Emotional blackmail is a tactic the people closest to us can use to hurt and manipulate us, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Emotional blackmail is when someone uses our weaknesses, secrets, and vulnerabilities against us to get exactly what they want from us.
We can be emotionally blackmailed by our partner, parents, children, siblings, friends, colleagues, or anyone we’re close to without ever realizing what’s going on…
…or, as if often the case, not wanting to admit to ourselves what’s happening.
Sometimes, the blackmailer may not be conscious of their behavioral patterns (or isn’t keen to admit to blackmailing as a character trait) so denies it to themselves as well as everyone else.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on romantic relationships, but emotional blackmail of the types described below can apply to any kind of relationship.
This kind of thing happens most often in personal relationships, but it can occur in professional relationships too.
It’s also important to bear in mind that there are different levels of severity involved here.
We all get things wrong, and most of us will use very light forms of emotional blackmail in our relationships at some point.
That doesn’t make us full-blown manipulators.
We’re just human beings, and we’re all flawed by our very nature.
It is, however, vital to be aware of the different types of emotional blackmail that exist and the signs that they’re taking place.
This will allow you to identify when something has gone too far and become a problem in your relationship.
Light Pressure Isn’t Always Blackmail
Before we go any further, we need to establish that in any relationship, give and take is normal and healthy. Demands will sometimes be made of you.
It’s important to be able to disagree but then come to a compromise together, and you will sometimes have to do things you perhaps wouldn’t choose to do.
But you do them anyway for the good of your relationship and for the person you love.
After all, if it’s always your way or the highway, then you need to consider the fact that the emotional blackmailer in your relationship might actually be you.
But there is a line here. Giving in to whatever your partner wants shouldn’t become the norm, especially when it’s about things that really matter to you.
A true manipulator consistently ignores the other person’s wants and needs in favor of their own and doesn’t see the rights of the other person as important.
They like having a partner in their life that they can control and they aren’t interested in any of the compromise that a healthy relationship involves.
They might try to maintain that control over their partner in any of the following ways.
3 Strategies Of Emotional Blackmail
Psychotherapist Dr. Susan Forward devised the acronym FOG to sum up the strategies that manipulators typically use – Fear, Obligation, and Guilt.
A manipulator can use all of these three kinds of strategies at once, or rely on just one or two of them.
A person can tap into their partner’s fears (perhaps about the relationship ending), trigger their feelings of obligation (perhaps reminding them that they’re the breadwinner in the family), or make them feel guilty (by laying their problems entirely at their partner’s door).
They do this using the knowledge they’ve gained over the years about what makes their partner tick.
Being aware of these strategies and the four types of emotional blackmail discussed later can help you to identify behavior you might not have otherwise recognized as manipulative.
Let’s take a closer look at the three strategies, and then examine the four types of blackmail and see how the two interlink.
Fear is a reaction designed to protect us, triggering physical responses that get us ready for ‘fight or flight’ when we find ourselves in threatening situations.
Those situations don’t necessarily have to be physically dangerous.
We can feel fearful about losing the ones we love or harm coming to them.
Sometimes, it’s just fear of the unknown that manipulators play on.
There are all kinds of fears that can be used to hold people hostage, such as fear of abandonment, fear of upsetting someone, fear of confrontation, fear of tricky situations, and fear for your own physical safety.
We often feel obliged to the people around us because, as human beings, a strong sense of community is a large part of what has enabled our species to be so successful.
There’s safety in numbers, and we all want to be included in the group. In order to be accepted, we’ve always had certain obligations to fulfil.
Manipulators can use different strategies to remind us of those obligations, pushing the buttons that make us feel duty bound to do what they want.
A parent might remind a child of the sacrifices they’ve made for them and tell them they’re being ungrateful.
A partner might claim that they would do whatever it is they have asked you to do if the roles were reversed.
A manipulator might accuse a friend of being selfish.
Guilt is very much linked to obligation.
If we don’t do something we think we’re obliged to do, we tend to experience guilt, or feel like we deserve to be punished in some way.
It’s pretty easy to trigger guilt in someone, for all kinds of reasons.
We can be made to feel guilty for something we’ve done to upset someone, for our selfishness, or for not doing our share of the work in a relationship.
