Fed up with falling victim, “toxic relationship coaches” promise to help women reclaim the power in their relationships—but these techniques are not as liberating as they seem

“Conceal your intentions. Always say less than necessary. Court attention. Make other people come to you. Cultivate an air of unpredictability. Don’t commit to anyone.”

These are the words of Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power—a cult classic that outlines how to manipulate and control the people around you, using a list of Machiavellian tactics that are allegedly so effective that the book was banned from prisons, lest it be weaponized by inmates.

The content is startlingly similar to the dating advice being given on TikTok, where women have taken to using these same principles to establish dominance in romantic relationships with heterosexual men. Framed as a way for women to “take back control” of their dating lives, these manipulation techniques fall under the label of what TikTokers term dark psychology: toxic interpersonal tactics that, nevertheless, seem to reliably produce results.

One of its core tenets is the idea that, “Men don’t respond to words, they respond to no contact.” It’s a phrase frequently repeated in dark psychology tutorials, with women urging one another not to over-explain their emotions—or to even explain them at all. According to TikTok “seduction guru” @becomingafemmefatale, it’s better to go silent when a man has done something to offend you—because, in the male psyche, “confusion leads to desire.” “When he has no clue what he’s done, you will permeate his mind and he will not be able to stop thinking of you,” she says. “Instead of arguing with you, he’ll buy you gifts and flowers as an apology.”

Dark psychology techniques run the gamut from relatively innocuous to overtly toxic and manipulative, with women recommending everything from specific body language to text message setups designed to exploit a man’s insecurities. While few would argue for the moral purity of these techniques, dark psychology influencers are quick to point out that heterosexual men have been weaponizing similar tactics for years, under the guise of pickup artistry. Now, they’re turning the tables, reframing manipulation tactics as a source of personal empowerment.

The core idea at work is that you can drive men wild by intentionally withholding what they want—ensuring that you receive the attention you crave, without experiencing vulnerability or rejection.”

A subset of the community is dedicated to cultivating something called the dark feminine: a foil to the stereotypically submissive traits associated with womanhood, which they state can “rebalance the scales” by empowering women to bend men to their will. “When a woman is in tune with the dark feminine, her sexual energy has the potential to engulf and overtake the sexuality of a man completely,” writes N’Diah Love in an article on its merits. “Dark feminine energy also helps a woman to heal her wounded feminine by giving her the strength and courage needed to create boundaries and communicate clearly about her wants and needs. She transforms from a victim to an agent of radical change.”

Cultivating dark feminine energy is framed as a way to telegraph high social value and a sense of self-worth—effectively playing hard to get, in order to attract the kind of partner you want. Iterations on this behavior have long been present in the social rituals of courtship—from waiting to text back, to the idea that you shouldn’t sleep with a man on a first date. The core idea at work is that you can drive men wild by intentionally withholding what they want—ensuring that you receive the attention you crave, without experiencing vulnerability or rejection.

Many TikTokers preface their dark psychology tutorials as a form of self-defense. “I tell you this so you can protect yourself,” says Conor Psyche Mundial, claiming to disclose “extremely powerful and toxic techniques” so that viewers are aware of when they’re being used against them. Other people go further, intentionally weaponizing manipulation tactics to evoke feelings of insecurity and inferiority in their partner. “Do not put men on pedestals. Devalue his best qualities,” says TikTok user Kanika Batra-Matheson (@ogkanikabatra), a self-described “real-life sociopath” who uses her platform to shed light on what it’s like to live without empathy and remorse. Though her diagnosis is one shared with a majority of serial killers, Batra-Batheson says that, while male sociopaths often resort to violence, female sociopaths are more likely to utilize subtle forms of psychological manipulation to control the people around them and train them out of unwanted behaviors—essentially, using the kind of “dark psychology” hacks everyday people are now sharing on TikTok.

