Emotional Blackmail (Definition + Examples)

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Have you ever been blackmailed? It’s more common than you think. But I’m not talking about “traditional” blackmailing, where someone threatens to leak a secret or damaging information unless they are given money or power. I’m talking about emotional blackmail.

Emotional blackmail is a type of manipulation that most likely occurs in romantic relationships, but may occur in other relationships as well. This manipulation tactic is subtle. You may not know you’re being emotionally blackmailed while it is happening. Here, you can identify what emotional blackmail is, how people use it to manipulate others, and what you can do if you are being emotionally blackmailed. This can be a dangerous practice, even if it does not involve physical altercations or more “obvious” forms of abuse.

What Is Emotional Blackmail?

Emotional blackmail occurs when someone uses information, often secrets, to manipulate another person. This typically happens in romantic relationships, and is the subject of the 1990 book “Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You.”

Dr. Susan Forward wrote this book to help others explain and understand that the fear, obligation, and guilt that they were feeling was a form of manipulation. This book remains the best source on emotional blackmail if you want to take a deeper diver into this subject. For now, I’ll just give you the basics.

If you are being emotionally blackmailed, you do not have to walk away from your relationship immediately. You should, however, confront the person who is emotionally blackmailing you and stop this process before you get (emotionally) hurt.

Six Stages of Emotional Blackmail

Here’s how emotional blackmailing works.

Stage One: Demand

The blackmailer wants something from you, but rather than asking nicely, they make demands. Maybe they tell you that they want you to cut off contact with a friend or group of friends. You don’t want to say “yes,” because they’re your friends.

Stage Two: Resistance

So you resist. You do not directly or firmly give into the demand. Instead, you “forget” to tell the blackmailer that you are hanging out with your friends. Maybe you tell the blackmailer that you have been staying late at work or that you’re texting someone else. This feels easier than flat-out denying the blackmailer’s demand, but only continues the process along.

Stage Three: Pressure

When the blackmailer has caught on, they will go to the third stage: pressure. This is where the fear, obligation, and guilt, or “FOG,” come into play. The name “FOG” is appropriate, not only as an acronym, but also as a metaphor for how people feel during this stage. They’re often led astray by pressure and manipulation, as if they were walking through the woods and couldn’t see anything due to fog.

Here is what pressure sounds like.

The blackmailer could say something that makes you afraid to defy them: “If you keep hanging out with your friends, you’ll never accomplish anything that you want to do.”

They’ll say you have an obligation to them: “As a couple, we should be deciding who we hang out with together.”

Or, they’ll use guilt: “If you actually cared about me, you would consider hanging out with your friends less.”

This stage certainly doesn’t feel good. Deep down, you don’t want to stop hanging out with your friends. But the blackmailer is making it really hard to do so without negative feelings.

Stage Four: Threats

If you continue to deny the blackmailer’s demands, they will move onto the fourth stage: threats. These threats may be direct, indirect, or even have a positive spin, but they’re threats nonetheless. To stop you from going out with your friends, a blackmailer might tell you that if you continue to talk to your friends, they will leave you. They will hint that while you go out with your friends, the blackmailer may harm themselves, cheat on you, or cause destruction around the house. Maybe they’ll just tell you that they can provide a much better time than going out with your friends. This may not count as a “threat” in the law, but is still a way to manipulate you and get what they want.

This is a turning point. Do you give into the threats, or do you risk the outcome? Many people give in to the threats, hoping that this is a one-time occurrence.

Stage Five: Compliance

If you do give in, you’ve entered stage five: compliance. This stage may not happen immediately. The blackmailer may spend a lot of time weighing you down with guilt, fear, or obligation. But once you have complied, the blackmailer will likely see this as a “win.”

Stage Six: Repetition

If the blackmailer sees that this process works, they will do it again. Maybe they will not do it immediately, but if they have another demand that you won’t accept, the process will start all over again. The second, third, and fourth time you are blackmailed, you might not see what is happening. You may also be so worn down that fighting back feels too exhausting. In order to regain your independence and re-enter a healthy relationship dynamic, you need to create boundaries. Before we talk about handling emotional blackmail, let’s look at some more examples of emotional blackmail and how it plays out in different relationships.

Examples of Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail comes in many forms. Any of the following threats or statements may be considered emotional blackmail:

  • If you really loved me, you wouldn’t dress like that.
  • If you won’t let me go to the bar, I’ll find my own way out.
  • Everyone says you’re being mean for limiting my spending. You owe me.
  • If you leave me, I’ll kill myself.
  • You’re ruining my life by not letting me drive your car - so now I’m going to ruin yours.
  • We would be in a much better place financially if you weren’t spending so much money on yourself.
  • If you don’t change, I’m going to leave you.

Out of context, these threats may not sound so harmful. But if you believe you are being emotionally blackmailed, it’s important to observe and recognize the process in which this manipulation happens again and again. Are you constantly apologizing to your partner, even when you haven’t done anything wrong? Are you constantly apologizing for their behavior? Do you find yourself scared for your safety if you do not comply with demands? Things have to change.

How to Handle Emotional Blackmail

Does all of this sound familiar? Do you believe that you are being emotionally blackmailed? You have the power to stop this process in its tracks. As we saw in the six stages of emotional blackmail, the person being blackmailed has a role in moving the process along. If you continue to passively resist, or comply with threats, you are continuing the cycle.

Breaking the cycle is easier said than done.

No one likes confronting their partner or friend, especially if they can anticipate fear, obligation, guilt, or threats. Do not be scared. Do not feel guilty. Both you and the person blackmailing you have the ability to make choices, have discussions, and set boundaries. The blackmailer is choosing to go about discussions this way. Now, you have a choice to continue complying, or break the cycle.

Recognize what is happening.

Write down what you are observing and seeing. You may notice a pattern, both of blackmail and your compliance. Once you have identified and recognized this behavior, you need to set strict boundaries with your partner.

Sometimes, these boundaries can completely break the cycle.

Emotional blackmailers may engage in this behavior because they do not know how to properly communicate their desires, and have found that this pattern works. Set the stage for an open, empathetic conversation. Tell the blackmailer how you are feeling, and remind them that you are your own person. Not every decision is going to make the blackmailer feel great - in these cases, the blackmailer must choose a healthier route, rather than making threats. Be open and honest about your refusal to comply with threats in the future. If the blackmailer wants to share their feelings or make a request, they must do so in a healthier way.

If the Behavior Continues

Maybe this conversation is all you need. Unfortunately, many blackmailers engage in this behavior out of narcissism. They are not interested in your feelings, and they are determined to continue this behavior. Their threats may also be violent: they may hurt themselves if you do not comply, they may hurt you, or they may cause other types of destruction. If this is the case, it’s important to seek help. Reach out to a therapist, friend, or hotline and share what is happening. These resources may be able to help you out of the relationship, or direct you to someone who can.

Emotional blackmail, in any form, can be harmful. Mitigate harm by setting boundaries and recognizing that your feelings are important in the relationship. If this does not work, staying in the relationship will only allow the harm to continue. Put your safety, and the safety of your children, pets, or family, first.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, October). Emotional Blackmail (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/emotional-blackmail/.

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