Emotional Blackmail

Note: For brevity, in this article, I used the word “partner” and the pronouns “he, his, and him” when I referred to an emotional blackmailer.  Please note that emotional blackmailers can also be female.  Also note that emotional blackmailers are not always partners, they could easily be the parents, children, siblings, friends or colleagues.


The word blackmail sounds scary and sinister.  But it’s usually distant, in the news or movies.  A criminal blackmailer might threaten to use their knowledge about a person's past to ruin her reputation, or ask to be paid in cash to hide a secret.  Emotional Blackmail, on the other hand, sounds manipulative and deceptive, but it is usually very close.  Because, unfortunately, it is a partner, a parent, one of our children, a sibling, a friend or a colleague who turns out to be the emotional blackmailer.  He has intimate knowledge of our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and secrets, and mercilessly uses them to get what he wants.

Does someone close to you (implicitly or explicitly) regularly;

  • threatens to make your life difficult if you don’t do what he wants,
  • tell you that he ends the relationship, if you don’t accept what he propose,
  • tell or imply that he is going to hurt himself, become depressed or sick, if you don’t give him what he wants,
  • ignore or discount your feelings, needs or wants,
  • make lavish promises that are conditional to your obedient behaviour, but rarely keeps his promises,
  • labels you as selfish, bad, greedy, unfaithful, or uncaring, when you don’t give-in to his demands?

In any relationship, there should be a pattern of give and take, a sense of balance and fairness.  We need to be flexible from time to time and give in to our partner on some issues.  There is nothing that says compliance is always bad.  There are many occasions when we give in to some pressure, and it doesn't mean that we’re weak or being abused.  Most of us often have to bend a little and make compromises.  However, falling into a pattern of giving in, almost all the time, particularly on the issues that are against our wishes, needs and values, is indeed demeaning and dangerous.  Social influencing techniques becomes emotional blackmail when they are used repeatedly to coerce us into complying, at the expense of our own feelings, wishes, well-being and dignity.

In a genuinely loving, caring, and respecting relationship, disagreements are resolved within a win-win framework.  The couple talk openly about the conflict.  They find out about each other’s feelings and concerns.  They try to understand why the other person resists the suggestion.  They respect the rights of the other person to disagree.  They accept responsibility for their own part of the conflict.  They each want the other to be happy, and are willing to compromise.

In contrast, in an abusive relationship with a win-lose framework, the offending partner tries to control the other person.  He ignores the other person’s feelings and concerns.  He insists that his reason or cause is more important.  He discounts the rights of the other person.  He refuses to take any responsibility for his share of the problems.  He only considers his own happiness and is unwilling to cooperate.

Types of Emotional Blackmail

Dr Susan Forward and her colleague Donna Frazier put blackmailers into four different categories (descriptions in the brackets are my terms):

  • Punishers (overt-punishers).
    • If you go back to work, I’ll leave you.
    • If you marry her, I’ll cut you out of my will.
    • If you try to divorce me, you’ll never see your kids again.
  • Self-punishers (covert -punishers) – please note that a self-punishing blackmail strategy is different from what is called “self-harm” as a mental health problem.
    • If you don’t do that, I’ll hurt or kill myself.
    • Do not argue with me, or I’ll stop eating and get depressed.
    • Do what I want, or I quit my job.
  • Sufferers (sulking blamers – stonewallers)
    • If you don’t do what I want, I will suffer (and it will be your fault).
    • If you really love me, you should be able to figure out what’s bothering me.
    • Guess what you did to me - I'm upset, depressed and sick.
  • Tantalisers (carrot danglers)
    • Unless you do what I want, I don’t do what I promised you to do.
    • I’ll do this, if you do what I want (but the promise never materialises).
    • I will help you if you . . .

The FOG of Emotional Blackmail

Dr Forward and her colleague aptly used the acronym FOG for the abusive strategies that emotional blackmailers use to control their victim.  F stands for Fear, O for Obligation and G for Guilt.

