What is “emotional blackmail”?

emotional blackmail
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“Emotional blackmail” is a term coined by Susan Forward, a psychotherapist and author who has written a number of books on the dynamics of unhealthy relationships.

Emotional blackmail is the use of threats and punishments to control the behaviour of someone else.  The emotional blackmailer manipulates and uses the victim’s emotions to get what they want.  “Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship” is a crime.

But what does it look like?

“Emotional blackmail” covers a range of behaviours, from mild (“You’re not my friend if you don’t give me money”) to extreme (“I’ll kill myself if you dump me”).  It can be false accusations, intimidation, threats and non-verbal displays (such as ‘moods’, sulking or violence towards objects).

The goal of the emotional blackmailer is to manipulate their victim into giving them something they want – be it money, property, time, attention or love.  Often the emotional blackmailer knows their victim very well, and will know which ‘buttons to push’ to get the most effect for least effort.  For example, if the victim is someone who is a people-pleaser who needs approval of others, the emotional blackmailer will play on that the most by threatening to damage friendships or the victim’s reputation.

At the root of emotional blackmail is blame.  The emotional blackmailer wants to place the responsibility for their actions on their victim.  This may be entirely deliberate and conscious, or could be the result of upbringing.  If their families related to people in this way, they may be unable to see beyond it.

The important thing to note is that, whatever the reasons for the emotional blackmailer’s behaviour, it is not the victim’s ‘fault’ or responsibility.

So how can you escape emotional blackmail?

  • Recognise what really falls within your responsibility and control and what does not.  The Circles of Influence and Concern exercise may help with this.
  • Develop self-esteem and resilience to resist the emotional blackmailer’s demands.  This will help you maintain a strong sense of your own self-worth.  You are not a bad person just because they say you are. Having strong self-esteem can help you hold on to that belief.
  • Work on your feelings of guilt and where they come from – are they reasonable?  Have you actually done something wrong – or is someone just insisting you have to get something from you?
  • Remember that “no” is a neutral word – it is not unkind, nasty, cruel or harsh.
  • Limit contact – there is nothing wrong with avoiding contact with someone who hurts you.
  • Seek support – a trusted friend, a relative, a counsellor, a support group, a specialist organisation.  There are a number of such organisations listed on my “Useful links and other sources of help” page.

The emotional blackmailer may increase their abuse when you start to slip from their control.  Your safety is paramount.  If you feel at risk, organisations such as the National Centre for Domestic Violence, WomansAid and The Mankind Intiative can offer advice – or the police on 101.  If you are at immediate risk of harm, call 999.