Emotional blackmail is a dysfunctional form of manipulation that people use to place demands and threaten victims to get what they want.
The undertone of emotional blackmail is if you don’t do what I want when I want it, you will suffer.
The term was introduced by Susan Forward, Ph.D., in her book Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You (Forward & Frazier, 1998).
She describes how emotional blackmail tactics are used by abusers to threaten in order to get what they want. In placing demands and threats, they create feelings of fear, guilt, and anger to solicit compliance from their victims. In doing so, they divert blame and responsibility to the victim for their own negative actions. Typically, this dysfunctional type of manipulation occurs in close relationships.
Emotional blackmail is a concept recently developed and one receiving increased attention. The #MeToo movement is bringing education and awareness around the dynamics of emotional abuse and its powerful negative impact. In this article, we explore the meaning behind emotional blackmail, examples of this manipulation, the damage that occurs from this emotional abuse, and ways to handle it.
Emotional blackmail is the process in which an individual makes demands and threats to manipulative 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 through unhealthy ways.
Emotional blackmail is a way of being manipulated by your partner. However, in these situations, it can be difficult to gauge and clearly point to whether the victim is being manipulated.
Leaders in the field, Susan Forward and Donna Frazier identify the power dynamic that occurs in such manipulation. They suggest that emotional blackmailers employ a fear – emotion – guilt tactic to get what they want.
FOG is a term named by Forward, suggesting that fear, obligation, and guilt are the dynamics in emotional blackmail between the manipulator and the victim. The acronym FOG also accurately describes the confusion and lack of clarity and thinking that can occur in these interpersonal dynamics. Emotional blackmail can create a fog and contribute to feelings of fear, obligation, guilt, and anxiety.
According to Forward, emotional blackmail occurs in close relationships. The manipulator leverages knowledge gained about the victim’s fears. Blackmailers will use the information they learn about what the victim fears to manipulate them.
Forward suggests that one of the most painful elements of emotional blackmail is that they use personal information about the victim’s vulnerabilities against them. Another trigger blackmailers will use is putting the victim’s sense of obligation to the test. They will commonly create undeserved guilt and blame to attribute their problems to the victim.
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 demand.
Because the tactics can be covert, emotional blackmail may be difficult to spot, especially for those who may experience more vulnerabilities to it. According to Forward,
“Blackmailers make it nearly impossible to see how they’re manipulating us, because they lay down a thick fog that obscures their actions. All the while, if we attempt to fight back, they ensure that we literally can’t see what is happening to us.”
They can use covert techniques that create confusion by:
Ally with someone of influence to intimidate the victim
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 be inclined to: apologize, plead, change plans to meet the others’ needs, cry, use logic, give in, or challenge. Typically, they will 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.
Forward and Frazier recognize four types of blackmailing, each with varying manipulation tactics.
Punishers – 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.
Self-punishers – Individuals can make threats of self-harm if the partner does not comply with what they want.
Sufferers – 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…?”
Tantalizers – 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.
Common in any abuse cycles, it is important to understand the progression of emotional blackmail. It usually starts as subtle or implicit comments and behaviors. The progression can be insidious, so one does not realize its impact until it has gotten severe.
A metaphor would be of the frog in boiling water. If you place a frog immediately into boiling water, its instincts will cause it to jump out because of the instant pain. However, if you place a frog in lukewarm water and slowly increase the heat, it does not recognize the pain as a danger signal at the same level of heat. The frog becomes desensitized as the water is heating up slowly.
The behaviors and impact of emotional blackmail can be similar.
There are six progressive steps identified in emotional blackmail:
A demand 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.
In some situations, there may seem to be a fine line between indirect communication and manipulation. Emotional blackmail and indirect communication can both have passive aggressive undertones. The communication becomes manipulation and blackmail when it is used consistently to control another individual or coerce them into doing what the requestor demands.
The victim will typically feel resistance to comply, yet does it even at the cost of their own wellbeing.
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 of 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
Controlling what you do
Ignoring your concerns and pushback
Avoiding taking accountability
Constantly placing blame on others for their behaviors
Providing empty apologies
Using fear, obligation, threats, and guilt to get their way
Unwilling to compromise
Seemingly unconcerned about your needs
Rationalizing their unreasonable behaviors and requests
Intimidate you until you do what they want
Blame you for something that you didn’t do so that you feel you have to earn their affection
Accuse you of doing something you didn’t do
Threaten to harm either you or themselves
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:
Strong sense of responsibility and doing the “right thing”
Fear of abandonment
Sensitivity, inclination to personalize things
Fear of anger
Self-doubt, low self-esteem
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 wellbeing and contributes to anxiety and depression.
