Recognizing and Coping with Manipulative Behavior from Addicts

Families and loved ones of people dealing with addiction are often the victim of lies, threats, and other patterns of manipulative behavior They want to help, out of love and compassion, but are concerned about being taken advantage of. Recognizing manipulationsand dealing with the firmly and fairly, can be the best way to help the person you love.

There wasn’t a single moment, a defining turn, where Sam knew that she was entangled again in her sister’s life, drawn again into the pathologies of addiction and dependence. Kelly had been struggling with addiction to prescription painkillers for years, in and out of various rehab places, and each time she went in, Sam pledged that she would never help her again if she backslid. Sam was willing to offer all the support she could if it seemed like Kelly was trying, but otherwise it was just too hard She couldn’t go through the same process of offering help, and being taken advantage of yet again. However, through fits and starts, a still-using Kelly wheedled her way into Sam’s life. Without realizing, Sam once again had an addict sleeping on her couch, “borrowing money,” and disappearing for days.

Sam didn’t see how this could have happened. There was no one moment where she acquiesced, but looking back, she saw that once again she had been manipulated to give in to her sister’s wants and needs. This is the case with many loved ones of those facing addiction. Addiction, and the raw chemical need for substance, turns its victims into excellent manipulators, and starts a vicious cycle of codependency. Breaking this cycle means being able to understand where this manipulation comes from, recognizing its signs, standing up to it, and learning how to turn that behavior into a chance to seek help.

Why Addicts Are Manipulative


If you are a family member of an addict Googling the impact that addiction has on the brain, you’ll see that there are a number of articles that use the term “hijack” (such as “How Addiction Hijacks The Brain”). This is a very apt word, and very relevant when it comes to understanding manipulative behavior.

There are any number of reasons why people start using substances, but as they do, the brain literally starts demanding more of the substance to replace the sensation that was numbed. This need grows more and more as the addiction deepens. It is, if not medically, and least metaphorically correct to say that the addiction has taken over the brain, in the same way a hijacker would, and has started to issue a series of demands, all based around the same imperative: more of the substance. In Kelly’s case, this was painkillers, but it can be same for any other addiction. The price of not meeting these demands was pain and suffering.

This is the heart of manipulative behavior; responding to the braying demands of addiction. Any form that takes—lying, cheating, playing on heartstrings, being unfair, threatening self-harm—springs from that well. This doesn’t excuse it, and doesn’t mean you should let it go on, but it is important to understand where this manipulative behavior comes from. In some ways, it isn’t the addict acting in this way; it is the addiction.

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Types of Manipulative Behavior


There are several forms that classic manipulative behavior can take. All of these can be persuasive, and a loved one may try to justify or accept any of them, but soon enough, by acquiescing to these demands, you become an enabler, helping with addiction and a cycle of relapse.

The Promise That It’s About to Get Better

“All I need is to crash here for a few weeks,” Kelly told Sam, “and then I’ll be able to get into school for the second semester.” It’s not that Kelly hadn’t said this before, and she had probably meant it each time. But each time, there were excuses, and more deadlines. It was hard for Sam to cut her off, because each time, she thought: What if this is the right time? What if I say “no” now, and she really just did need a few weeks to crash here? Kelly could recognize this emotion in Sam, and took advantage of it.

  • What To Do: Set hard and fast deadlines, and stick to them. Don’t accept promises, accept guarantees. Ask for documentation of a job that is going to start soon, or the school that’ll let them join mid-semester. The manipulative personality takes advantage of any cracks or potential loopholes, so do what you can to fill them.

The Emotional Breakdown Gambit

Addicts might be at the end of their rope, and if you are a family member or loved one, you may be, too. This puts you in an easy position to be manipulated. The addict will often profess genuine sorrow for what they have done, and ask for forgiveness. They may break down and tell you how bad things have been for them, asking for your sympathy and help. This is incredibly hard to refuse. You love this person, and they clearly need you.

  • What To Do: Turn the conversation around. Make clear your burdens, and what you expect. Let them know that you are not responsible for their behavior, and that you won’t allow yourself to be guilted into helping again. When a person’s addictions demand manipulation, they will be able to push open a door that is barely budging. Don’t give them that crack of light.

The Threat of Self-Harm

This is the ultimate card, the final straw. Kelly had once told Sam that if she didn’t help her, if she didn’t lend her $200, she’d probably kill herself out of despair. Self-harm goes hand-in-hand with the idea that there is nowhere else to turn. Many addicts will say that they will be on the street, freezing to death, or that they are in so much trouble they may be killed if they don’t have money or a place to stay. This is wrenching, because these claims are frequently true. Even if specific details are made up or exaggerated, the overall desperation of the situation is often accurate.

  • What To Do. This is perhaps the hardest situation of all, and no one wants to release themselves from responsibility, only to have it come back as crushing guilt. That’s what a manipulative personality knows, and that’s why they can get away with it. But you have to set standards for your help, and if you are genuinely concerned for them, call the police. Get help. Get them the help they need as the condition for your help.

This is always the best course of action. Stopping an addiction on your own is very difficult, and downright impossible for many people. They aren’t able to control themselves, and so they try to control others. They manipulate and steal, both literally and emotionally. It’s what their brain demands. That’s why getting treatment by trained and compassionate professionals in a comfortable and inclusive environment is so important. This treatment can also extend to family members and loved ones, who have their own struggles dealing with someone else’s addiction.

It isn’t easy being on that side of the fence. The problems facing the addict you love are real, and it is difficult to turn your back on them, even if you know you are being manipulated. That’s why professional care should be a part of the loving and compassionate help you offer. It offers the possibility to break free of this cruel cycle, and let you, and your loved one, live an honest and fulfilling life.

Alta Mira Recovery Programs is a world-renowned residential treatment center that specializes in treating all manner of addiction, as well as any underlying co-occurring mental health disorders. Reach out to us today to find out how we can help get your loved one on the path to recovery.