Fear: Emotional Blackmailers are often very close to us, so they soon discover our fears and use them to get what they want. 

If you don’t do what I want;

  • I leave you,
  • I stop loving you,
  • I fire you,
  • I reveal your secret,
  • I shout and yell and make you miserable.

Obligation: Blackmailers never hesitate to put our sense of obligation to the test.

  • A good daughter should spend time with her mother.
  • I work my *** off for this family and expect you to do your share too.
  • Everyone honours and obeys their father (husband, wife, boss, etc.).
  • I stood by you when . . . ., now all I’m asking is to . . . .

Guilt: Guilt is an essential part of being a responsible person.  But blackmailers can exploit this sensitivity to make us question (often one-sidedly) the impact of our actions on their life.  Blackmailers usually directly or indirectly blame us for their misery.

  • I'm in a lousy mood (and it’s all your fault).
  • I have a bad cold (and it’s all your fault).
  • I know I drink too much (but it’s all your fault).
  • I had a bad day at work (and it’s all your fault).

Blackmailers’ Techniques

Blackmailers can skilfully mask the pressure they apply.  Sometimes, we experience it in ways that makes us question our sanity.  We may feel confused, disoriented and guilty.  Emotional blackmail erodes our soul, violates our dignity, rubs our freedom and make us sick both physically and mentally.

Blackmailers try to make us feel silly, crazy or sinful.  They may use negative comparison or bring quotes from a holy book or a philosopher.  They try to portray themselves as loving, caring and open-minded.  They present what they want as what’s best while emphasising that they are entitled to it anyway.  Their version of reality is always the only reality.  They use labels that imply we are confused, stupid and even mentally sick (what’s wrong with you?).  When their attempt is not effective, they bring reinforcement.  They call family members, friends or others to prove that they are right.

Why Emotional Blackmail?

Blackmailers hate to lose.  To them, love, trust, respect and fairness don’t matter, what’s important is to come first, to get what they want, to win.  Emotional blackmail is the only way they know to cope with what life throws at them.  They don’t have what it takes to get what they want or need.  They’ve never developed the confidence and ability to handle ups and downs of their lives.  They are so absorbed by their own insecurities and needs that they cannot think of others.  They cannot show any empathy whatsoever.  In their self-centred world, all is about them.

Note: People who suffer from Borderline or Narcissistic personality disorder are more likely to use emotional blackmail.

It Takes Two

Blackmail is a duet, not a solo performance.  It cannot work without the target’s active participation.  I'm not suggesting that the victim provoked or caused the emotional blackmail.  I'm just trying to show the fact, that to break the cycle of blackmail, we first need to turn our attention inward.

Emotional blackmailers take their cues from our responses to their testing.  They learn both from what we do, and from what we don’t do.  When faced with a blackmailer’s pressure what do you do - apologise, reason, cry, plead, change your plans, or give in?  Do you have difficulty to stand up for yourself, to set limits or to let him know that his behaviour is unacceptable?  Remember, it always starts with the little things!

It may seem that we’re just trying to be a good person, when we accept our partner’s demands.  We may think that, it’s just our duty to comply, and it leads to an automatic response.  What’s really going on?  Why is it that some people, no matter how smart they are, seem to be so vulnerable to blackmail?  The answer lies in our Hot Buttons.  Our hot buttons are the bundle of sensitive nerves, stored up fears, guilt and insecurities that we may not even be fully aware of having them.  However, when they are pushed, our first reaction is to avoid the cause at all cost, which means automatic compliance to keep the hot buttons dormant.  Do you feel that; 

  • you have a strong need for approval (being an approval junkie),
  • you have a deep fear of anger, or a severe need for peace at any price (being a sensitive pacifist or lacking an assertive attitude), 
  • you have a tendency to take too much responsibility (being a blame taker – having an excessive sense of obligation and guilt) ,
  • you have a high level of self-doubt (or being highly self-conscious)?

These may be the roots of your hot buttons that can be exploited by a blackmailer.

