Emotional Blackmail- the cost of fear, obligation, and guilt

Emotional blackmail- what a charged topic!  Do you know what it is?  Emotional blackmail is when someone close to you threatens you either directly or indirectly to get what they want.  They use guilt, obligation, and fear of reprisal or negative consequences to manipulate you into compliance.

It is “emotional” because it isn’t usually a tangible threat like “if you don’t pay me a million dollars I’ll tell your constituents you cheated on your taxes.”  The blackmailer uses an emotional hold on you; they are usually someone you care about.  Face it, if you didn’t care they wouldn’t be able to hold you hostage.

Some examples are:

  • The person who over-rides you no matter what your needs or wants are.  They convince you that their needs and ideas are more important.
  • The person who never gives something without a string attached.  The string may be visible like the directly spoken “you owe me a favor now” or foggy but no less powerful, “A good friend would do ____.”
  • The person who threatens harm to themselves in order to get you to act a certain way.  “If my parents don’t let me ______ I’ll stop eating” (heard from an eating disorder client in my office.)  Another example, “If you leave me I’ll kill myself.”  The blackmailer makes you responsible for their stability and health.
  • The person who makes you responsible for being the “adult” in the relationship at all times.  This is the person who demands that you be available for them whenever they are falling apart and are mad when you aren’t.
  • The person who refuses to do healthy things for the relationship because “It’ll make me [suicidal, crazy, fall apart, etc.]”

What an emotional blackmailer does is makes you afraid to cross them because of what might happen.  They want it to be their way and no other way.  You are an emotional hostage caught in the extremes of what in a healthy relationship would be give and take.  It is all take.

Emotional blackmail is abusive.

What can you do?  Don’t play into it.  If you can, imagine how you would ignore or help a child throwing a tantrum.  We are talking about another adult here; they are responsible for themselves.  They need to be honored by allowing them to control their own behaviors and accept any consequences of those behaviors.

You can clearly and succinctly let them know you care, and tell them what you see as the consequences of the behavior they are threatening.  Remind them they are an adult and you are treating them as such.  

One serious note- if someone threatens self harm, call 911 immediately.  Do not take any risk or responsibility for their behavior when they are making a self harm threat.  If your child refuses to eat, then let them know it will result in an evaluation for possible admission to an inpatient unit for treatment.  If someone threats they will “go crazy” or “lose it” then remind them there can be repercussions like a call to 911 if they are unsafe or destructive.

Bottom line: you are not responsible for another adult’s feelings or needs.  Don’t be blackmailed.  Use healthy communication skills in order to negotiate each others’ needs.  Practice healthy boundaries and self esteem.  It isn’t yours and you are enough no matter how the other person is trying to make you feel.  Give the responsibility for self, feelings, and behavior back to them. 

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