Let’s say you’re in a romantic relationship. You have shared a dog with your partner for five years, but the dog is technically your partner’s dog; he adopted it six months before you got together. You love this dog, and during a particularly heated argument with your significant other, he says, “If you leave me, you’ll never see the dog again.”
This is just one example of emotional blackmail, which Karla Ivankovich, a clinical counselor based in Chicago, said is when “someone close to us uses the things they know about us against us as a means of harm or manipulation.” Usually, the manipulator uses fear, guilt or obligation to get what they want.
The concept of emotional blackmail was popularized by psychotherapist Susan Forward in the late 1990s. It can exist in the context of a romantic relationship or any relationship where the ties are close-knit. It’s not always a sign the relationship is doomed and over, but it can be indicative of a very unhealthy dynamic if it persists.
What Emotional Blackmail Looks Like
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Some forms of emotional blackmail can be overt and shocking, according to Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of “Conquering Shame and Codependency.”
“Easy examples of emotional blackmail are blatant or implied threats, such as, ‘I’ll tell the children you had an affair,’ or ambiguous threats, such as ‘You’ll be sorry if you…’ or ‘How would you like your parents, friends, boss, etc., to know you did XYZ?'” Threats are meant to invoke fear.
On the flip side, some of them can be very subtle or cavalier, like guilt-tripping. For instance, Lancer said, something like, “A friend would loan me money. How can you say you’re my friend and not help me out when I’m in a bind like this?” Or, “What about the time you borrowed money from me back in college?”
Pressuring or reminding someone of their duties can be another low-key tactic of emotional blackmail. Let’s say your mom wants you to come home to visit and help out your family, but you don’t think it’s smart to travel. “But this is family. This is what you’re supposed to do for each other,” she might say. This tactic is meant to invoke a sense of obligation.
Emotional blackmail isn’t always malicious, though it can be used as a conscious means of strategic control – a means to an end to get what they want. Maybe your friend knows you have people-pleasing tendencies, so they get sullen when you say you can’t do something for them.
“Gaslighting is another example of that, where the manipulator consciously plants seeds of doubt in the victim,” Lancer said. For instance, you notice your partner flirting with their co-worker, and then they make you feel crazy for thinking they could ever be into someone they work with.
That said, it’s not always done with ulterior motives; sometimes the manipulator really feels justified in their request or statement. “Emotional blackmail can be born out of insecurity or out of a lack of understanding of how to communicate feelings, so it is not always toxic,” Ivankovich said.
Maybe your partner simply doesn’t realize how to say that they feel you’ve been distant, and they’re scared you are planning to break up with them – so they make a threat.
Lancer said that narcissists, those with borderline personality disorder or other related psychological conditions may employ emotional blackmail more frequently and often unknowingly – but this is definitely not always the case.
“It usually arises out of a fear of abandonment or a feeling of shame,” Lander said. “Either way, the manipulator feels a serious threat to their ego and sense of self.”
How To Confront Emotional Blackmail
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It’s not your responsibility to “fix” someone who is treating you badly. “Remember that the manipulator has choices about their behavior and dilemmas, and that they are trying to shift that responsibility to you,” Lancer said. “Don’t let them.”
That said, there are ways to bring up your concerns with a loved one if you believe that this unhealthy behavior is something they’re unaware of.
For instance, if your partner threatens to leave or to tell the world about your indiscretion, Lancer said, you should directly and firmly state a boundary by telling them to stop.
Lander said this can feel scary, but it usually works. “Threats often don’t materialize, because they’re usually a plea for more attention,” she explained. “You can also assure the manipulator that you love them and want the relationship intact, but are unwilling to do what they want.”
If you’re dealing with a repeat offender, Ivankovich said, all good solutions start with communication.
“You should talk to your partner to express concern,” she said. “If their goal is to hijack your emotions, then you first need to be clear with yourself what you are willing to accept. Express this to them, and hold to it.” You can say, clearly, that you won’t be manipulated.
“If this person won’t stop despite your requests and continues, then it is time to consider stepping away,” she said. Emotional blackmail is an abusive dynamic, especially if it continues after boundaries are clearly laid. You deserve to feel loved and supported, not threatened.
But beyond that, says Ivankovich, talk to the manipulator about why this is happening.
“If insecurities exist, ask what you can do to help them feel more secure,” she said. Maybe your mom needs more phone calls each month. Maybe your partner needs more regular romantic gestures. Maybe your friend doesn’t realize the guilt and discomfort they’re causing by repeatedly asking for something when you’ve already said no.
“Communication leads to success,” Ivankovich said.