Emotional blackmail describes a style of manipulation where someone uses your feelings as a way to control your behavior or persuade you to see things their way.
Dr. Susan Forward, a therapist, author, and lecturer, pioneered the term in her 1997 book, “Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You.” Through the use of case studies, she breaks down the concept of emotional blackmail to help people better understand and overcome this type of manipulation.
Aside from Forward’s book, there’s not a ton of straightforward info about emotional blackmail and what it means, so we reached out to Erika Myers, a therapist in Bend, Oregon.
She describes emotional blackmail as being subtle and insidious. “It might appear as withholding of affection, disappointment, or even a slight shift in body language,” she explains.
Like typical blackmail, emotional blackmail involves someone trying to get what they want from you. But instead of holding secrets against you, they manipulate you with your emotions.
According to Forward, emotional blackmail progresses through six specific stages:
The first stage of emotional blackmail involves a demand.
The person may state this explicitly: “I don’t think you should hang out with so-and-so anymore.”
They might also make it subtle. When you see that friend, they pout and speak sarcastically (or not at all). When you ask what’s wrong, they say, “I don’t like how they look at you. I don’t think they’re good for you.”
Sure, they couch their demand in terms of caring about you. But it’s still an attempt to control your choice of friend.
If you don’t want to do what they want, they’ll probably push back.
You might say directly, “You’re not insured, so I’m not comfortable letting you drive my car.”
But if you worry how they’ll take a flat refusal, you might resist more subtly by:
- “forgetting” to put gas in the car
- neglecting to leave your keys
- saying nothing and hoping they forget
People still state needs and desires in healthy relationships. In a normal relationship, once you express resistance, the other person generally responds by dropping the issue or making an effort to find a solution together.
A blackmailer will pressure you to meet their demand, perhaps with several different approaches, including:
- repeating their demand in a way that makes them look good (e.g., “I’m only thinking of our future”)
- listing ways your resistance negatively affects them
- saying things like, “If you really loved me, you’d do it”
- criticizing or demeaning you
Emotional blackmail can involve direct or indirect threats:
- Direct threat. “If you go out with your friends tonight, I won’t be here when you get back.”
- Indirect threat. “If you can’t stay with me tonight when I need you, maybe someone else will.”
They might also mask a threat as a positive promise: “If you stay home tonight, we’ll have a much better time than you’d have going out. This is important for our relationship.”
While this doesn’t seem like much of a threat, they’re still trying to manipulate you. While they don’t plainly state the consequences of your refusal, they do imply continued resistance won’t help your relationship.
Of course you don’t want them to make good on their threats, so you give up and give in. You might wonder if their “request” even warranted your resistance.
Compliance can be an eventual process, as they wear you down over time with pressure and threats. Once you give in, turmoil gives way to peace. They have what they want, so they might seem particularly kind and loving — at least for the moment.
When you show the other person you’ll eventually concede, they know exactly how to play similar situations in the future.
Over time, the process of emotional blackmail teaches you that it’s easier to comply than face persistent pressure and threats. You may come to accept that their love is conditional and something they’ll withhold until you agree with them.
They may even learn that a particular kind of threat will get the job done faster. As a result, this pattern will probably continue.
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While emotional blackmailers often use a combination of tactics, Forward suggests their behaviors generally align with one of four main styles:
Someone using punishment tactics will say what they want and then tell you what will happen if you don’t comply.
This often means direct threats, but punishers also use aggression, anger, or silent treatment to manipulate.
Here’s one example to consider:
Your partner comes up and kisses you as you walk in.
“I made a huge sale today! Let’s celebrate. Dinner, dancing, romance…” they say with a suggestive wink.
“Congratulations!” you say. “But I’m exhausted. I was planning to take a long bath and relax. How about tomorrow?”
Their mood changes instantly. They sulk down the hall, slamming doors as they go. When you follow and try to talk to them, they refuse to respond.
This type of emotional blackmail also involves threats. Instead of threatening you, however, self-punishers explain how your resistance will hurt them:
- “If you won’t lend me money, I’m going to lose my car tomorrow.”
- “If you don’t let us live with you, we’ll be homeless. Think of your nephews! Who knows what will happen to them? Do you want to live with that?”
People using self-punishment tactics may spin the situation to make it seem as if their difficulties are your fault in order to make you feel more inclined to take responsibility and help them.
A sufferer will often convey their feelings without words.
If they believe you’ve slighted them or want you to do something for them, they may say nothing and show their unhappiness with expressions of:
- sadness or dejection, including frowns, sighs, tears, or moping
- pain or discomfort
That said, they might also give you a full rundown of everything contributing to their misery.
