Most of us have been on the receiving end of emotional blackmail at some point in our relationship history.
Sometimes we were more aware of it; other times, we didn’t see it depending on how obvious the manipulation was. One thing is for sure; it feels miserable to be a victim of blackmail.
You can employ methods to handle the situation once you recognize the signs. Before we move on to spotting the signals and finding ways to deal with the blackmail, let’s first define what is emotional blackmail.
Emotional blackmail is a form of dysfunctional dynamic that happens in some close relationships where a person uses various forms of manipulations to get you to do what they want.
A person trying to emotionally blackmail you will instill feelings of anger, fear, or guilt to get you to comply with what they want when they want it.
Emotional blackmail in relationships can be more or less subtle and appear as withholding of affection, disappointment, or even slight changes in body language and tone of voice.
Regardless of the types of emotional blackmail, one thing in common with all emotional blackmailing tactics is the element of threat – if you don’t comply, there will be consequences.
Emotional blackmail is a form of interaction that happens whenever a close person seems to use our fears, secrets, weakness, or vulnerabilities to gain something they desire. They leverage what they know about us so we would fulfill their needs.
3. Lack of compromise or true apology on their end
Instead of constantly apologizing on your side, they do not genuinely regret their actions or make any changes. You can tell it is an empty justification they are providing because they are unwilling to back it up with actions.
I’m taking this job no matter what you think about moving.
You know how I feel; there is no need to make me apologize.
4. Making you seem irrational for questioning them
Have you ever tried to bring some of their errors to light? Have they turned the tables not only to make it seem like it was your fault but also make you appear illogical?
They always have a way to rationalize their unreasonable requests, and you end up being the crazy one if you dare question them.
I told my friend, and they agree you are being absurd about this.
My therapist/pastor/family agrees that what you did was unreasonable, and I am not to blame here.
5. Exhorting sacrifices from you for their happiness
In the beginning, extortion can be more subtle, but it can become more apparent over time.
You begin doing anything you can so they would be pleased because your peace of mind is connected to their satisfaction.
Therefore you make more sacrifices than you might be willing because only when they are satisfied you can count on some harmony.
If you don’t skip the party to take care of me when I am blue, what kind of partner are you? If you can’t provide for me when I am unemployed, maybe I need a new partner.
Some of the more overt symptoms of emotional abuse involve threats to harm you, your close ones, or themselves.
Intimidating, you will get them what they want, so they might resort to this method if they feel nothing else is working.
Don’t you think of leaving me, because I will make sure you never see the kids again. If you ever love someone else, I will kill myself.
7. Cosmetic concerns about your well-being
When in a relationship with a person who is emotionally blackmailing you, you feel like there is no room for your voice and needs unless they are somehow tied to the satisfaction of their desires.
I care for you, so I don’t want you to be friends with them anymore. I need you to be okay now because I can’t make it without you.
8. Setting boundaries is close to impossible
Not only do you not feel heard, you feel you can’t say “no” or push back. Any type of firm boundary is met with disappointment, withdrawal of affection, or more obvious signals of blackmail such as treats.
Boundaries could prohibit them from getting what they need from you; therefore, you feel like standing up for yourself only makes things worse. When you try to push back, they often come after your sense of worth.
If you don’t do as I ask, you are worthless to me.
One of the most evident signals of emotional blackmail is the control they impose. If they were to lose it, they might lose everything they gain from you.
Therefore they will use fear, obligation, threats, and guilt to make sure you follow and obey.
I don’t want you to see them so often.
If I ever see you with another man/woman, I will kill him/her.
6 stages of emotional blackmail
According to Susan Forward and Donna Fraizer of ‘Emotional Blackmail,’ emotional blackmail happens in a cycle. But they have identified six stages of emotional blackmail:
The person states more or less explicitly a request. Often they phrase it so it seems they are showing concern about you. However, they attempt to control you by seemingly caring for you.
Since this is something you are not inclined to provide, you refuse, as it is often quite an unreasonable demand. Your resistance could be direct or implied, like “forgetting” to do what they asked.
