Most of us have been on the receiving end of emotional blackmail at some point in some of our relationships.
Sometimes we were more aware of it; other times, we didn’t see it depending on how obvious manipulation was. One thing is for sure; it feels miserable to be a victim of blackmail.
There are methods you can employ to handle the situation once you recognize the signs. Before we move onto spotting the signals and finding ways to deal with the blackmail, let’s first define what is emotional blackmail.
What is emotional blackmail in a relationship?
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 to 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.
Types of emotional blackmail
An individual can adopt either of the following tactics or a combination of them to emotionally blackmail their partner:
1. The punisher
As the name suggests in this kind of emotional blackmail an individual implores different forms of punishment or threats of punishment as a way to get what they want.
Withholding affection, threats of ending the relationship, putting restrictions on their partner, anger, silent treatment, and even physical punishments and abuse.
2. The self punisher
Here the manipulation happens by using guilt or the suggestion of possible guilt to instill fear.
Threats of self harm, blaming their partner for their problems and difficulties are some common threats used to trigger gear in others.
3. The sufferer
A sufferer holds their hopelessness over their partners’ heads as a method of getting them to do what they need.
They blame that their problems are a result of their partner’s actions and threaten them that if they don’t do what they need it would only add to the suffering.
They depend on a combination of fear, obligation, and guilt to get what they want.
4. The tantalizer
A tantalizer uses compensations or rewards as a way to get something from you, but each time you pass one obstacle, there’s another waiting and you just can’t keep up.
Promising some sort of remuneration, especially something that you need to or desire, however their promises rarely ever materialize
How to spot emotional blackmail in relationships?
Now that we have defined what is emotional blackmail, we need to shed some light on how to recognize it.
It is not always easy to spot it, especially when the person attempting to manipulate is sophisticated and socially intelligent.
Signs of emotional blackmail might not be evident immediately, so you could be blackmail and not be cognizant of it yet.
Familiarizing ourselves with the signs of emotional blackmail can be a measure of protection. Let’s study some of the most common signs and examples of emotional blackmail in relationships.
1. Being accused of everything negative that happens
Do they blame you and avoid taking accountability for their actions?
When in a relationship with a person who is emotionally blackmailing you, everything that goes on in the relationship or their personal life becomes your responsibility.
Example: If you were paying more attention to me, I wouldn’t have cheated.
If you helped out more with chores, I would have gotten that promotion at work.
2. Keeping you out of their good grace
Due to the blame-shifting for every little thing, you feel like you are constantly apologizing and needing to earn back their affection.
Even when you don’t feel like you should, they twist the situation around quite skillfully, so you end up thinking it is your fault and apologize to them.
Why is this significant? When you are sorry for something, you need to earn back their affection, giving them the upper hand.
Example: It’s your fault! I missed my train and was late for work. How will you make it up to me? If you fix this, I will think about trusting/caring/loving you again.
3. Lack of compromise or true apology on their end
As opposed to constant 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 not willing to back it up by actions.
Example: 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 to 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.
Example: 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, the extortion was more subtle, but over time it became more apparent. 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.
Example: 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.
6. Intimidating you or threatening
Some of the more overt emotional blackmail signs involve threats to harm you, your close ones, or themselves.
Intimidating, you will get them what they want, so if they feel nothing else is working, they might resort to this method.
Example: 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 concern about your wellbeing
Do you feel they are seemingly unconcerned about your feelings? Have you noticed they care about your wellbeing when it somehow serves them?
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.
Example: I care for you, and that is why 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.
Example: If you don’t do as I ask, you are worthless to me.
If you do that, I will make sure you pay for it.
9. Controlling what you do
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 are gaining from you.
Therefore they will use fear, obligation, threats, and guilt to make sure you follow and obey.
Example: I don’t want you to see them so often.
If I ever see you with another man/woman, I will kill him/her.
Susan Forward and Donna Fraizer 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, it is their attempt to control you through seemingly caring for you.
Since this is something you are not inclined to provide, as it is often quite an unreasonable demand, you refuse. 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 both of you. When it comes to emotional blackmail, you only receive more pressure or threats when you resist.
The blackmail itself can be direct or indirect:
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 because of it, 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.
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.
What is pulling you towards this partner? Why is this kind of relationship something you are choosing (more or less consciously)?
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:
Example – 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 don’t feel you take me seriously when I tell you how unhappy I am with your actions and the state of our relationship. We need to talk about it if we want to survive and have our relationship improve.
I’m not going to tolerate your controlling and manipulative behaviors anymore.
7. Get them therapy help
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, care about both yours 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
If you feel your partner is being unreasonably demanding or controlling, don’t ignore that thought.
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.