Forward notes in the book that an important takeaway for the victim is that the behavior of an emotional blackmailer feels like it is about you but for the most part it is not. It often comes from deep insecurities inside of the blackmailer. Fear and anxiety can come out as rage and blame toward the victim. These tendencies often have to do with what has happened in the past rather than the reality of the current situation.
There is no exact prototype of emotional blackmailers, yet they can demonstrate the following characteristics:
Some of these traits may be close to the surface and observable, such as anger. However, much of the insecurities, emotional pain and fears lie deep within the psychological makeup of the blackmailer.
The scientific research on emotional blackmail, in particular, is limited. In one public health study, researchers explored personality correlates of emotional blackmail in relationships (Mazur et. al).
They utilized the five-factor personality model to assess risk factors for potential victims and individuals at risk for engaging in emotional blackmail. They discovered that neuroticism and agreeableness were risk factors for taking on the role of the victim. The factors protecting against the use of emotional blackmail in close relationships were agreeableness and conscientiousness.
Neuroticism is a key risk factor for taking on the perpetrator of emotional blackmail. Social adaptation and assertiveness can act as protective factors against being a victim of emotional blackmail. Data was gathered to inform preventive programs developed to support people in building healthy relationships. There is room for additional research to be gathered and leveraged to help with prevention of emotional abuse and blackmail.
15+ Examples of Emotional Blackmail
The emotional blackmailer typically does not have any other coping or go-to methods for how to communicate and interact in a healthy manner. They fall back to stonewalling, slamming doors, threatening, and engaging in other damaging behaviors to get what they want. They typically do not have the tools available to understand how to convey their needs.
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.
Other examples of demands and threats in emotional blackmail:
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.
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.
Emotional blackmailers commonly attempt to make the victim feel responsible for their (negative) actions.
It was your fault that I was late for work.
If you wouldn’t cook in an unhealthy way, I wouldn’t be overweight.
I would have gotten ahead in my career if you had done more at home.
Emotional blackmail may also occur in situations where one person is an addict. They may threaten to take the car if the victim does not pick them up from the bar.
Emotional blackmail can take place in family relationships as well. A needy mother may attempt to give her child a guilt trip for not spending enough time with her. She may make comments referencing what “good daughters” do.
Emotional blackmail can occur in friendships. A friend may ask for money and threaten to end the friendship if they do not comply.
A punishing type of blackmail can occur. For example, if a couple is going through a difficult divorce, the emotional blackmailer may threaten that if their partner files for divorce, they will keep the money or never let them see the kids. Such behavior can leave the victim feeling rage at the attempt of being controlled and not knowing how to properly respond.
Another type of emotional blackmail that is even more insidious is when we use fear, obligation, and guilt to hold ourselves hostage. We can inflict our own FOG which can control our behavior, even if it is not coming from external sources. “If I were a good son, I would visit my mother more frequently.”
There can be different levels of emotional blackmail, ranging from threats with little consequence to threats that can impact major life decisions or can be dangerous.
Here are some additional brief and damaging examples of threats associated with emotional blackmail:
If you don’t take care of me, I’ll wind up in the hospital/on the street/unable to work.
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How to Best Handle Emotional Blackmail
If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional blackmail in a relationship, it is difficult to know where to start. In her book, Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, Lisa Aronson Fontes provides a “Controlling Relationship Assessment.”
Taking an assessment may be a useful way to start reflecting and identifying the abusive behaviors that are occurring. Her book also provides ways to help:
Recognize the controlling behaviors of all kinds.
Understand why this destructive pattern occurs.
Determine whether you are in danger and if your partner can change.
Protect yourself and your kids.
Find the support and resources you need.
Take action to improve or end your relationship.
Regain your freedom and independence.
In Forward’s book, there is a chapter called “It Takes Two.” She encourages the victims of emotional blackmail to take responsibility for their behavior and their previous compliance with the blackmail process.