What distinguishes a person who is trying to emotionally blackmail you from someone who genuinely cares for you is how they react to your resistance.
In a healthy relationship, your partner will accept your refusal or try to find a solution that works for you. When it comes to emotional blackmail, you only receive more pressure or threats when you resist.
If you go out tonight, I might not be here when you come back.
If you can’t stay with me, maybe I should find someone who cares about how I feel.
At first, you don’t want to give in, but you also don’t want them to actualize their threats. Therefore, over time, you comply, and turmoil is replaced with peace and comfort.
When you eventually cave, you learn that it is easier to go along with their demand than protest. They learn what methods to use to exercise control more effectively. Hence the pattern is reinforced.
10 tips for handling emotional blackmail
If you suspect you are being emotionally blackmailed, there are things you can do. Please note you should only follow this advice and confront the person if you feel safe doing so.
1. Recognize it for what it is
If you suspect you are being emotionally blackmailed, start by paying more attention to the dynamic of your relationship. If you want to solve a problem, you need to know what you’re dealing with.
Be careful not to misinterpret your partner’s need to restate some boundaries or advocate for their needs as blackmail. It is only blackmail when it involves pressure, control, and threats.
2. Write it all down
Not sure about whether you are dealing with emotional abuse? Make an effort to write down details related to the daily interactions that you have with your partner. Writing things down can help you see an abusive pattern with ease.
Journalling can also help you unravel the manipulative veil your emotional blackmail relationship may have placed on your senses.
Emotional blackmail in marriage or a relationship cannot be dealt with unless you establish clear and strong boundaries that protect your individuality. It can help you combat mental abuse and manipulation.
Let your partner know that you won’t tolerate them shouting at you, saying things against your loved ones or threats of physical violence. These are just examples that can help you safeguard your mental health and well-being.
To learn more about how healthy boundaries can free you, watch this video by Marriage and Family Therapist Sarri Gilman:
7. Determine if you are safe
If your partner’s behavior is endangering you or your close ones, you need to make sure you are safe first.
Physical abuse is not the only kind of abuse that can harm you. Emotional or mental abuse can significantly impact your mental well-being and confidence.
Whether mental or physical abuse, there are resources you can turn to. Reach out to helplines that can provide you with all the help and resources you need.
8. Consider counseling
Working with a therapist can help you uncover why you are letting this be a part of your life and use this awareness to make more conscious choices.
They can also assist you in changing your beliefs about what you deserve and choosing a healthy relationship. A change of this magnitude is never easy, and professional assistance can make it easier to handle.
Nothing will change unless you make some changes. The way they are is working for them; otherwise, they wouldn’t be choosing to do so.
If you want to stop emotional blackmail, you need to confront them and set new boundaries. You could start by sharing your impressions, fears, and anticipated consequences: Some helpful sentences you can use in an emotionally abusive relationship:
I feel drained, and you are pushing our relationship to the edge.
When I comply with your demands, I feel empty. I need to be treated with respect and have my needs acknowledged too.
I’m not going to tolerate your controlling and manipulative behaviors anymore.
A blackmailer has most likely learned, early on, to get their needs satisfied only by these means. If they are willing, they can learn to take accountability, communicate better, and care about your and their needs simultaneously.
However, if they don’t want to change, you need to ask yourself if this is the kind of relationship you want to stay in.
There is a way out
Don’t ignore the symptoms if you feel your partner is unreasonably demanding or controlling.
Check if you feel guilty and blamed for their actions, intimidated, or threatened by them. If you do, you might be experiencing emotional blackmail in a relationship.
When you notice it, there are things you can do to improve the situation. You deserve to feel safe, listened to, and respected.
You can take steps to advocate more for yourself, seek help for yourself and your partner, and negotiate different boundaries.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Rachael Pace is a noted relationship writer associated with Marriage.com. She provides inspiration, support, and empowerment in the form of motivational articles and essays. Rachael enjoys studying the evolution of loving partnerships and is passionate about writing on them. She believes that everyone should make room for love in their lives and encourages couples to work on overcoming their challenges together.