This is a really near and dear topic to my heart, so I apologize for the incoming encyclopedia.
Abusive people are fundamentally manipulative. Manipulative people aren’t always abusive boyfriends, but they’re pretty uniformly people you don’t want in your life if you can avoid it. I wasn’t always good at finding these kinds of people. My best friend growing up was extremely manipulative, I got out of that relationship, and then dated a guy who was a textbook manipulator. So I guess I want to share the kinds of things I learned that helped me spot these people, and nope the fuck out of relationships with people that look like this earlier and earlier, before they have a chance to wreak havoc on my life.
Notice when somebody is asking you something or telling you something that makes you feel bad or weird. Especially if you express your discomfort in some way and they act like you’re weird for feeling that way. Like, for example, if someone starts asking you some very sexual questions, and you don’t feel comfortable answering, and they make you feel like a prude instead of just apologizing or moving on. Or maybe they ask to meet your parents a month into a relationship and you notice that you feel like you’re the weird one for thinking that it’s too early. A lot of the time, you won’t notice them literally telling you that you’re the weird one. But if you notice times when you feel like they’re acting weird, and then you feel that you’re acting weird, make a mental note. See if there’s some pattern to their behavior where they’re doing something to make you feel this way.
When someone hurts your feelings, think about the motivations they could have to hurt your feelings. People make honest mistakes, but for a manipulative person, there’s often no real kind justification for their behavior. They’re grossly negligent of the feelings of others at the most charitable interpretation, but you don’t notice until you’re thinking about it after the fact, because they seem so kind and well-meaning. Especially if they’re incongruous with why they SAY they did the thing that hurt your feelings. Like, it’s normal for a friend to accidentally make a joke that crosses the line. “My feet are big.” “No, MY feet are big. YOUR feet are HUGE.” But if you’re like “Whoah!” and seem hurt, a normal person will be like “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry. Your feet are a totally normal size especially considering you’re like 3 inches taller than me.” A defensive person might be like “Oh come on we joke about this kind of stuff all the time,” but will stop making fun of your feet because they know that’s a sore spot for you. A manipulative person will be like “It’s not like it’s a bad thing!” and start introducing you to people as “Hi this is my friend, Yourname. Her feet are huge!”
Beware somebody that’s always second-guessing you. A normal person, when you’re like “Hey can we get mexican tonight?” will either be like “Sure!” or “I don’t really feel like Mexican. How about Chinese?” A manipulator will be like “Mexican, really?” or “Why Mexican?” and make you feel bad for suggesting it in the first place. This is especially bad if it’s the other way around, where they’re second-guessing your no. “Can we get mexican tonight?” “I’d kinda prefer to stay in,” “Aw, why?” They want to have their way, but make you feel like you’re being the demanding one.
A person who is honest and fucked up often will be caught off guard, or not know what to say. They’ll be like “I don’t know why I did that, that was really shitty.” Or they’ll be like “I’m so sorry”. Or they might even get mad at you or defensive or try really hard to change the subject if they’re immature. But a manipulative person will often have an explanation for their shitty behavior IMMEDIATELY. And they’ll often deliver it as if it’s no big deal. A more serious real life example, I had a boyfriend once who was having a really tough time studying for an exam, and he was like “I’m going to fail out of school, I should just kill myself.” And I talked him off the cliff and helped him study, but afterwards, when he was more calm, I talked to him and I was like “Hey, we need to talk about this thing you said. I’m worried about you and need to know if you need someone to talk to.” And he was like “Oh don’t worry about that, I’m sorry. I was really stressed out and felt helpless and alone and wanted to write my paper on your computer, and I knew that suicide was a sensitive topic for you so I was stupid and I said that.” Like that’s terrible on two levels. That’s literally admitting “I manipulated you into letting me use your computer, whoops!” but even beyond that, a conversation of “So you said you wanted to kill yourself” should be really intense and emotional. If someone has an immediate answer to that, no matter what that immediate answer is, be scared.
Look for quick changes of emotions. Normal people get more and more upset as a difficult conversation goes on, then calm down slowly. And they can go from sadness to anger back to sadness, but it’s always got a bit of an element of both in there. If you see somebody angry then calm then sad then happy, it’s a sign that they’re affecting emotion.
And most importantly, watch for stories they tell with that sound kinda mean or self-centered, especially if told with pride. Any instance of “I said X, so the person would do Y for me” when X is anything other than “Can you please do Y for me?” is manipulative. A willingness to lie to ANYONE is a willingness to lie to you. And being PROUD of getting away with lying to somebody is scary as fuck.
A lot of these things are stuff you have to catch on your own, when the person isn’t there. In your time to yourself thinking about stuff. If you call them on any of this stuff, they will have an answer, and you’ll get all turned around. The thing that’s most important is that you owe no one anything, besides treating them with kindness and respect. If you feel like somebody makes you feel bad a lot, or you feel like you’re less of a good person around somebody than you are around other people, it doesn’t matter if that person is a manipulative/abusive person or if they just keep messing up and accidentally hurting your feelings. It literally does not matter. You are allowed to cut them out of your life. Don’t be mean or cruel to them. You don’t need to give this huge “You’re an evil manipulator” speech. Just don’t hang out with them and don’t feel bad about it. Save yourself the heartache.