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Emotional Blackmail: Tactics + Signs to Watch Out For

Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who uses fear, obligation, and guilt to manipulate you into doing what they want?

Or are you in that kind of relationship right now?

Then this post is on emotional blackmail is for you. I break down what emotional blackmail is and how to spot it so you can avoid being a victim of this painful, dysfunctional, abusive cycle.

What is Emotional Blackmail?

The term “emotional blackmail1” was introduced by Susan Forward, Ph.D. and Donna Frazier, Ph.D. in their book, Emotional Blackmail: When the People In Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You.

Dr. Forward states that emotional blackmail is a tactic used when an abuser threatens the people in their life to get what they want.

With emotional blackmail, an abuser always blames the victim for how they feel or for their frustrations. This can confuse the victim, especially if they have previously experienced this abuse.

Dr. Forward and Dr. Frazier, created the term F.O.G. for fear, obligation, and guilt, which are the feelings created in a victim by an emotional blackmailer.

F.O.G.: Fear, Guilt, and Obligation in Emotional Blackmail

Fear, obligation, and guilt are the levers that an emotional blackmailer pulls to get you to do what they want you to do. The acronym F.O.G. makes sense because this manipulation creates a fog in the person on the receiving end, making them unsure if they’re actually doing something wrong. They might start to question whether what the abuser says is accurate, or whether their gut instinct that says they’re being manipulated is accurate.

This is confusing and painful.

If this resonates, I invite you to check out this which lists a few questions that will help you figure out what might be happening in your relationship.

Emotional blackmail can include someone taking information that you shared in a moment of vulnerability and using it against you (creating fear). They may threaten to share your information with someone else to humiliate or embarrass you. This might sound like: “If you don’t do what I want, I will tell your secrets to your parents/boss/friends.”

A manipulator may use the other person’s exaggerated sense of obligation as a control tactic which might sound like: “After everything I’ve done for you, after how hard I’ve worked for this family, I can’t believe you won’t support me in spending money on this motorcycle that will make me happy.” This diverts attention away from the question of whether you can both afford the motorcycle and instead puts it on you being an unsupportive partner.

The implied, covert threats of emotional blackmailers make it difficult for victims to escape the fog. These covert tactics can also make the demands of the manipulator seem reasonable, and make the victim feel like they are being selfish for not complying.

The Effects of Emotional Blackmail

So what happens when victims are in this F.O.G.?

Gaslighting happens, which can make the victim doubt their own lived experiences.

This type of relationship, where one person demands it all be their way can inspire the other person to abandon how they feel or what they want altogether.

The Four Types of Emotional Blackmailers to Watch Out For

Dr. Forward and Dr. Frazier have identified four different types of emotional blackmailers:

1: The Punisher: they operate with the need to get their way regardless of the feelings of the other person – their motto is “my way or the highway.” They insist on pushing for control and getting what they want with threats to inflict damage or harm to the victim.

2: The Self-Punisher: they make threats of self-harm. “If you don’t come pick me up, I am going to drive drunk,” or, “If you leave me, I will kill myself.”

3: The Sufferer: they suggest that if the victim does not comply, their suffering will be their own fault. They also claim to suffer because of the victim: “After everything I’ve done for you, I can’t believe you would deny me this.”

For The Sufferer, emotional blackmail is a systematic way of making the victim believe that if they don’t comply with the blackmailer, they are selfish. And if the victim is a high-functioning codependent or a codependent, their worst fear is someone believing that they are selfish.

4: The Tantalizer: they can be the most subtle and confusing type as The Tantalizer makes it seem like things will get better if the victim complies. This is a form of manipulation because you wouldn’t be with an emotional blackmailer if things were actually going to get better. This is simply a way for the blackmailer to get what they want.

Who Tends to Use Emotional Blackmail Tactics?

People who commonly use emotional blackmail tactics are those who…

• Have narcissistic tendencies

• Are self-centered

• Have intense anger issues or deep depression

• Fear abandonment

• Are emotionally immature and tit-for-tat; they don’t have the capacity to see that compromise, empathy, or compassion have to be part of a healthy relationship

• Massively lack accountability

• Aren’t in touch with their feelings

• Hate to lose

Who Tends to be Vulnerable to Emotional Blackmail?