The blackmail process does not work effectively without both parties actively participating. Forward offers this perspective not as a way for victims to beat themselves up or to place blame. Rather, she provides this point of view as an empowering approach for victims to recognize what they can change and can control. In the introduction, she states:
“Change is the scariest word in the English language. No one likes it, almost everyone is terrified of it, and most people, including me, will become exquisitely creative to avoid it. Our actions may be making us miserable, but the idea of doing anything differently is worse. Yet if there’s one thing I know with absolute certainty, both personally and professionally, it is this: Nothing will change in our lives until we change our own behavior.”
In order to best handle emotional blackmail, the victim must bring a new mindset and approach the situation in a different way. This will require gaining insight into what is going on in the blackmail dynamics and learning to detach from their intense emotions.
It can be useful for victims to explore what demands are making them feel uncomfortable. In doing so, they can recognize what boundaries need to be put in place. They must decide what is ok and not ok with them in a relationship. Understanding the abusive impact of emotional blackmail is also important.
Appreciating how emotional abuse wears victims down can validate their experience of feeling hopeless and lacking in confidence.
Change is scary, but doing something different is the only way to get a different result. Otherwise, victims are at risk of letting their fears run and potentially ruin their lives. Awareness, insight, and educating ourselves is important, but change only comes from taking a course of different actions over a prolonged period of time. Susan Forward asserts that we all have choices about how to engage in a relationship:
We can accept things as they are.
We can negotiate for a healthier relationship.
Or, we can end the relationship.
No relationship is worth the cost of emotional and mental wellbeing.
Victims can learn to set boundaries and may become surprised what can happen when new limits are set. The messaging needs to become that the behavior is no longer acceptable. While victims do not feel courageous or confident after having been emotionally abused, they can take a different action. Victims must take action to change the course, rather than waiting for the other person to change.
Victims can self assess throughout the process. When you do not back down and comply with demands attached with threats, how do you feel? Strong, empowered, confident, hopeful, proud, excited, courageous, assertive, effective, capable? Breaking any behavioral pattern is challenging. Develop a clear vision of what you hope to achieve. Any change will require work, effort, and discomfort, yet this is where growth occurs.
The only way to know if the limit and boundary setting will work is to try it. Forward suggests confronting the manipulator about the behaviors. What could that sound like?
You are pushing our relationship to the edge.
You are not taking me seriously when I tell you how unhappy I am.
We need to find ways to deal with conflicts that do not leave me feeling emotionally abused, worn out, and depleted.
I always comply – not willing to live like that anymore.
I need to be treated with respect.
Let’s talk about it, don’t threaten and punish me.
I’m not going to tolerate those behaviors anymore.
In her book, Forward suggests three exercises: a contract, a power statement, and a set of self-affirming phrases.
A contract lists a number of promises you would make to yourself. The contract identifies the basic ground rules for you to follow. Take time every day to read the contract out loud.
Example of a Contract with Myself:
I, ____________, recognize myself as an adult with options and choices, and I commit myself to the process of actively getting emotional blackmail out of my relationships and out of my life. In order to reach that goal, I make the following promises:
I promise myself that I am no longer willing to let fear, obligation, and guilt control my decisions.
I promise myself that I will learn the strategies in this book and that I will put them into practice in my life.
I promise myself that if I regress, fail, or fall into old patterns, I will not use slips as an excuse to stop trying. I recognize that failure is not failure if you use it as a way to learn.
I promise to take good care of myself during this process.
I promise that I will acknowledge myself for taking positive steps, no matter how small they are.
Another way to deal with emotional blackmail is to create your own power statement. Repeating a power statement can ground you when the pressure is turned up by the manipulator. For example, “I’m not doing this.” “I won’t do this.” This power statement is succinct and impactful. It works because it directly counters the belief that moves us into compliance – that we can’t stand the pressure.
Short, impactful sentences like this are intended to challenge doubts and limiting beliefs.
If you begin to think “I can’t stand it”…that you can’t stand to hurt his feelings, hurt him, deal with your guilt or anxiety, etc. Change the mantra from “I can’t stand it” to “it’s hard but I can do it.” This involves a subtle shift to getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Changing to “I can stand it” will build your emotional strength so that you do not need to immediately back down.
By backing down and giving in, you may feel: guilt, hurt, shameful, embarrassed, anxious, angry, weak, resentful, powerless, helpless, fearful, scared, trapped, disappointed, stuck. In order to change these emotions, it is important to start with changing your thoughts. Develop some self-affirming thought patterns to retrieve and repeat, especially when your negative thinking kicks in.
Consider asking yourself if a demand is making you uncomfortable. Why? What part of the demand is ok and what is not? Is the other person threatening me? Is the other person considering my feelings? If I comply, what is in it for me?
