Emotional blackmail is the use of fear, obligation, and guilt to control another person.” (Forward & Frazier, 1998). It is the process in which an individual makes demands and threats to manipulate another person to get what they want.
It is a form of psychological abuse, causing damage to the victims. Their demands are often intended to control a victim’s behavior in unhealthy ways. This emotional blackmail often occurs in close relationships.
Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to you [us] threaten to punish you for not doing what they want. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationships with them.
They know your vulnerabilities and deepest secrets. They can be our parents or partners, bosses or coworkers, friends or lovers. And no matter how much they care about you, they use this intimate knowledge to win the pay-off they want your compliance.
Fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG) are the dynamics in emotional blackmail between the manipulator and the victim. The fog creates feelings of fear, obligation, guilt, and anxiety among the victim.
The manipulator influences knowledge gained about the victim’s fears, personal information about the victim’s vulnerabilities and uses it against them. So they make threats related to the victim’s emotional triggers to force compliance.
For example, “If you don’t do what I want I will…leave you, tell your secrets, not love you…” They can also take advantage of the victim’s sense of responsibility and obligation. “All I do is work for this family, the least you could do is…” Blackmailers exploit the victim’s sense of guilt to create confusion and get the victim to give in to their demands.
Blackmailers can use covert techniques that create confusion by:
- Making their demands seem reasonable
- Make the victim feel selfish
- Pathologizing or making the victim seem as though they are crazy
- Ally with someone of influence to intimidate the victim
Warning Signs Of Emotional Blackmail
There are warning signs of emotional blackmail in a relationship:
- If one person frequently apologizes for things that are not their doing, such as the manipulator’s outburst, bad day, or negative behaviors.
- If one person insists on only their way or nothing, even if it is at the expense of the partner.
- It seems to be a one-way street of sacrifice and compliance.
- One person feels intimidated or threatened to obey or comply.
When in a dysfunctional cycle of emotional blackmail, the victim may typically, find it difficult to stand up for themselves, directly address the issue, set boundaries, and communicate with the blackmailer that the behavior is inappropriate. They do not consistently set clear boundaries indicating what is acceptable for them.
Type Of Emotional Blackmail
There are 4 types of emotional blackmail and each of these comes with varying manipulation tactics.
Punishers operate with a need to get their way, regardless of the feelings or needs of the other person. Their motto is “my way or the highway.” Punishers will insist upon pushing for control and getting what they want with threats to inflict damage or harm.
Individuals can make threats of self-harm if the partner does not comply with what they want.
This is the voice of a victim conveying guilt on the partner if they do not do what is demanded. If they don’t comply, there is a suggestion that their suffering will be the others’ fault. “After all that I’ve done for you, you are going to let me suffer…?”
This can be the most subtle and confusing form of manipulation. There is a promise of what will be better if they comply. It sparks hope yet is still connecting a threat to the demand.
Steps in emotional blackmail
There are six progressive steps identified in emotional blackmail:
A demand was made from the manipulator. The manipulator will make a clear demand of what they want, tied with a threat. You need to pay my rent or I’ll leave you. You need to let me move in or I’ll tell your sister what you said about her.
Resistance from the victim. After the demand is identified, the victim may resist or feel the need to avoid the person because they are unsure how to handle the demand. The concerning part of this process is it is often an unsavory, unfavorable, or unreasonable demand placed on the victim.
Pressure from the manipulator. Manipulators of emotional blackmail are not concerned about pushing too hard. They will persist to get what they want no matter what it takes. They disregard hurt feelings or fear being created. Creating fear can even be the driving force behind the demand made.
The manipulator may put pressure suggesting that the victim is being irrational, silly, or unreasonable themselves. This part of the process can cause the victim to begin to question their sense of reality and if they are wrong in feeling concerned about the demand being placed upon them.
They begin to lose their healthy sense of perspective and what their gut is telling them. The manipulator may even turn the situation around to blame the victim or question their motives if they do not initially agree to the placed demand. Confusion is a big part of this process.
Threatening the victim. This is the part of the process where the manipulator is threatening to do or not do something to cause unhappiness, discomfort, or pain for the victim. If you don’t do this…then I will do this… They create a situation where the victim can be responsible for the promised negative outcome if they do not comply.
Victim compliance. The victim gives in, either quickly, or slow through a process of increasing self-doubt. They comply with the demand of the manipulator, often causing feelings of anxiety, guilt, fear, anger, or resentment.
The manipulator gets their way and subsides temporarily until the next demand of what they want comes up. The frequency of these behaviors and tendencies vary in all relationships involving emotional blackmail. Regardless of the consistency of these behaviors, it has a negative and toxic effect on the relationship and on the victim. Now the cycle is in place and the foundation is set for this pattern to continue.
Note that, there is also a distinction between setting healthy boundaries and emotional blackmail. In setting boundaries, the individual is asserting themselves and communicating what their needs are. Emotional blackmail involves conveying threats that will result in a punishment if the victim does not meet the request.
Someone engaging in emotional blackmail will demonstrate any or all of the following:- Telling you that you are crazy for questioning them- Ignoring your concerns and pushback- Avoiding taking accountability- Constantly placing blame on others for their behaviors- Using fear, obligation, threats, and guilt to get their way- Unwilling to compromise
The Victim In Blackmail
Victims of emotional blackmail typically feel insecure, unvalued, and unworthy. They often struggle with low self-esteem and doubt their own needs. Victims can demonstrate the following characteristics: Approval seeking, people-pleasing, Extreme compassion, and empathy, Tendency to take the blame, Try to avoid conflict, and a strong sense of responsibility and doing the “right thing” and Self-doubt, low self-esteem.
The Impact of Emotional Blackmailing
The stress of being in a relationship involving emotional blackmail can take a toll emotionally and physically on the victim. It compromises the victim’s sense of integrity and self-esteem. It causes victims to question their own sense of reality. It leads to negative and distorted thinking about themselves and their relationship. Victims of emotional blackmail often end up being isolated, experiencing extreme loneliness. It impacts an overall sense of well-being and contributes to anxiety and depression.
To prevent being a victim of emotional blackmailing, Social adaptation and assertiveness can act as protective factors against being a victim of emotional blackmail.
What is an example of emotional blackmail?
Many examples of emotional blackmail occur in romantic relationships. Any gender can engage in emotional blackmail. However, a male-female partnership is a prototypical example.
One scenario is if a man in a committed relationship is caught cheating on his partner. Rather than taking ownership and apologizing for his actions, he may twist the story. He may blame his partner for not meeting his needs or being there when he needed her, therefore, seemingly rationalizing or justifying his behavior. This can be confusing for the victim, as she may be inclined to question herself or start believing his claims. She may wonder if she is good enough or if she could have done more in the relationship.