The Cycle of Emotional Blackmail

  • Demand: Emotional blackmail usually starts with a demand.  Sometimes, it doesn't sound like a demand at all.  And sometimes blackmailers don’t verbalise what they want.
  • Resistance: Blackmailers would be happy if there was no resistance and they got what they want.  Their blackmailing strategies kick in, only when we tell them; no, they can’t have what they want.
  • Pressure & Threats: Blackmailers do not try to understand our feelings, our rights and our needs, they are blinded by their own neediness.  So, they start reminding us of the consequences of our resistance (e.g. I’ll be angry, I’ll leave you, I’ll kill myself, I’ll be sick, depressed, etc.).
  • Compliance: we don’t want to make them angry, lose them or see them hurt.  So, we give in to what they want.
  • Repetition: Our compliance makes them happy and they remove the pressure for now.  But, we've just confirmed our vulnerability and showed them that their strategy is effective.  So, next time when they want something and we resist to give it to them, they use the same technique, this time even harsher, if necessary.

Breaking the Cycle and Stopping Emotional Blackmail

Emotional abuse comes in many forms.  But remember, whatever the abuse, You CAN stop it.  Please note, that these guidelines are mainly suitable for people who are in a relationship where there is still room for a choice and hope for reconciliation.

If you want to deal with emotional blackmail effectively, you need to show different responses.  Therefore, you need to learn; Assertiveness, Emotional Regulation, and Effective Communication Skills.  It takes some time and lots of effort to feel comfortable and confident about your new and more assertive response to your partner but don’t be disappointed.  The secret is action and persistence, and you don’t need to wait until your fears and weaknesses are all conquered.  Feel the fear and do it anyway (Susan Jeffers).

Dr Susan Forward suggests that we should start with a contract, a power statement and self-affirming phrases.

The Contract

I . . . . . . . . . recognise 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 necessary skills and strategies and that I will put them into practice in my life.
  • I promise that if I regress or fall into old patterns, I will not use those slips as excuses to stop trying, but I use my lapses as ways of learning and honing my strategies.
  • I promise to take good care of myself during this process and that I will acknowledge and encourage myself for taking positive steps, no matter how small they are.

Power Statement

A power statement is a short sentence that you can use to keep yourself strong, grounded and determined when the blackmailer turns up the pressure.

  • Dr Forward’s suggested power statement is; “I can stand it”.  
  • Susan Jeffers has another nice one; “no matter what happens, I can handle it”.

These short sentences are strong tools for challenging our doubts and limiting beliefs (i.e. cannot sentences) and hence resisting emotional blackmail.

Self-affirming Phrases

  • Instead of saying; “giving-in is no big deal”, say; “I hold my ground because my integrity and values are important”.
  • Instead of saying; “surrender is OK, if it keeps him quiet”, say; “I'm not going to live my life by his rules, I know what I want and I’ll be kind to myself as well as to him”.
  • Instead of saying; “I feel confused and cannot stand up for myself”, say; “I have the right to think differently and I can be strong and assertive without resentment”.

Realise that you cannot change your partner, only your reaction to him.  The abusiveness in your partner is rooted in multiple layers of his own insecurities.  Put your welfare, health and safety first.  Your energy is most effective when you change yourself.  Remember, abuse is NOT your fault.  Despite your weaknesses, you deserve to be treated with respect.

Develop emotional intelligence and learn self-regulation.  Also, develop self-esteem and learn assertiveness.  Act on smaller issues first to build confidence and skill, then move to the bigger issues.

Set new, reasonable terms and boundaries for the relationship.  Clearly establish that you won't accept less than a safe and respectful relationship.  Abusive relationship usually starts with small episodes of disrespect and minor breaches of personal boundaries, often because they are unclear or poorly-defined.  It's up to you to set up clear, reasonable boundaries for a respectable relationship and to consistently stick to them.

Let your partner know, that you forgive and forget his disrespect in the past, but that period has come to an end.  From now on, all interactions should be respectful and will definitely must exclude name calling, character attacks, raised voices, throwing objects, etc.