There are several levels of demands:
Not a big deal, minimal impact
Important issues including your integrity is at stake
A major issue involving important life decisions and/or could be damaging
Request that the blackmailer get psychological help to learn new strategies. Blackmailers can learn skills to learn how to negotiate, communicate, and own their own behavior. First, they must take responsibility for their action for any change to occur. An unwillingness to own and put it on the other person is a sign of immaturity and lack of wellbeing and health.
Once blackmailers own the behavior, they can take the next steps to learn the techniques.
If they are truly taking responsibility, they will demonstrate the courage to sit down with the victim and have a conversation about it. In doing so, this will create a safer environment in the relationship. Safety is the primary element of defining a healthy or not healthy relationship. Manipulators who take accountability and are willing to be vulnerable show hope for learning and change.
What can that sound like in the blackmailer?
Can you help me?
Tell me how I can express this to you in a way that doesn’t make you feel bad.
I am willing to get help.
I don’t want my behaviors to make you feel so bad
What is another way I can say this to you?
What can I do that will help you feel safe?
Where can I learn to better deal with conflict?
I want to improve how I communicate with you.
How to respond to emotional blackmail - Psych2Go
How to Stop Emotional Blackmail in Relationships
In a healthy functioning relationship, while tension and disagreements occur, people learn to work toward a resolution. Emotional blackmailers are generally not interested in negotiating. They tend to be black and white about their demands and unwilling to compromise.
Typically, they do not consider alternatives or other viewpoints. They want what they demand and nothing else. Most people who have been in a relationship with an emotional blackmailer appreciate that there is no reasoning when someone is in this state. The behaviors are irrational and the demands unreasonable.
How to stop emotional blackmail in relationships may start with the victim fostering the belief that they do not deserve such treatment. Victims have as many rights as they do. As mentioned previously, gaining insight into their own patterns of behaviors, pleasing, and approval seeking tendencies can help understand where to make changes.
The victim may have developed these tendencies early in life to self-sacrifice, overcompensate for others, and put themselves last.
Practical suggestions on what actions to take during an exchange with a blackmailer can be useful.
Consider taking a long pause before you comply with the request.
Take a break and think about how you are feeling about the demand.
Create some distance from the emotion so you can make a healthy decision based on logic, rather than the emotional default.
Put it on your timetable. It will create off balance and it can be scary. There will be pressure to get back into the old patterns, so there is likely to be discomfort.
Forward suggests tips such as repeating a neutral statement to the demand placed, such as “no thank you.” This stops the back and forth and capitulation of the emotional exchange.
Don’t need to wait until you feel strong to show strength. Do it, then the feelings will catch up. People often wait until they feel the courage, and that time doesn’t come. Do it, then you will feel better. You can’t wait until you feel better.
Forward suggests additional techniques to help stop emotional blackmail.
Establish an SOS before responding to a demand:
STOP – I need time to think about it.
OBSERVE – one’s own reactions, thoughts, emotions, triggers.
STRATEGIZE- analyze the demands and the potential impact of complying. Consider what you need and explore alternative options.
Develop “powerful non-defensive communication.” Sharon Ellison (2002) provides helpful guidance on non-defensive communication. Suggestions are to not take the bait from the blackmailer, yet stay on point with what your key message is. Do not allow yourself to be derailed by their comments, demands, and behaviors. Stick with “This is who I am and what I want.”
Blackmailers are highly defensive and their comments often escalate conflicts. Attempt to stay away from escalating statements and stick with non-defensive communication such as:
I can see that you are upset.
I understand you are frustrated.
I’m sorry you’re angry.
I can understand how you might see it that way.
Let’s talk about it when you feel calmer.
It is essential to reinforce that victims cannot change their partner only their reaction. The emotional blackmailer has a foundation in deep layers of their insecurities. The victim’s job is to put their welfare and health first. Their energy is best utilized to change themselves and their approach. In addition to changing the behavior patterns during these exchanges, victims can do their own psychological healing outside the relationship.
For example, developing skills to self-regulate, build confidence, and increase assertiveness can be beneficial. Victims can explore the following ideas:
Learn to become a detached observer. Healthy detachment is a good coping mechanism when dealing with conflict or highly charged emotional situations. It involves taking a step back and becoming an observer of what is going on the current situation, without being taken away by the emotions at hand. This will allow some self-refraction and questioning in order to make sensible connections between your beliefs, behaviors, and actions.
