What is Emotional Blackmail?

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April 27, 2019

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 had described. She explains that people in intimate relationships will use the above-mentioned 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 every single thing 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 as a whole. 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, though, 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.


This, as with many other forms of abusive behavior, are progressive in nature and tend 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:

  1. Demands Combined with Threats
    • A partner may begin to demand certain things from their partner and use threats to get them to comply.
  2. Partner Resists Demands
    • Initially, a partner will retreat from or avoid a demanding partner to attempt to express displeasure with the demands or expectations.
  3. 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.
    • 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 partner, not taking responsibility for their part in the relational conflict.
      • Engaging in apologies to temper the conflict but engaging in continued controlling behavior once relationship has gotten back to normal.
      • Using fear, obligation, threats, and guilt
      • Being unwilling to negotiate or compromise
      • Does not identify care or concern about their partner’s wants/needs
      • Threatening and intimidating using vulnerable and personal knowledge/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/something close to the partner.
  1. Victimized Partner Gives In
    • Once the victimized partner feels an obligation to give in and accommodates whatever demand was placed on them by an abusive partner, the abusive partner’s threats and manipulation subsides until the next need for control arises.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel as if your partner is becoming emotionally 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 partners:

  1. 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 a qualities of a healthy, loving relationship.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 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 in strengthening your ability to believe in yourself so that you do not fall victim to another person’s threats, blackmail, or other manipulative tactics that cause people to feel powerless to get out of dangerous relationships that they find themselves in.

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Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events