We can be guilt-tripped for working too much, for spending too much, for spending time with other people, or even just being happy or enjoying ourselves when the other person is low or going through a hard time.
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4 Types Of Emotional Blackmail
Dr. Forward proposed four different types of emotional blackmail that people use within their relationships.
A person may adopt one or more of these roles in order to get you to do what they want.
This kind of blackmailer knows how to punish you, and doesn’t hesitate to make bold statements telling you what the consequences will be if you were to do (or not do) a particular thing.
The strategy they play on most is fear.
The punishment they inflict might be anything from withholding affection and ending the relationship, to restricting you from seeing other important people in your life, to financial penalties.
Emotional blackmail can also be based on the threat of physical punishment and abuse.
Some manipulative people may employ the tactic of punishing (or threatening to punish) themselves, knowing that it will make their partner suffer.
Their main weapon of attack is guilt (or the prospect of the guilt you would face if the manipulator followed through on their threats), but they also try to trigger fear (that someone you care for will come to harm).
Examples of this can include threatening to hurt or even kill themselves should you leave them or claiming that your behavior will make them depressed should you persist with it.
Sufferers hold their misery over their partner’s head as a way of getting them to do what they want.
They might claim that their illness or mental state is the fault of the other person, or tell their partner that if they don’t do what they want then they will suffer as a result.
They rely on a mixture of fear (that their well-being will suffer), obligation (they’re unwell so you must help them), and guilt (that you’d feel bad if they did suffer) to get their way.
They sometimes expect their partner to be able to figure out what’s wrong with them without having to be told… “if you really loved me, you’d know.”
Whereas all the other types of emotional blackmail are more ‘stick’ methods, this is the ‘carrot’ method.
This is promising some kind of reward, whether tangible or intangible. Although the reward will rarely ever materialize.
Fear (of missing out on the reward), obligation (they have asked nicely and are even offering a reward), and guilt (you’ll feel bad for saying no) will all probably be involved to some extent.
They ask you to do something in return for something else, but it’s usually not a fair trade.
Whilst some manipulators will only rely on one of the 3 strategies and fall into one of these 4 categories (the one they find most effective), some will switch between them, pushing all your buttons until they get their way.
6 More Signs Of Emotional Blackmail
If you’re in a relationship with a serial emotional blackmailer, then reading the above might have set off a few alarm bells.
But here are a few more signs to look out for should you have any doubt that you’re in a relationship with a manipulator, or should come across one in the future.
1. You know deep down.
Much as you might try to lie to yourself or find it difficult to admit your suspicions to your friends or family, you know deep down when the person you’re with is toying with your emotions to get what they want.
Listen to those persistent niggling feelings in the pit of your stomach and you can’t go too far wrong.
2. They like to boast.
People who are manipulative tend to be quite outspoken about just how wonderful they are… because they really believe it!
If someone seems to lack proper modesty, that’s a big warning sign.
3. They like the sound of their own voice.
They don’t just boast, but they talk a lot, dominating conversations, just as they try to dominate their partner.
They’re not a good listener at all.
4. They’re not good at taking advice/criticism.
Deep down they’re pretty insecure themselves, even though they prey on the insecure and vulnerable.
They tend to see any advice given to them as an insult to their intelligence rather than what it is.
And lord help you if you try to criticize them, even if you believe it is constructive feedback.
5. They criticize the opinions of others and play down their successes.
They don’t want other people to look better than them, so they make it their mission to discredit the things that other people say.
They also can’t bear to see other people succeeding and thriving when they’re not, especially a partner, and they struggle to hide their jealousy.
Basically, it’s all about them.
6. They blow hot and cold.
Everything’s hunky dory whilst they’re getting their way, but if it looks like the winds are changing or they’re experiencing resistance from their partner, they can go from zero to mad in seconds flat.
They’re only happy when they manage to manipulate things just the way they want to, and they use those volatile mood swings as a way of keeping their partner on their toes.
The occasional light bit of emotional blackmail is, unfortunately, par for the course in the majority of relationships.
But if you’ve found that this behavior has become a consistent negative pattern that’s taking a toll on you then you may be in an abusive relationship.
Either way, understanding its 3 foundational components – fear, obligation, guilt – and the 4 types of blackmail you may face can help you to better handle the situation.