Creating some space between you and the situation can allow you to make healthier decisions.
Forward identifies the need to let go of pleasing behaviors. People who have a tendency to comply, may give in because they do not want the other person to be mad at them. They need to rid themselves of the undeserved guilt, which is what occurs in emotional blackmail.
Expand strategies to deal with your own emotional discomfort. Find ways to deal with your fear, guilt, and sense of obligation. Embrace the discomfort of the guilt, fear, or anxiety that can come with saying no or establishing a new boundary.
Continue to develop the thought stopping techniques in order to disconnect from fear and obligation. Challenge your assumptions of what obligations and expectations are real and what proof is provided for these claims.
Review what part you play in the dysfunctional cycle of emotional blackmail. In order to be fully empowered and able to make a change, it is important to look at your own responsibility in the situation. This is not suggesting that you are to blame for the behavior of the other person; rather, to find areas and behaviors that you can control to help yourself navigate through such circumstances.
Take inventory. Self-reflect on how you may justify your compliance. Here are some examples of negative self-talk that can reinforce the pattern of giving in.
It’s not worth it to deal with his/her anger
His/her needs matter more than mine
It’s no big deal to give in
What I want isn’t important enough
I’ll just do it to get him/her to calm down
I would rather give in than hurt his/her feelings
I’m afraid if I say no
Practice pausing before giving into demands in lower stakes situations. Practice saying no even when the threats are not evident. Be firm and stand your ground on limits set. Do not immediately give in to what the blackmailer wants, especially if you are being threatened.
Seek professional help through counseling, therapy, coaching, or a support group to help navigate through recovery from emotional abuse. In the end, it is critical for victims to remember that abuse is not their fault. All people deserve to be treated with respect.
EB After a Break-Up
A break-up or relationship separation can fuel the fire for emotional blackmailers. The potential for them to act out, even more, rises during crisis situations, especially involving a break-up. During this time, victims could be at risk or in danger, as blackmailers can escalate their behaviors. Since they are focused on what they want when they want it, they show limited concern or empathy for the pain of others.
They can become so absorbed in their own rage, that they could show signs of panic in their desperation.
If emotional blackmail was used during the relationship and there is a break-up, there is no longer a direct method for such manipulation tactics. This can cause an emotionally unstable person to act out even more if their means for control are taken away. Manipulator’s behaviors may increase in intensity and in a frequency. More severe threats of self-harm and inducing guilt would be common in a breakup situation.
They also may resort to stalking or other types of unwanted behaviors in pursuit in an attempt to reconnect the relationship. While uncommon, taken to an extreme, the ex may show obsessive tendencies and could be at risk for bringing the violence to another level.
It is important for the victim to remember that they are not responsible for their ex’s needs and feelings. It is important to seek protection if the victim is feeling unsafe. This may require getting professional help to understand how to establish these healthy boundaries. It may involve setting clear physical boundaries to ensure there is no contact with the ex-partner.
Finding a support system can be helpful for individuals who have been in relationships involving emotional blackmail and abuse. The focus post-break-up is best placed on victims learning how to engage in self-care and identify their own personal needs.
Is It a Crime?
In the legal system, domestic violence has been identified as an incident or series of incidents involving physical violence conducted by a partner or ex-partner.
However, the laws addressing emotional abuse are less clear and less consistent. In the legal system, the term used to describe emotional abuse and blackmail is “coercive control.”
The term ‘coercive control’ was developed by Evan Stark to help understand the impact and damage that occurs from emotional abuse. He identifies coercive control as a pattern of behavior which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self and is a violation of human rights. Emotional blackmail is a type of coercive control used most often in intimate relationships.
Laws about coercive control (i.e. emotional blackmail) and abuse vary around the world. Currently, the United States does not have clear criminal laws in place to protect victims from emotional or psychological abuse by a partner. There are criminal statutes that only protect partners from physical violence. Some states have attempted to house emotional abuse under statutes prohibiting domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse.
There are several countries who are addressing psychological abuse in the court systems. The first country to ban “psychological violence within marriage” was France in 2010.
Coercive control has been recognized as a crime in the UK since 2015. The Serious Crime Act 2015 recognizes that “controlling or coercive” behavior towards another person in an intimate or family relationship is punishable for a prison term. Since the law has been in place, an estimated 100 men have been convicted and sentenced for such crimes.
