Emotional blackmail may not be noticeable until it’s too late. Our minds may not process it as manipulation, or we may be too overcome with other feelings to realize we are being manipulated. Although it can come in many forms, our bodies may react differently to certain kinds of manipulation.
One common type of emotional manipulation is emotional blackmail. According to lecturer, therapist and author Dr. Susan Forward, emotional blackmail “might appear as withholding of affection, disappointment, or even a slight shift in body language.” In her 1997 book Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You, she explores this form of manipulation through case studies to help readers better understand how to recognize this situation and how to effectively get out of it.
Emotional blackmail does not have to take place solely in the romantic relationships. Unfortunately, all close-knit relationships with family or friends are vulnerable to manipulative, unhealthy dynamics. The blackmail is meant to invoke fear or compliance.
“Easy examples of emotional blackmail are blatant or implied threats, such as, ‘I’ll tell the children you had an affair,’ or ambiguous threats, such as ‘You’ll be sorry if you…’ or ‘How would you like your parents, friends, boss, etc., to know you did XYZ?’” explains Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Again, there may be times where you won’t immediately recognize the threats or statements as emotional blackmail. You may want to get defensive or angry, or you may exhibit feelings of guilt, powerlessness, confusion, anxiety, and you may even feel trapped.
Six Stages of Emotional Blackmail
Forward has recognized six specific stages when it comes to emotional blackmail, and how you can become compliant over time. First, the manipulator makes a demand, whether it be subtle or direct. Although the demand may be framed in a “caring” way, a manipulator may often mask this controlling behavior to seem more genuine. The second stage is Resistance, when you may try to push back on these demands. This stage is immediately followed by the Pressure stage, in which the blackmailer repeatedly pressures you into giving into their demands, framing their demand in either a caring or negative way. You may hear “I’m only thinking of our future”, or alternatively, they can turn the situation on you, saying things like “If you really loved me, you would do it”.
The fourth stage may involve threats. These can also be categorized as direct or indirect, and they also may be said in a positive light. An example of a positive promise may be “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 may not seem like a threat, it still qualifies as a form of manipulation, as it offers you the incentive of a better relationship or future in exchange for your compliance. This stage is naturally followed by the Compliancy stage. After repeated threats and justifications, your body and mind may be worn down and want to give up against resisting the demands. This turns into the sixth stage: Repetition. Now that the manipulator has seen you give up, they may follow these patterns to get you to comply in future situations.
Darlene Lancer emphasizes how important it is to recognize that it is not your responsibility to fix someone who is emotionally abusing you. Establishing a firm boundary against threats, although scary as it may seem, is extremely effective. Lancer explains that threats are often “pleas for attention:” “you can also assure the manipulator that you love them and want the relationship intact, but are unwilling to do what they want.”
If you feel that you are not ready to start a conversation with a manipulator, returning to the conversation and stalling can also help both parties collect themselves. Staying calm is key to this, so communicate to the person that you cannot decide at the moment, and that you wish to take a break from the conversation and return to it at a later time.
With time, you can also assess your strategy. Ensure that you are both physically and mentally safe to proceed, and make sure that you can communicate your feelings to a loved one for support. On the one hand, a manipulator will know exactly what they are doing to you and intend to get their way. In some circumstances, your partner may not even realize that they are emotionally blackmailing you. Having an open conversation may make them aware of this behavior, and can help them change them in the future.