Emotional blackmail is a relationship dynamic that involves a person instilling fear, obligation, and guilt into a relationship with another person. As author and psychotherapist Susan Forward explains, people in intimate relationships will use such manipulation tactics as a form of punishment for their partners not doing what they want them to do.
While those in intimate relationships will not always do everything their partner wants them to do, most attempt to work out their disagreements with communication and collaboration. A partner who engages in emotional blackmail, however, will use coercive methods to attempt to control their partner and their relationship. A person who engages in these types of manipulation can use the personal and vulnerable knowledge they have about their partner against them to cause their partner to feel responsible for changing themselves or their actions to make their partner more comfortable.
Often, even if the partner does change to try to meet the manipulative partner’s expectations, they will set entirely new rules that the partner needs to meet, decreasing their ability to maintain a solid sense of self-worth, and ultimately creating a sense of dependency on their partner. The demands that a partner may try to place at first may seem reasonable, but over time can become more controlling and irrational.
How to Recognize Emotional Blackmail
Emotional blackmail, as with many other forms of abusive behavior, is progressive in nature and tends to follow a pattern of becoming more and more controlling and manipulative over time. Here are some key indicators that a person is using emotional blackmail as a manipulation tool in a relationship:
Demands Combined With Threats
A partner may begin to demand certain things from their partner and use threats to get them to comply.
The Partner Resists the Demands
Initially, a partner will retreat from or avoid a demanding partner to attempt to express displeasure with the demands or expectations.
The Manipulative Tactics Continue
Once the victimized partner avoids or resists unrealistic demands, the abusive partner will often use fear or excessive guilt to make the victimized partner feel responsible for the conflict in the relationship. This can cause the victim to feel unsure about what is real and may cause them to develop guilt that they were the ones to create the problem and that they are responsible for meeting their partner’s needs to maintain happiness and safety in the relationship.
Threats will become more severe in this stage and an abusive partner may use emotional blackmail to try to ensure that the victimized partner will be responsible for whatever repercussions come when they do not comply with what the abusive partner as asked.
The Victimized Partner Gives In
Once a victimized partner feels an obligation to give in, they accommodate whatever demand was placed on them. The abusive partner’s threats and manipulation then subsides until the next need for control arises.
Manipulative Tactics Used by an Emotional Blackmailer
Here are some of the ways that a partner uses manipulation to assert their demands in an emotionally abusive relationship:
- Making a partner feel “crazy” for not accepting their demands or beliefs.
- Controlling the behavior of their partner.
- Ignoring resistance or boundaries of others.
- Blaming their partner and not taking responsibility for their part in the relational conflict.
- Apologizing in order to temper the conflict but engaging in continued controlling behavior once the discord has ended.
- Using fear, obligation, threats, and guilt.
- Being unwilling to negotiate or compromise.
- Does not identify care or concern about their partner’s wants or needs.
- Threatening and intimidating using vulnerable and personal knowledge or information to coerce a partner to comply.
- Making a partner feel obligated to “earn” back affection or intimacy in a relationship by complying with what they need or want.
- Accusations and skepticism about a partner’s dedication or devotion to the abusive partner (jealousy).
- Threats to harm themselves, their partner, or someone or something close to the partner.
How to Deal With an Emotional Blackmailer
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel as if your partner is becoming increasingly manipulative and engaging in emotional blackmail, it is important to understand these dynamics to help you understand the manipulation taking place and how to get out of a possible dangerous situation. Here are some things to remember to keep yourself safe and to promote healthy relationship dynamics with your partner:
Blackmail and Threatening Behaviors Are Not Love
Remembering that healthy relationships involve care, compromise, and consideration for a partner can help you to recognize that threats to harm themselves, you, or someone close to you are not qualities of a healthy, loving relationship.
Giving in to Demands Will Increase Abusive Power
Abusive partners will use threatening and manipulative language to get what they want. Once they get it, they realize that this kind of abuse is effective, and it will continue if a victimized partner continues to give in to their abusive partner’s demands. Seek help if you feel like you are struggling with giving in to an abusive partner’s demands.
Know Your Worth
Maintaining a solid sense of self-worth and confidence in yourself is essential in any relationship but is extremely important in situations with demanding or abusive partners. An emotionally manipulative partner will work to deteriorate their partner’s sense of self to keep them under their control.
Emotional blackmail can cause people to feel powerless in getting out of dangerous relationships. If you feel as if you’re losing confidence in your ability to make decisions, or losing self-esteem in general, it is important to seek some support from a mental health professional so that you do not fall victim to another person’s threats, blackmail, or other manipulative tactics. If you fear for your safety, reach out to any of several emergency resources for immediate assistance.
- Karnani, S. R., & Zelman, D. C. (2019). Measurement of emotional blackmail in couple relationships in Hong Kong. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 8(3), 165–180. https://doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000126
- Forward, S., & Frazier, D. (1998). Emotional blackmail: When the people in your life use fear, obligation, and guilt to manipulate you. New York, HarperCollins, 6th ed.
- Brandt, J. (2019). Emotional blackmail: How to end the cycle. Webinar available from the American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed from: https://axon.avma.org/local/catalog/view/product.php?productid=109
- Green, E. (2020) Masters of Emotional Blackmail: Understanding and Dealing with Verbal Abuse and Emotional Manipulation. How Manipulators Use Guilt, Fear, Obligation, and Other Tactics to Control People. Digitalpress LLC, Ist ed.