The UK law states:
Coercive control is defined by a pattern of behavior that gradually is purposeful in exerting power and control over another intimate partner. The law sees the perpetrator as the one who carries out these coercive behaviors as solely responsible. Coercive behaviors can include:
Making a person dependent by isolating them
Exploiting their strengths and resources
Humiliating and putting them down
Using intimidation, or abuses that cause harm, are punitive and intended to frighten
The British law defines controlling behavior as “making a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance, and escape, and regulating their everyday lives.”
The law requires charges to be based on a pattern of behaviors rather than one occurence. Irish legislation have also created the Domestic Violence Bill 2017, which includes “coercive control” as an offense. In these countries mentioned, establishing criminal laws addressing psychological abuse sends a strong cultural message that it will not be tolerated. It conveys a level of support and safety for victims of such abuse.
Domestic violence victims often state that the physical abuse was not the worst part of their abuse. The control, intimidation, and emotional blackmail often caused the most suffering; yet the impact is more challenging to measure. Author of Coercive Control: How Men Trap Women in Personal Life, Evan Stark discusses the damage of emotional abuse and coercive control on victims.
He states, “Not only is coercive control the most common context in which [women] are abused, it is also the most dangerous.”
Identifying physical abuse is more straightforward, so the topic of how to prove coercive control or emotional abuse has been a topic of discussion. Those opposed to criminalizing coercive control suggest the area is ambiguous and difficult to prove. Opposers claim that separating jealousy, control, and emotional abuse is complex to sort out and difficult to prove by jury or judge.
Attention had not been drawn to the issue until the impact of the abuser’s behavior on the mental and physical health on the victims was studied and evaluated more seriously. More awareness is contributing to more support and movement in the criminal courts. For example, Monckton-Smith has developed a diagnostic tool (Domestic Abuse Reference Tool) to help identify and clarify if victims are in danger.
Laws addressing domestic violence in the US were initially created for a different reason. They were initially put in place to deal with single violent assaults conducted by strangers. However, much of physical and emotional abuse occurs in intimate relationships. Therefore, this law does not sufficiently address the cycle and pattern of abuse that happens with spouses.
Critics show concern for the lack of support the US legal system is showing for victims of such abuse. Without laws in place criminalizing emotional and coercive patterns of abuse, the culture may be reinforcing it. In his book, Stark suggests that despite its progress, the domestic revolution is stalled.
He discusses how the narrow focus on physical violence against women, distracts from the more insidious form of psychological abuse which more closely resembles kidnapping or slavery than assault.
Stark considers the lack of laws addressing coercive control represents a human rights violation and a “liberty crime” against the victim.
The Center for Disease Control conducted a study in 2010, reporting that nearly half of all women in the U.S. (48.4 percent) have experienced at least one form of psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lives. They experienced coercive control, verbal aggression and angry gestures in their partners that were degrading, insulting, dangerous, or humiliating.
There are organizations and groups advocating for policy change in the US. Their objectives are for the US legal system to recognize the damage of coercive control and put criminal controls in place to address it.
There are alternative paths to take in the legal system beyond criminal statutes. In some cases of emotional abuse, civil lawsuits can be filed. Victims or families of victims can file these emotional abuse claims based on an intentional infliction of emotional distress.
According to the legal system, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress involves the following:
Intentional infliction of emotional distress is an intentional tort based on conduct so awful that it causes the victim extreme emotional trauma. Emotional distress claims are difficult to prove and win, and don’t apply to simple rudeness or generally offensive behavior. Instead, these cases arise when conduct is so reprehensible that the emotional effects are real, lasting, and damaging.
In order to have a successful claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a person must prove three elements:
Extreme or Outrageous Conduct: Again, this is behavior that is more than merely malicious, harmful, or offensive — the conduct must exceed all possible bounds of decency;
The Conduct Was Intentional or Reckless: Careless or negligent behavior won’t suffice — the actor must intend to cause emotional distress or know that emotional distress is likely to occur; and
The Conduct Caused Severe Emotional Distress: This can be the hardest to prove, but severe and lasting emotional effects like persistent anxiety and paranoia, or possible bodily harm like ulcers or headaches could show a person suffered extreme emotional distress as a result of the conduct.
Emotional blackmail can also be used in families, even with children or teens blackmailing their parents. However, it would be easy to assume that all temper tantrums by children sound like emotional blackmail.
