In the criminal sense, blackmail is a tactic typically used to get money out of someone by threatening to leak damaging information about them to the public.
Emotional blackmail has a similar basis. It’s a manipulation tactic used in close relationships where a person controls another by messing with your emotions.
While some forms of emotional blackmail can be obvious, this kind of manipulation can sometimes be hard to spot – especially if you’re being emotionally manipulated by someone you’re very close with.
This article will take a look at the definition of emotional blackmail, signs to look out for and what to do if you believe you’re being emotionally manipulated.
What Is Emotional Blackmail?
The term emotional blackmail was coined by therapist and author Dr. Susan Forward. Her 1997 book, “Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You,” focused on case studies done on people who had experienced this kind of manipulation.
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Emotional blackmail occurs when someone who knows you well decides to use your secrets and vulnerabilities against you in order to get you to do what they want. More overt emotional blackmail will make a person feel guilty, angry or fearful enough to do whatever the manipulator is asking them to do.
On a smaller scale, emotional blackmail can look like withholding affection or attention, or ignoring a person all together.
The Stages of Emotional Blackmail
According to Forward’s book, there are six stages of emotional blackmail to be aware of.
The manipulator makes a demand or ask of the person they’re emotionally manipulating. This demand typically is not a reasonable one, but an attempt at controlling the person’s behavior. For example, maybe the person demands that you not hang out with a close friend of yours anymore. Or they tell you they don’t like a certain dress you want to wear.
These demands may be thinly veiled as being for your own good. For example, maybe the manipulator insists the friend is a bad influence, or the dress doesn’t suit you.
If you agree to the demand, the emotional blackmail may not progress past the first step. However, it’s likely the demand will be met with resistance or, at the very least, questioning of why the demand has been made.
In a healthy relationship, a person who expresses resistance to an ask will usually be met with respect, or there will be a conversation regarding why the person is uncomfortable with following through on a demand where the end goal is to come to a mutually agreed upon solution.
In the process of emotional blackmail, the next step after a person resists a demand is to put pressure onto the demand that’s been made to get the other person to agree.
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The unhealthy pressure put on someone who is being emotionally blackmailed can look like:
“If you really loved me, you would do what I’m asking.”
“I’m trying to do what’s best for you.”
“If you don’t do this for me, I’ll be upset.”
The pressure stage of emotional blackmail can quickly escalate into threats if a person does not agree to what’s being asked. Let’s take the example of someone not wanting you to hang out with a certain friend. An emotional blackmailer may threaten to leave the relationship if you do go out with the friend that night, or even threaten to cheat on the relationship if left alone that night.
The threat can also be masked as coming from a more positive place – for example, if the person asks you to stay home instead of going out with a friend because they want to spend more quality time with you.
The process of emotional blackmail can be a lengthy and exhausting one. This is also by design, because the goal is to get to stage five of the process – compliance. At this point, you’re either afraid of the person following through with the threats that have been made or are starting to believe that your manipulator may really have your best interests in mind. You may question your own culpability in the situation, and wonder if you were in the wrong to have resisted the ask in the first place.
Once the manipulator understands what buttons to push in order to emotionally blackmail someone into doing what they want, they repeat the process using the same tactics.
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The more often the process repeats, the more likely it is that the person being emotionally blackmailed will just give in rather than fight back knowing how these conversations usually go – which is the manipulator’s goal.
How to Respond to Emotional Blackmail
If the person who is emotionally blackmailing you makes you feel unsafe, do not confront them. Consider reaching out to a friend or family member who might be able to help get you out of your current situation. Crisis hotlines like the Crisis Text Line or National Domestic Violence Hotline are also resources you can utilize if you find yourself in a situation that is not physically or emotionally safe.
If you do feel comfortable addressing the behavior, here are a few productive tactics to consider.
Calmly stall the decision
In emotional blackmail, the manipulator typically wants an answer right away. Saying no can trigger further manipulation tactics but putting the decision off comely can de-escalate the situation. The next time you’re being pushed for an answer, continue to stay calm and non-reactive, and repeat that you need more time to think about their request.
Present the opportunity for change
Many emotional blackmailers know what they’re doing. But some may just be repeating a behavior they’ve learned from their parent’s relationship or past relationship without actually realizing the harm it’s doing.
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To find out, try having a conversation with the person about how these demands and conversations impact you and make you feel. It may not lead anywhere or change anything but finding out can help inform whether or not the relationship with this person is salvageable.
In the process of emotional blackmail, the action that the manipulator wants you to take becomes the goal – but sometimes, asking more about why this person wants the desired action can deescalate the situation and give you both a better understanding of why this outcome is important. It’s possible that this also won’t lead to a resolution but telling the person that you understand they’re angry about an action you’re taking and asking more about why that is can at least help them feel more heard.
Emotional blackmail can be hard to change or reverse. Recognizing the signs of emotional blackmail is a key first step toward addressing the behavior. If the emotional blackmailer is not willing to hear you or change, it’s best to end the relationship, which can be difficult to do. Seek out support from friends and family or utilize hotlines that specialize in helping people in these situations.