But Lex Perez, a self-proclaimed “toxic dating coach,” doesn’t see these tactics as immoral—rather, he believes that manipulating men can help them to realize their true feelings. Forcing someone to contemplate losing you isn’t abuse, he says—it just “solidifies what’s already within” by ensuring they don’t take you for granted. He alleges that, if a woman goes from being overly available to surprisingly distant, a man is more likely to “make a connection with reality” and realize he loves you. (Or, at least, he’s more likely to text you back.)

The idea that women respond to communication and honesty, and men respond to silence and distance, has its precursors in books like Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus (1992)—a relic of its time that has been critiqued for leaning into gender stereotypes. (At one point, the book describes at length why “men are like rubber bands” and “women are like waves.”) According to some men, however, it provides helpful insight into the way women’s minds work; I once picked up a copy at Goodwill, and found a heartfelt inscription from one man to his friend, explaining that the book helped him connect with his wife in new ways, and might help his friend in his experiences with women.

The differences between men and women have long been a source of conflict, even though these differences are, for the most part, socially constructed. In her 2004 treatise The Will to Change, feminist scholar bell hooks writes about how patriarchy harms men by socializing them to suppress their emotions—and, in turn, harms the women who love them, and (deep-down) want to be loved in return. “The male-bashing that was so intense when contemporary feminism first surfaced more than 30 years ago was in part the rageful coverup of the shame women felt—not because men refused to share their power, but because we could not seduce, cajole, or entice men to share their emotions,” she states, explaining that to “speak of our hunger for male love” would demand that women name the intensity of our lack. Instead, some feminists aimed to attain the same power men had, “covertly proclaiming that they, too, wanted to be rewarded for being out of touch with their feelings… For being unable to love.”

While dark psychology promises women greater control over the emotional outcomes of their relationships, the ironic reality is that indulging in cat-and-mouse games increases the odds you’ll attract someone who favors the thrill of the chase over the vulnerability of healthy communication.”

While dark psychology promises women greater control over the emotional outcomes of their relationships, the ironic reality is that indulging in cat-and-mouse games increases the odds you’ll attract someone who favors the thrill of the chase over the vulnerability of healthy communication. As one TikToker, @confidencechris, puts it, “All this advice is great for finding an avoidant partner. But if you don’t want to play games, you don’t want to hide your intentions, you don’t want to hold your independence, you can find a secure man… You just might not have the same spark.”

Often, the “spark” in question has little to do with the other person’s actual qualities, and more to do with the “emotional rollercoaster” that makes the highs feel so high, and the lows feel so low. “People will work like mad in contexts of ‘maybe,’ far more so than they work in contexts of certainty,” says American researcher, author, and neurology professor Robert Sapolsky, explaining that this is because intermittent reinforcement—the possibility that a behavior will lead to a positive outcome, versus a guarantee—triggers a greater dopamine response in the brain when the result you’re hoping for actually does occur, leading to a heightened sense of euphoria. It’s why love-bombing, and then ghosting, are such effective recipes for obsession: Not only are you triggering someone’s fear of inadequacy and abandonment, but you’re also effectively rewiring their brain to crave a reward that may or may not arrive.

The problem here lies not in the art of the tease, but in the fact that the people turning to TikTok for dating advice are likely in the same demographic as those who desperately want to experience real love—and instead, are perpetuating the same cycle of emotional toxicity that made them so afraid to be vulnerable in the first place. It’s a pitfall people fall into again and again—the idea being that “empowerment” involves appropriating the techniques by which you yourself were oppressed, which ironically tends to perpetuate the status quo. We’ve seen it with ‘choice feminism,’ a movement that focuses on the empowerment of the individual, rather than the liberation of women as a whole—leading to the rise and fall of the girlboss, a predominantly white, privileged woman whose success under capitalism is framed as symbolically empowering for all women, even if it’s achieved at the expense of others.

This is because, in the past, she would have been the victim of injustice, not the perpetrator. It’s the same reason that taking notes from manipulative pickup artists, for whom women have long been a target, is being rebranded as feminist. But as civil rights activist Audre Lorde argues, we cannot solve problems of oppression with the same tools created to exploit others—and whether climbing the corporate ladder or indulging in dark psychology hacks on TikTok, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.