Last week, you mentioned to a friend that you wanted to find a roommate for your empty bedroom and attached bath. Your friend said, “Why don’t you let me stay there for free?” You laughed off the remark, thinking it was a joke.
Today, they called you, sobbing.
“I’m so unhappy. I can barely get out of bed,” they say. “First that awful breakup, now my miserable co-workers — but I can’t quit, I have no savings. I just need something good to happen. I can’t cope like this. If only I had a place to stay for a while, where I wouldn’t have to pay rent, I’m sure I’d feel so much better.”
Some types of emotional blackmail seem more like kind gestures.
A tantalizer holds rewards over your head in order to get something from you, offering praise and encouragement. But each time you pass one hurdle, there’s another waiting. You can’t keep up.
“Your work is excellent,” your boss says one day. “You have just the skills I want in an office manager.” They quietly inform you the position will be opening up shortly. “Can I count on you until then?”
Elated, you agree. Your boss continues to ask more of you, and you stay late, skip lunch, and even come in on weekends to get everything done. The office manager resigns, but your boss doesn’t mention the promotion again.
When you finally ask about it, they snap at you.
“Can’t you see how busy I am? Do you think I have time to hire an office manager? I expected better from you,” they say.
If you suspect you’re on the receiving end of emotional blackmail, there are a few things you can do to respond in a productive way.
Some people learn blackmail tactics (like guilt trips) from parents, siblings, or past partners. These behaviors become a consistent way of getting needs met, Myers explains.
That said, others might intentionally use emotional blackmail. If you don’t feel safe confronting the person, you may want to skip these (more on what to do in this scenario later).
First, recognize what isn’t emotional blackmail
When a loved one’s needs or boundaries trigger frustration or discomfort, you may want to resist.
However, everyone has the right to express and restate boundaries when necessary. It’s only emotional blackmail when it involves pressure, threats, and attempts to control you.
Myers also explains that projecting feelings and memories of past experiences can make a present situation seem like blackmail.
“If we respond to someone out of fear or insecurity — believing that saying no or holding a boundary will lead to rejection — this can feel like emotional blackmail. However, that might be an inaccurate projection of what would actually happen,” Myers says.
Keep calm and stall
A person trying to manipulate you may push you to answer immediately. When you’re upset and afraid, you might give in before fully considering other possibilities.
This is part of why the blackmail works. Instead, remain as calm as possible and inform them you need time.
Try some variation of, “I can’t decide now. I’ll think about it and give you my answer later.”
They may keep pressuring you to decide immediately, but don’t back down (or rise to threats). Calmly repeat that you need time.
Start a conversation
The time you buy yourself can help you develop a strategy. Your approach may depend on the circumstances, including the behavior and the demand.
“First, assess for personal safety,” Myers recommends. “If you feel emotionally and physically safe doing so, you can engage in a conversation.”
Many blackmailers know exactly what they’re doing. They want their needs met and don’t care what this costs you.
Others simply see their behavior as a strategy that achieves their goals and don’t realize how it’s affecting you. Here, a conversation can help increase their awareness.
“Express how their words or behaviors make you feel,” Myers suggests. “Give them an opportunity to change those behaviors.”
Identify your triggers
Someone trying to manipulate you generally has a pretty good idea of how to push your buttons.
If you dislike arguing in public, for example, maybe they threaten to make a scene.
According to Myers, increasing your understanding of the fears or beliefs that give the blackmailer power can provide an opportunity to take that power back. This will make it much harder for the other person to use them against you.
In this same example, maybe that means knowing that public arguments are a sore spot for you and coming up with a standard response to this threat.
Enlist them in compromise
When you offer the other person the chance to help you find an alternative solution, your refusal may seem less like one.
Start with a statement that validates their feelings, then open the door to collaborative problem-solving.
Maybe you tell your partner, “I’m hearing you feel angry because I’m spending the weekend with my friends. Can you help me understand why you feel so frustrated?”
This shows the other person you care about how they feel and lets them know you’re willing to work with them.
If you experience consistent manipulation or emotional abuse, it may be best to avoid confronting the person.
Instead, consider reaching out to a crisis helpline. Trained crisis counselors offer free, anonymous assistance and support, 24/7. Try:
What if they threaten to harm themselves?
If someone threatens to hurt themselves unless you do what they say, you may feel even more inclined to give in.
Remember: You can only control your actions. No matter how much you care for someone, you can’t make choices for them.
Connecting them to help and support (like 911 or a crisis line) is a healthier, safer option for you both.