In his article Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt (FOG), Skip Johnson differentiates the difference between immature actions taken by children to manipulate their parents and emotional blackmail. He highlights how the use of the term “blackmail” brings such a negative connotation. He clarifies that in using such a term, it is implied that there is forethought or premeditation involved.
A child having a crying fit at the grocery store because they want candy is clearly a different dynamic than emotional blackmail used in an adult relationship. Children may naively demonstrate such behaviors, without the understanding of the manipulation element. That being said, a teenager making a demand for parents to give them the car or they will hurt themselves does qualify as emotional blackmail.
All parents are invested in wanting their kids to be happy. This potentially makes them more vulnerable to being emotionally blackmailed by their children and adolescents. Mental health experts claim that this type of manipulation tactics can be very difficult to identify and address. If they give in to such manipulation tactics, parents can often end up feeling hijacked by their own family.
Kids and teens can exploit your wish of wanting them to be happy in order to get what they want. This hijack can be addressed if parents are clear and understanding that the primary role is not to make sure their kids are happy, but to keep them safe and teach them about the world.
Parents that are dealing with a child who engages in emotional blackmail can feel as though they are being held hostage. Addressing these behaviors as a parent is complicated and challenging. There is a range of severity in terms of the level of emotional blackmail kids can use with their parents. A common example may be a tantrum in the grocery store, where the parent, in an effort to avoid a scene and to escape the store will give in.
Once parents give in to this behavior, the cycle becomes reinforced. The child then learns what buttons to push in order to get what they want. They now know what to do in order to get the parent to give in. As kids get older, the behavior may shift into disrespectful attitudes and remarks as a teenager to try and control the parents.
Adolescents can learn techniques to manipulate their parents by expressing strong emotions. In his book Declare Yourself, John Narciso identifies these behavior patterns as “get my way techniques.” Adolescents, like adults, can identify triggers for their parents and use this knowledge to get what they want. An example of a button to push, is if the parent is sensitive to rejection.
Teenagers can pick up on that and act in ways that spark fear in the parent that the teen does not like them. This can create guilt and fear in the parent, who then ends up complying to the adolescents’ demands.
Another example is if a parent is sensitive to inadequacy, the adolescent can criticize the parent by attacking their competence. A parent sensitive to this may give in because of the discomfort they experience feeling judged. If parents are sensitive to guilt, teens can highlight their emotional suffering to get what they want.
To re-direct emotional blackmail, parents need to stand firm and consistent with their boundaries, regardless of the emotional outbursts or threats from the teen. It is important to clarify that acting upset or aggressively will not change the parents’ mind. The key is to not be sensitive to these behaviors to the point that it changes your parental decisions.
Some families, especially those dealing with mental illness in the family, will experience more severe forms of emotional blackmail. It creates a conundrum, because for children who engage in extreme emotional blackmail, common forms of influence, discipline, punishment, or reinforcements are not effective in changing the behaviors. A severe form of manipulation may involve children threatening their parents that if they do not get what they want, they will tell people that they are being abused.
Here are some additional examples of children blackmailing parents. They can blame their parents for behaviors such as stealing, suggesting that it was not their fault that they had to take the money. The may say that if the parents gave them a bigger allowance, they would not have needed to steal the money for what they wanted at the time.
Another example is that they make threats to physically harm another sibling if the parents do not let them go out or do what they want. They may threaten to run away if they do not get their way. Making a threat to harm themselves is another severe example of emotional blackmail. In these situations, parents need psychological support and guidance on how to best navigate in a way that will keep everyone safe.
Where to Purchase Susan Forward’s Book (+ eBook)
As you would have noticed by reading this far, Susan’s book is referenced throughout this article. Below are links on where to purchase a copy.
“Yet if there’s one thing I know with absolute certainty, both personally and professionally, it is this: Nothing will change in our lives until we change our own behavior. Insight won’t do it. Understanding why we do the self-defeating things we do won’t make us stop doing them. Nagging and pleading with the other person to change won’t do it. We have to act. We have to take the first step down a new road.”
“Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation. It leaves you in a FOG when there is haze of Fear, Obligation, and Guilt. Often the emotional blackmailer is not a deliberate tactic on the others’ part – it’s just the method that gets them what they want! And have found that it works!”
Counselor and psychotherapist Carey West
“The emotional blackmailer may go out of their way to do things for you, even if it goes against their self-interest…they’ll bring it up over-and-over again, frequently reminding you what they’ve sacrificed to make you happy.”
