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How to Cope with Manipulation from Loved Ones with Substance Use Disorder

by Landmark Recovery

February 16, 2023
A woman unwittingly becoming an enabler for a man by giving him money because of his manipulation. He may have a substance use disorder he's sustaining.

Manipulation is a common behavior seen in people who are experiencing a drug or alcohol addiction.  Coping with manipulation is challenging, as it often leads to feelings of hurt, distrust and anger. It’s important to remember that addiction highjacks the brain, resulting in people doing and saying things they normally wouldn’t. Substance abuse can have a profound effect on a person’s mood, behavior, judgment, and insight according to Dr. Shahram Heshmat, professor emeritus of behavioral economics at University of Illinois at Springfield. If you let them, they’ll turn you into an enabler.

Why Do Addicts Use Manipulation?

If someone is struggling with substance abuse, they’re going to be driven by their addiction. That’s what determines how they react to you. If you do or say anything that appears to deprive them of what they want, which you may not know is the case, you’ll incur their wrath. An example would be your refusal to loan money to a loved one who provided an entire non-drug-related story for the loan. 

There are several ways to cope with the manipulative ways substance abusers behave, as delineated below. There’s also a list of behaviors you can expect from them, too. The drivers of these behaviors, though, are what’s most important to understand. That’s where Heshmat comes in.

Dr. Shahram Heshmat speaks on not just manipulation but also what causes the manipulative behavior of those with substance use disorder who take advantage of a loved one, turning them into an enabler.

Dr. Shahram Heshmat, prof. emeritus of behavioral economics at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Dr. Heshmat is also the author of the 2015 Routledge publication, Addiction: A Behavioral Economic Perspective. As an economist, he views addiction as a chronic illness that reorients one’s decision-making around something that stimulates the reward system in their brain.

The book explores addiction by investigating what prompts the decisions to start substance abuse, to continue and to relapse after attempting recovery. When explaining why they continue, Heshmat told Landmark, “At this stage, their behavior can become very automatic. […] When you have a full bladder, all you think about is relieving yourself. Nothing else comes to your mind because that i the only priority you have.”

Cravings are “laser-focused” on relieving a certain discomfort. The need to use drugs becomes at least as compulsory and physically mandatory as the need to use the bathroom. When your priorities change, people will perceive this as your personality and character changing. You appear to be a different person because you care about different things while also not caring about what others thought you cared about.

6 Ways to Deal With Manipulation

If you feel like you are being manipulated by someone close to you who has a substance use disorder, consider the following tips.

  1. Establish and Maintain Personal Boundaries: It’s essential to have a clear understanding of what you are and are not comfortable with, whether that means learning to say “no” or setting limits on the amount of support you can provide.
  2. Educate Yourself About Substance Use Disorder: By gaining a deeper understanding of addiction as a mental illness and its effects on the brain and behavior, you may be able to gain a better perspective on why your loved one is acting in a certain way.
  3. Stay Calm: Responding to manipulative behavior with anger can make the situation worse.
  4. You Are Not Responsible: Remember that your loved one’s happiness is not your responsibility, and their problems are not your fault.
  5. Encourage Treatment and Support: Try to encourage your loved one to seek professional treatment or join a support group, such as a 12-step program. Continuing to use substances can lead to further manipulative behavior.
  6. Focus on Your Self-Care: Make sure you’re taking care of yourself by getting enough rest, exercising, eating well, and connecting with loved ones. Self-care is crucial in supporting your loved one while maintaining your own well-being.

Types of Manipulation Seen with Addiction

Manipulation is a subtle form of coercion that can be hard to identify. However, it often employs certain tactics that can indicate its presence. While these tactics are not exclusive to substance abuse, they can be used by individuals with or without substance use disorder. Those abusing substances might guilt trip you into enabling their habit. They might lie to you pretty often. They may threaten to self-harm or threaten to commit suicide.


According to a 2015 study, lying can be a crucial sign of substance abuse recurrence. Some common examples of lies told by individuals with substance abuse include saying they already quit. They might say this when asking to borrow money for example. They’ll also obviously lie if asked whether or not they recently used. They may lie to keep coworkers and supervisors from discovering they have a problem.