Instead of answering (complying) automatically (straight-away), buy yourself some time to think and prepare an appropriate response.

  • I don’t have an answer for you right now.  I need some time to think.
  • I'm not sure how I feel about what you’re asking.  Let’s discuss this a little later.

This simple technique gradually shifts the balance of the relationship.

Become an objective observer.  Question your feelings, your thoughts and those of your partner.  Also, analyse the demand and the consequences of your impending response.  Keep observing and questioning until you can make a sensible connection between your beliefs, your behaviours and your feelings.  You can then make a better decision.  Don’t look at the situation as a kind of contest (win-lose).

Use non-defensive communication.  Blackmailers get what they want by yelling, threatening, sulking, playing victim and blaming.  Defensive reactions are quite common.

  • I'm not selfish.  How can you say that about me!
  • How about the time when I . . .

These are defensive.  They can escalate emotional intensity of the situation and lead to argument and resentment.  How about;

  • I'm sorry you’re upset.
  • I can understand how you might see it that way.
  • Really?  That’s interesting.
  • Let’s talk about it when you feel calmer.

Stay calm, do not argue, do not explain, and do not defend.  In the same way, employ participatory conversation.  It’s often helpful to shift the conversation by involving the blackmailer in your problem solving process.

  • Can you help me understand why this is so important to you?
  • Could you suggest something we can do to make our relationship better?
  • I wonder if you can help me find a way to . . .
  • I wonder how we can make this work for both of us.

You may also use bartering technique.  Bartering is about giving up something to get another of almost equal value.

  • How about going to the park this afternoon and watching your favourite movie in the evening.

Always stay polite and where possible use kindness and humour.  In any relationship, politeness, kindness and good humour are basic ingredients of conversation.  If you realise that these are missing, the relationship is already strained.  A sarcastic remark may sound funny, but that’s not humour.

Ask for professional support (counselling, coaching or therapy).  Find a relationship coach or a mental health professional who can help you.  If your partner is willing to work on their behaviours and seriously wants to make a change, a no-blame approach in counselling, might be a good idea.

Leaving an Abusive Relationship

Know when to leave an abusive partner and make a plan to do it safely.  Sometimes, relationships are just wrong and cannot be saved.  For the sake of your safety and mental health, try hard to recognise as early as possible whether or not the relationship is even worth working on.

If you’re afraid for your immediate safety, in the UK call 24-hour National Domestic Violence Free-phone Helpline 0808 2000 247.  In the USA there is a 24/7 support line and trained advocates are available to take your calls at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).  In other countries; refer to the local telephone directory or ask a trusted friend to find you the correct number.

  • Invent a code word or a sign so, family, friends and co-workers know when to call for help.
  • Do not tell your abusive partner that you plan to leave.  When you make the decision to go, just do it.  Don't talk about it, or threaten to do it.  Just get your keys, purse, etc. and go.
  • Talk to someone that you can trust and plan in advance to have a safe place to go.  Avoid those who are close to your partner.  They may not understand why you have to leave.
  • Don't wait until the moment that you make the big choice, go ahead and locate your important papers, spare keys, bank information, and any other items you do not want to leave behind.
  • Keep money and your phone with you at all times.  Once you are away, do not respond to texts or phone calls from your partner (now your ex).
  • Refuse talking about your reasons, plans, current situation, etc. with anyone who may have contact with your ex.

And finally, remember; No matter what happens, you can handle it (Susan Jeffers).

  • You Can Handle...Fear.
  • You Can Handle...Frustration.
  • You Can Handle...Pain.
  • You Can Handle...Sadness.
  • You Can Handle...Big Losses.
  • You Can Handle...Anger.
  • You Can Handle...Embarrassment.
  • You Can Handle...Responsibility.
  • You Can Handle...Guilt.

Reference: Emotional Blackmail (book) by; Dr Susan Forward & Donna Frazier