Relationship expert Amica Graber
“Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten to punish us for not doing what they want. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationships with them. They know our vulnerabilities and our deepest secrets. They can be our parents or partners, bosses or coworkers, friends or lovers. And no matter how much they care about us, they use this intimate knowledge to win the pay-off they want: our compliance.”
“In order for a blackmailer to be successful, they must know what the target fears. This fear is often deep-rooted such as fear of abandonment, loneliness, humiliation, and failure.”
Licensed Mental Health Counselor Christine Hammond
“If after an argument, your partner goes out for hours without telling you where they are, this indicates that they are punishing you for the disagreement by intentionally causing you to worry or feel anxious”
“Emotional blackmail is the use of fear, obligation, and guilt to control another person.”
“Emotional blackmail is one of the primary ways that one partner controls another partner. It’s done in such a way that the controlling partner manipulates the other person‘s emotions in an attempt to get their way.”
Dr. Connie Omari, clinician and owner of Tech Talk Therapy
“It should be taken very seriously and you should immediately tell the person how you feel if that is safe to do and/or to get others involved if you feel a sense of danger.”
Kelsey M. Latimer, Ph.D., founder of Hello Goodlife
“Although they may do this in ways which seem harmless, it’s a common tactic to trigger fear and doubt.”
Samantha Morrison, wellness expert
A Take-Home Message
We hope you have found this article to be informative and insight-provoking. Emotional blackmail is a painful and dysfunctional pattern of abuse in which the manipulator is attempting to control the victim. We hope that continued education and awareness on this topic will help people understand, prevent, and address emotional blackmail in relationships.
Studies have shown that people who use emotional blackmail are often narcissistic, and manipulative, and have a tendency to engage in aggressive behavior. They may also struggle with communication and have difficulty expressing their emotions in a healthy way (Briki, et al., 2019).
What's another word for emotional blackmail?
Another word for emotional blackmail is “psychological manipulation”. This refers to the use of emotional or mental tactics to control or influence someone’s behavior, thoughts, or feelings (Braiker, 2004).
What are the 5 signs of emotional abuse?
The signs of emotional abuse may include (American Psychological Association, 2019);
frequent criticism or humiliation,
controlling or manipulative behavior,
isolation from friends and family,
constant monitoring or surveillance, and
unpredictable mood swings or outbursts.
American Psychological Association. (2019). Recognizing and escaping emotional abuse. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/emotional-abuse
Braiker, H. B. (2004). Who’s pulling your strings? How to break the cycle of manipulation. McGraw-Hill Education.
Briki, C., Ferrand, C., & Girandola, F. (2019). Emotional blackmail: A relationship between narcissism and emotional regulation. Current Psychology, 38(1), 94-100.
Burkett & Narciso, J. (1975). Declare Yourself: Discovering the Me in Relationships. MacMillon Publishing.
Ellis, S. Taking the War out of our Words. Deadwood, Oregon: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.
Ellison, S. (2002). Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. Berkeley, CA: Bay Tree Publishing.
Fontes, L.A. (2015). Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. New York: Guilford Press.
Forward, S. & Frazier, D. (1998). Emotional Blackmail When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You. New York: Harper Collins.
Johnson, R. Skip. (2015). Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation and Guilt (FOG). Borderline Personality Disorder, BPDFamily.
Mazur, A., Saran, T., Krzysztof Turowski, K., & Elżbieta Bartoń, E. Personality correlates of emotional blackmail in close relationships. Public Health as a Wellness Standard Chapter VII 1. Department of General and Neurorehabilitation.
Stark, E. (2007). Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zwolinski , Richard. (2013) “Are Other People’s Feelings Holding You Hostage?” PsychCentral.com, Psych Central, 15. blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-soup/2013/09/are-other-peoples-feelings-holding-you-hostage/. Retrieved February 18, 2019.
Zwolinski, Richard. (2013). “Standing Up For YOU With An Emotional Hostage Taker.” PsychCentral.com, PsychCentral, 15. blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-soup/2013/09/standing-up-for-you-with-an-emotional-hostage-taker/. Retrieved February 18, 2019.
About the author
Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P. is a Consulting Psychologist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has spent 20+ years of her career helping people develop through leadership assessment and coaching. She is grateful for having the opportunity to learn about people, be invited into their lives, and witness them working at becoming the best thriving, flourishing version of themselves. In her spare time, she builds resilience through raising her five teenagers.