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How to Identify and Address Emotional Blackmail

Have you ever refused a favor to a friend, partner, or even family member but felt extreme discomfort about it? Maybe this happened more than once, maybe you weren’t able to pinpoint what exactly bothered you about the whole situation. It is just one general example of emotional blackmail. The term was popularized by the psychotherapist Susan Forward in the late 1990s. 

Emotional blackmail can exist in the context of any relationship that is close-knit. This article will cover indicators and examples of this toxic dynamics, and how to respond to it if you think you identify it in real life.


What is emotional blackmail? 

Just like typical blackmail, emotional blackmail revolves around someone trying to get what they want from you. But instead of holding a secret against you, they manipulate you emotionally. Karla Ivankovich, a clinical counselor based in Chicago defined it as “someone close to us uses the things they know about us against us as a means of harm or manipulation.” In some cases, emotional blackmail can be overt and blatant and at other times subtle. Usually, the manipulators use fear, guilt, pressure, or obligations to make you comply with their demands. Detailed below are ways to recognize these tactics. 


How to Identify and Address Emotional Blackmail couple arguing

Invoking fear can be done by straightforward threats such as “How would you like it if your family, friends, boss, etc. knew that you did XYZ?” or, “If you go out with your friends tonight, I won’t be here when you come back”. But threats can also be indirect or cavalier, for example, “If you can’t stay with me tonight maybe someone else will” or even take the form of a positive promise, “If you stay home tonight, we’ll have a much better time than you’d have going out. This is important for our relationship.”

While this doesn’t sound like much of a threat it is still manipulation. While they don’t plainly state the consequences of your refusal, they do imply continued resistance won’t help your relationship.

Related Article: The Simple Ways to Identify Dependent Relationships

Pressure and obligation

How to Identify and Address Emotional Blackmail man on the phone
Constantly reminding someone of their duties is a low-key way for the manipulator to apply pressure on the other side, and make them fulfill their wishes. For example, if your mother wants you to come for a visit even though you have explained that you don’t feel safe traveling yet: “But this is family. This is what you’re supposed to do for each other,” she might say. This is a tactic meant to invoke a sense of obligation.

Guilt and gaslighting

How to Identify and Address Emotional Blackmail concerned woman

Guilt-tripping may be straightforward. A friend asking you to loan them money, for example, may say something like “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?”

Gaslighting is another way to invoke guilt, where the manipulator consciously plants seeds of doubt in the victim. For instance, you notice your partner flirting with a coworker. When you confront them about it they make you feel crazy for even thinking they could be into someone from work. Other examples include trivializing your feelings, saying things they later deny they said, and insisting they were or weren’t at a certain place, even though it’s not true.

How to confront emotional blackmail

Emotional blackmail isn’t always done deliberately or with ulterior motives. It can be born out of insecurity, or out of lack of understanding of how to communicate their feelings. “It usually arises out of a fear of abandonment or a feeling of shame,” explained Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family therapist, in a statement for Huffington Post

That said if you feel that unhealthy dynamics in your relationship it is vital that you bring it up and communicate it to your partner, especially if you think they are unaware of their behavior. 

How to Identify and Address Emotional Blackmail couple serious conversation

If your partner is threatening to leave you or expose something ‘shameful’ they know about you you should directly set a boundary by telling them to stop. This can feel scary, but according to experts, it works. “Threats often don’t materialize, because they’re usually a plea for more attention,” explained Lancer. Bearing that in mind, you can assure your partner that you love them and want the relationship intact, but are unwilling to do what they want.

The key factor in resolving such a situation successfully is communication. ”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,” said Ivankovich.  

Express your concern and be clear about what you’re willing to accept. You can clearly say that you will not be manipulated. If the emotional blackmail continues after clear boundaries were set, then it is time to think about stepping away. 

Keep in mind that you deserve to feel loved and supported in your relationship. If you feel discomfort and identify it as emotional blackmail, be tentative to your instincts and do not hesitate to address it. 

If this article was helpful to you and you think it may benefit someone you know, do not hesitate to share it and pass it on to your friends.

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