Guilt Tripping

A manipulative substance abuser manipulates his friend into being complicit in a lie by being quiet about something among other loved ones. Manipulation is a hallmark of substance abuse disorder simply because addiction changes behavior. He's turning his friend into an enabler.Individuals with substance use disorder may also try to evoke feelings of guilt in others by reminding them of what they owe you or playing the victim. They could say anything that positions you as someone who owes them, even for things that happened years ago. If you resist against enabling their habit, they’ll say things like, “How could you do this to me?” 

In one way or another, a loved one with substance use disorder will tell you how important it is that you keep supporting them in light of things they allegedly did for you, perhaps referring to incidents from when both of you were much younger. They’ll also frame a narrative that suggests you’re somehow responsible for any negative outcomes that could come their way like them ending up in jail.

Self-Injury and Threats of Suicide

A 2019 study suggests that self-injury and suicide attempts may be used by individuals with substance use disorder as a form of manipulation or to express frustration. However, a 2013 study highlights that manipulation is rarely the reason for self-harm.

If your loved one is threatening self-harm or suicide, it’s imperative to take these threats seriously and seek help immediately. You can call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Things like this might lead you to think your loved one is “crazy,” especially when the user previously seemed “fine” or “normal.”

“I think that’s where the misunderstanding takes over. A lot of people don’t understand this stage. Could be a day before, they were so ‘sober’; they were so rational. And then, the second day they’re completely different, and people say, ‘What happened to them? They’re crazy.’ No, they’re not. They’re the same people; it’s just their priority changed.”

That’s the disease. It changes their priorities, which changes the person they appear to be.

Being Nice Just to Get Something

Individuals with substance use disorder may act extra friendly or nice, but only when they want you to comply with their requests. For example, they may contact you for the first time in months when they need money, and then return to their usual behavior after receiving it.

Silent Treatment

The silent treatment, also known as giving the “cold shoulder,” is a common manipulation tactic that involves ceasing communication with someone either passively or aggressively until they comply with the manipulator’s wishes. It’s important to note that not interacting with someone isn’t necessarily a manipulation tactic, but when silence is used to control someone, it becomes a form of manipulation.

How to Know if You’re Being Manipulated

  • If at least half your interactions with a person result in you doing some kind of favor, they might be manipulating you into enabling them.
  • If someone you know is nice to you sometimes and mean or irate at other times, take stock of what patterns you see in those interactions. Try to remember if the jovial moments you have with that person correspond with them getting something from you. If so, you might have been manipulated.
  • Consider whether or not a relationship constantly has you finding yourself in precarious positions. Those are often manipulative relationships.
  • Sometimes people ask for favors you might not understand. Don’t do those kinds of things for people. If you don’t understand why this person can’t do the favor for themselves, then you should consider the possibility that you’re being manipulated.
  • Whoever doesn’t do a good job taking care of adult responsibilities but constantly asks for help probably manipulates you in order to get what they need. 

Cravings Come with Visceral Emotions

Visceral emotions are inward feelings from a place so deep that they may be considered subconscious. Heshmat confirmed that he referred to more or less unconscious drivers of a person’s behavior. If your loved one struggles with substance use disorder, they aren’t fully conscious of why they treat you the way they do. The unconscious mind is pushing them to do whatever would lead to the result they most want.

Anger might be considered a microcosm of how the brain can undergo these kinds of chemical processes that force priorities to change. When people get angry enough, they can sometimes betray their own values, Heshmat said. It’s a natural, psychosomatic phenomenon that Heshmat also linked to police brutality in some cases.

“A lot of time, [police] are under these very visceral emotions. They don’t even think about consequences,” Heshmat said. “And the point is: how do you avoid them getting to that point? Because at that point, they’re just acting really strange. That’s why a lot of places, and other states, they forbid police chasing because when they get in that speed and they’ve got this visceral emotion, then when they stop the person they were pursuing, they do crazy stuff.”

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.