Repentance or Manipulation? 5 Ways to Know

Sarah McDugal
May 14, 2021

Him: I promise it's different this time! I really mean it. Just tell me what you want from me!

You: I need to see you doing this and this and that and that... and I need to see it last.

Him: Okay fine, I'll do whatever it takes to keep us together. Just don't leave me!

...until it's not fine again and then you're left asking yourself, "How can I tell if his intentions are genuine or manipulative? Is this relationship just hard work, or is it abusive?"

Manipulation Shatters Trust 
When you've experienced abuse, there is an accumulated sense of feeling deceived and disregarded. Eventually you may start to set boundaries, to insist on fidelity, to ask that addictive behaviors be regulated. Maybe you’ve even separated, or started to get counseling.

This is when the abuser realizes they must change approach in order to maintain power and control. This means buttering up, showing manipulative kindness, offering gifts, volunteering help, and generally promising the moon.

Often, you're so dazzled by the unexpected extensions of niceness, that you overlook how it is creating a sense of obligation instead of safety. The "kind" gestures are actually bargaining chips. 

But you're still asking yourself, hoping against hope, "Is it real this time? Will it last this time?"
Abusers who charm are not persons of kindness but merchants of kindness. Like a merchant who demands something in return, abusers give kindness in exchange for compliance. This explains why excessive charm can suddenly become excessive anger, the moment a demand is not met. 
-- Dr. Wade Mullen
To discern whether someone’s actions show repentance or manipulation, ask yourself these five questions, and also:
  • Check the apparent answers with trusted, emotionally stable friends or mentors.
  • Observe what the abuser DOES, not just what they SAY.
  • Refuse to draw conclusions based on a short stint of niceness, and insist on observing for an extended period of time.
(Side note: yes, women can do this to men too. I know that. But my blog is a resource written specifically for female abuse survivors. Mkay?)

1) “Is what he says matching what he does?”
Does he say he’s being transparent but you notice he’s keeping little things  to himself and hoping you won’t realize?

Is he expressing one message to you but then you hear him describe it differently to someone else?

Does he insist that he's committed to a course of action but then act counter-productively on the side? 

If you point out the incongruity, does he accept the feedback or get angry and accuse you of being controlling or punishing him?

Are his words and actions consistent, or does one outshine the other?

If the two are not aligned -- this is manipulation, not repentance.

2) “Are his messages consistent to all parties involved?”
Does he tell you nice things while talking poorly or demeaning and devaluing you to others?

Does he flatter you to your face, but tell someone at church that you need psychological help and you’re “having problems”.

Or does he tear you down in private, and then give others glowing reports that confuse you?

Does he offer sweet promises to you or your counselors, but elsewhere implying that you are unwell, intractable, the cause of all the problems?

If he’s sending mixed messages -- this is manipulation, not repentance.

3) “Is he taking full, humble responsibility for the abusive actions that got our relationship to this point?”
Does he (even subtly) project responsibility outside himself and blame circumstances, childhood, third parties, or you?

Is he kinda sorta saying it was his fault, but also making sure to spread the responsibility around evenly?

Does he say he takes total responsibility in one breath but then cast blame a few sentences later?

Is he refusing to call abuse by its true names (I lied. I cheated. I am addicted to porn. I committed adultery. I abused you. I failed to control my anger. I.Was.Wrong.)

Is he in any way attempting to maintain control of the situation and still make himself look good?

Does he make promises and then act like he forgot, or insinuate that you're remembering wrong?

If he's trying to mange the fallout, change the rules, or control who finds out -- this is manipulation, not repentance.

4) If change appears genuine, ask yourself “Is he focused on the issues I've told him are the core problem?”
Or is he being extra nice in areas that don’t really count? That's not repentance, that's just a dazzling distraction.

For example, let’s say sexual addiction/pornography has contributed to the destruction of trust in your relationship. He's promised he's all done with that, and said he'll do whatever it takes to prove it to you.

So you asked him to:
  • get a flip phone,
  • be transparent with his money/time, and
  • not use the computer in a closed room.
Suddenly he’s being super sweet, he's taking out the trash without being asked, volunteering to cook dinner, gladly running errands without impatience, and maybe even buying you flowers or planning romantic dates.

Step back from all those buckets of nice, and ask yourself BUT IS HE DOING THE THINGS SPECIFICALLY AGREED UPON?

Is he following through faithfully with the issues that are directly related to the core problem? If not, then all the cheerful “selfless” actions are merely a calculated side show, distracting you from his unwillingness to work on the actual issues.

A different example — let’s say you’ve clearly outlined that in order to repair the relationship he needs to get professional counseling. Suddenly he starts showing up at church regularly, participating actively in Bible study, gathering the children for family prayers, and volunteering at a local non-profit.

BUT IS HE GOING TO COUNSELING AS HE AGREED? Is he being transparent with the therapist, and is the therapist regularly checking in with you to make sure he's being truthful?

Or is he doing everything else except whatever you specifically outlined that you feel is needed to restore trust and safety in your relationship? If not, then everything that feels so nice right now is actually a sleight of hand to mask his refusal to address the real problem.

Doing everything BUT what was asked, is a way to APPEAR cooperative while still maintaining narcissistic power over you and distracting you from keeping him accountable while keeping you under his control.

If he's not following through with what was actually agreed upon -- this is manipulation, not repentance.

5) “Does his attitude change if I ask more questions?”
An unchanged person is likely to get easily frustrated and start blaming or projecting if you question their motives, actions, or patterns of behavior.

If he blows up, gets irritable, or starts listing your faults when you ask simple questions to confirm trustworthiness — then the veneer of humility is thin.

If he can't answer with straight facts, or the answers change back and forth, then he's not being honest or accountable.

If he lashes out with accusations of control or implying that you just want to see him suffer, he's lying.

If he turns it back on you and suddenly the entire conversation is about your faults and perceived failures instead of answering the question, he's deflecting.

If his attitude changes when you ask for proof -- this is manipulation, not repentance.

How Is Repentance Different from Manipulation?
Genuine repentance is proven by actions over a period of time, rather than promises and words. Repentance isn't about saying sorry, or playing nice for a little while. Repentance is proven through willingness to work on the real issues, exhibit lasting humility, and take consistent responsibility without avoiding accountability.

A repentant person will stay humble even if they’re being probed a little, or asked to show evidence of change.

Repentance knows that a history of deceit will take significant time to repair and that you can't rush forgiveness or trust.

Repentance is willing to take time and put in hard work to rebuild that trust.

Repentance is willing to go overboard with transparency and honesty in order to make the other person feel safe.

Repentance seeks accountability to make sure they aren’t repeating old cycles that might damage that fragile trust again.


Sarah McDugal is an author, speaker, trainer, and abuse recovery coach who works exclusively with mamas healing after trauma from betrayal, intimate terrorism, and domestic violence.


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