you should say, “I don’t want you to be unhappy or to feel anything less than worthy and lovable. I’m here to make you happy, and if that’s not happening, then I need to address that.”

They might vow to be more attentive or to show they care by not leaving their dirty dishes around, which might seem trivial, but it’s the kind of detailed response that moves beyond vague promises.

Saying, “I’ll take responsibility for my behaviors,” isn’t enough. If someone says they’ll take responsibility and work on things, you have to wonder if it will really happen. All they’ve done is acknowledge the need for change. But what’s going to change?

It’s critical they specify what they will do differently. Otherwise, it’s just an empty promise.

A hurtful person doing this kind of ingratiating deflection needs to say, “Okay, you’re right, I’ll take responsibility. I don’t want to hurt you anymore, so this is what I’m going to do.” “this” being a specific step or change.

That’s the shift that needs to happen. They need to outline the specific actions they will take to make things right.

Leaving conversations floating in the abstract, like clouds in the sky, ensures what has been promised will never touch down to where we live our actual lives.

When promises remain in the clouds, with no clear action steps laid out, nothing gets resolved.

Promises have to land right in front of us, on the ground, so that the person who made them has to follow through. That’s why specificity is key.

Asking someone, “What exactly will you do differently?” gets to the specifics. Another one, “What concrete steps will you take to ensure you don’t do that hurtful thing again?”

Of course, they might try to turn the tables and ask, “Hey, I’m not the only one at fault. What will you do?”

This is a deflection, though not necessarily an unfair one, because it’s true that both partners must invest in the relationship. And it’s perfectly valid to discuss what each person will contribute.

But clarity is essential for both people regarding the changes they’re willing to make. That’s why I keep emphasizing that talking about the details is important.

I’m not implying that the victim of emotional abuse should keep making concessions every time they’re asked to make changes. That’s not the point at all. If the abusive partner is genuinely making real changes themselves, then the relationship has a chance to grow and improve.

If there are behaviors of yours that they find upsetting, and they’re approaching you with kindness and respect, you’ll probably be more than willing to address those issues because you feel loved and valued.

When someone acknowledges their behavior is hurtful, and you express your desire for them to stop, their response is critical. If they say, “Okay, next time I’m triggered, I’ll step outside, take a deep breath, and then we can have a constructive conversation,” that’s a specific, actionable plan!

Such specificity can cut through the miscommunication that plagues many emotionally abusive relationships.

Ingratiating deflection is a very subtle pattern that often goes unnoticed. It’s one that even I overlooked for years until I finally noticed the pattern after looking at so many interactions between couples.

Sometimes, conversations that seem healthy on the surface are actually part of a destructive cycle. A person might accept responsibility and promise to reflect and change. But without specific commitments to new behaviors, as you already know, these promises are empty.

For example, they might say, “I realize now that when I bring up your past relationships, it hurts you. I’m going to stop doing that because I don’t want you to feel bad. I crossed a line, and that was wrong.”

That’s a specific commitment to change.

Admitting fault is a step forward, yes. But the real question is whether they truly alter their behavior. Watch closely for these patterns in your relationships. It can be tough while you’re totally engrossed in a conversation (or an argument), but keep this in the back of your mind. Ask yourself, “Have they said these things before? Have they made promises before and not followed through? Are they just setting me up to let my guard down so they can come in for the attack?”

The pattern I talked about in this article involves a mix of ingratiation and deflection, which, when combined, can create a toxic situation. If you leave many conversations feeling like nothing was accomplished or feeling uneasy or confused once again, it’s time to look deeper and question if what you’re experiencing could be this hard-to-spot tactic.

I hope you found value in this article. I’ll do my best to continue sharing these insights so you can recognize them and avoid being gaslit and left confused, just trying to piece together what just happened.

Consider this another tool for your toolkit.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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