Watch Out for Emotional Manipulation

I often warn my clients about believing arbitrary assertions. Sometimes it can be convenient to do so, but acting on something for which there are no facts to back it up can be psychologically unhealthy. Here’s an example excerpted from my most recent book, “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy and how to Tell the Difference”, available only at

Joe and Melissa have been married for sixteen years. Last year, Joe accepted that he had a gambling addiction. He joined a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous, a Twelve Step program for compulsive gamblers. At first, Melissa was happy Joe sought help. However, after a while she became uneasy as Joe began to keep his distance. He went to Gamblers Anonymous (G.A.) meetings every night; spending more and more time with G.A. friends and shutting out others even if they didn’t gamble.

When she tried to confront him about it, Joe responded: “You are an enabler. For me to have been sick all these years, you must have been sick too. You made it easier for me to gamble. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see this. You did it unconsciously. And until you accept that you are diseased, there is no hope for you either.” Melissa was distressed and angry over his claim. To add insult to injury, Joe revealed that he had been relapsing. He admitted to gambling numerous times since beginning G.A. What disturbed her most about this discovery was that Joe did not seem bothered by it. She learned that his sponsor (a kind of confidante who also had a gambling problem) told him not to be “so hard on yourself.”

It seemed to Melissa that perhaps he ought to be at least somewhat hard on himself for gambling when the goal was to quit. She became confused and ended up in a therapist’s office. The therapist asked Melissa to invite Joe to a session with her. Joe refused, indicating that Melissa had her own disease and it was good for her to get help – so long as the therapist was a believer in the Twelve Step philosophy.

Melissa couldn’t understand what Joe meant by “diseased.” She explained that it was hard enough for her to think of her husband’s gambling problem as a disease—a psychological problem for sure, but not a disease. And the idea that she herself was diseased made her feel like Joe was blaming her for his problem. The therapist suggested that Melissa ask Joe if he could explain the reasons why he felt she had a disease. Joe seemed irritated at the question and simply replied, “If your therapist is a believer in Twelve Steps, he should be able to tell you.”

But Melissa persisted, and Joe finally told her to read Melody Beattie’s book, “Codependent No More.” Melissa did, and while she found the book made some interesting points about not unwittingly encouraging the addict’s problem, she still saw no evidence that she herself was diseased or an enabler as the author defined the term. After hearing this, her therapist gave her another task: Whenever Joe made a claim about her with respect to this “disease,” she was to calmly respond, “Why?” or “Please explain what you mean.” If Joe became indignant, she would resolve not to become upset about it. Her therapist predicted that she would find this difficult and possibly even painful, but she needed to make it a habit. She needed to learn that nobody, not even her husband, was allowed to make claims without facts they could defend.

The point is that this involves more than just communication. Joe’s error is in making an arbitrary assertion. Melissa made the mistake of not recognizing it as arbitrary. When anyone makes an assertion that contains no facts, learn to put that individual on the defensive by demanding facts. Never become defensive yourself. It’s a waste of time and it’s not good for you.


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