People who are most vulnerable to emotional blackmail are those who…

• Are approval-seeking or people pleasing

• Empathic – they might have extreme compassion for other people, making them easier to manipulate

• Tend to blame themselves if something goes wrong

• Are peacekeepers (which is one archetype of disordered boundaries)

• Have a strong sense of responsibility to do the right thing

• Fear abandonment

• Fear anger

• Have low self-esteem

• Suffer from self-doubt

What Emotional Blackmail Might Sound Like

We see emotional blackmail so often in close relationships, especially romantic relationships. Here is what it can look and sound like, so you know exactly what to watch out for.

Let’s say someone cheats on their partner and tells them, “If you had fulfilled my needs, I wouldn’t have stepped out.” This is emotional blackmail because all roads lead back to the victim being in the wrong.

From a macro view, we know this response is a way for them to avoid taking responsibility. But when you are in the thick of it, the F.O.G. (fear, obligation, and guilt) makes it difficult to see the situation with clarity. Your partner cheating and blaming you for not fulfilling their needs can make you think, “Is it me? Maybe I’m not doing the right thing.”

Other forms of emotional blackmail might sound like:

• “How can you say you love me and still be friends with those people?”

• “If you stop loving me, I’ll kill myself.”

• “If I ever see another man look at you, I will kill them.” How scary is that? As if you can control the other person.

• Having rigid boundaries: “I am taking this vacation with or without you.” There’s no conversation or ability to meet in the middle.

• “If you didn’t cook fattening foods, I wouldn’t be overweight.”

• “If you had done a better job with the kids and at home, I would be further along in my career.”

Essentially, the emotional blackmailer wrongly blames the victim for the things they themselves are actually responsible for.

If two people are separating, a manipulator might say, “If you divorce me, you’ll never see the kids again. I’ll get the best lawyers. I’ll make you suffer. You’ll destroy the family and you’ll be sorry.”

Even someone saying “I can’t live without you” is emotional blackmail, because what is the implied threat? That the person will die. You may want to break up with them, but you may not want them dead.

In the guide, I give you a couple of questions to answer so you can figure out whether you are vulnerable to emotional blackmail from others. I also give you a few questions for you to assess where your relationships are right now. Here are few questions for you. Grab a Journal and reflect.

  1. Were the adults in your life manipulative, guilting, or adept at using passive-aggressive tactics as a means of controlling others?

  2. Did the adults in your life use fear, obligation, and guilt to basically manipulate you to do what they want you to do?

  3. Did your parental impactors use sensitive information to humiliate or embarrass you? Was your lived experience valued or denied as a child?

  4. Was there overt or covert messaging about how you were allowed to feel, behave or interact in the world? Were there covert or overt threats of punishment (or actual punishment) if you did not go along with prescribed behaviors?

  5. I invite you to keep an eye out for the relationships in your life that regularly produce feelings of blame, shame, fear,obligation, or guilt. Take one relationship at a time and ask yourself the following.

  6. The WHO family, friends, frenemies, romantic partners, siblings, boss, coworkers

  7. The BEHAVIOR actions that cause you to fear, obligation, or guilt so you comply

  8. The FEELINGS resentment/obligation / guilt/anger/shame/fear

It is so devastating to be on the receiving end of emotional blackmail, so let’s move into one way you might be able to change this dysfunctional dynamic.

Boundaries: A Good Defense Against Emotional Blackmail

Boundaries are probably the most important way to assess whether the emotional blackmailer in your life has the capacity to change.

start with an acknowledgment: “In the past, I have complied with X, Y, Z. Now I want to talk about how we can make it more equitable.”

As you begin to make this shift, the other person will definitely have feelings about it. In time, you will see if there is a shift in their behaviour.

If you are experiencing emotional blackmail, I hope that this helps open your eyes, because I know how incredibly painful it can be. But there are things that you can do to manage your experience in a new way.

Have an amazing week .

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