Emotional Blackmail - A system of threats and punishments used in an attempt to control someone’s behaviors.
Misusing the Keys to Our Hearts
In a nutshell, emotional blackmail is a psychological-emotional ransom note that says, “if you don’t do what I want then I will make you hurt”.
In order for emotional blackmail to occur there must be four things present - a demand, a threat, a blackmailer and a victim.
The Demand – Emotional blackmailers demand something the victim does not want to give, in an attempt to gain the upper hand where there are conflicting interests or wants.
In general the blackmailer is usually asking for something which the victim regards as unreasonable and which the blackmailer believes they can get – if they apply enough pressure. For this reason emotional blackmail patterns are often cyclical - with both the blackmailer and the victim learning over time what level of demand will be tolerated without retribution and what degree of blackmail it takes for the victim to comply.
The Threat - The blackmailer may threaten to hurt the victim directly, or more commonly threaten to hurt something or someone the victim cares about. This could take the form of damaging or destroying their reputation, an object, an agreement, a relationship or a trust. Blackmailers may also threaten to hurt themselves to pressure a victim into compliance.
The Blackmailer - Although an emotional blackmailer is fighting for control over their victim, they often have little control over themselves. They may feel desperate inside and justify their actions as a means to an end of soothing their own desperate internal pain. In some cases, an emotional blackmailer may not always realize the extent of the hurt they are inflicting on their victim (and ultimately on themselves). They may not be able or willing to “snap out of it” and change their behavior.
The Victim - In order for emotional blackmail to work there has to be a willing victim - a person who is willing to sacrifice their principles, values, goals and boundaries to “keep the peace”, “turn the other cheek” and give in to the demands. Victims are often bridge builders - people who have compassion or pity on the blackmailer and are willing to go the extra mile for them. Victims may have low self-esteem of their own and be generally afraid to stand up for their own ideas and principles. They are caught in a vicious cycle as each time they yield something important to the abuser they suffer a loss of their own self-esteem and begin to feel more powerless, hopeless and trapped in their situation.
In their book, Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You, authors Susan Forward & Donna Frazier invent the acronym FOG, standing for Fear, Obligation, Guilt - feelings which often result from being exposed to emotional blackmail when in a relationship with a person who suffers from a Personality Disorder.
What it looks like
- “If I ever see another man look at you I will kill him.”
- “If you ever stop loving me I will kill myself.”
- “I’ve already discussed this with our pastor/therapist/friends/family and they agree that you are being unreasonable.”
- “I’m taking this vacation - with or without you.”
- “Your family hates me. How can you say you love me and still be friends with them?”
- “You’ve ruined my life and now you are trying to stop me from spending money to take care of myself.”
- “I took the money because you always put yourself first and don’t seem to care about my needs.”
What NOT to do
- Don’t give in to or reward emotional blackmail demands or attempts.
- Don’t stay in a situation where there is a threat or an action of violence towards yourself or others.
- Don’t allow yourself to be blamed for somebody else’s bad behaviors or poor personal choices.
What TO do
- Recognize the characteristic of emotional blackmail and understand that to give in to the demands of a blackmailer will only make the situation worse.
- Recognize that no-one who truly loves you will threaten you with harm or expect you to act against your own best interests.
- Recognize that the emotional blackmailer is not like you and is unlikely to respond well to reason, arguments or attempts at counter-manipulation.
- Work on your own personal boundaries and be willing to defend them.
- Remove one of the four components of emotional blackmail - the blackmailer, the victim (you) the threat or the demand. Since you can’t control the other person that usually means you have to detach yourself enough to protect yourself, your children and the resources and relationships that are precious to you. Then allow the blackmailer back in only to the extent that they cannot threaten or destroy what matters to you most.
- Call the authorities if there are any threats or actions of violence.