Emotional Blackmail

emotional blackmail by Clive Goddard

Emotional blackmail is a term used to cover a central form of psychological manipulation – ‘the use of a system of threats and punishment on a person by someone close to them in an attempt to control their behavior.’ ‘Emotional blackmail… typically involves two people who have established a close personal or intimate relationship (mother and daughter, husband and wife, sister and sister, two close friends).’ When subjected to emotional blackmail, ‘we become the other’s emotional hostage.’ As French sociologist Jean Baurdrillard puts it, emotional blackmail is telling someone: ‘If you don’t give me that, you will be responsible for my breakdown.’

According to psychotherapist Susan Forward, who did much to popularize the term, ’emotional blackmail’ is a powerful form of manipulation in which blackmailers who are close to the victim threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish them to get what they want. They may know the victim’s vulnerabilities and their deepest secrets. ‘Many of the people who use emotional blackmail are friends, colleagues and family members with whom we have close ties that we want to strengthen and salvage’ – parents, partners, bosses or lovers. No matter how much the blackmailer cares about the victim, they use their intimate knowledge to win compliance.

Knowing that the victim wants love, approval or confirmation of identity, blackmailers may threaten to withhold them or take them away altogether, or make the victim feel they must earn them: ‘as the power of emotional blackmail indicates, self-identity is inevitably affected by… the ‘reaction’ of the other,’ as is self-esteem. If the victim believes the blackmailer, he/she could fall into a pattern of letting the blackmailer control his/her decisions and behavior and become ‘caught in a sort of psychological fog.’

Emotional blackmailers use fear, obligation and guilt (FOG) in their relationships, ensuring that the victim feels afraid to cross them, obligated to give them their way and feeling guilty if they don’t: indeed Forward and Frazier invent the acronym FOG to describe feelings which often result from being exposed to emotional blackmail when in a relationship with a person who suffers from a personality disorder.

Forward and Frazier distinguished what they called ‘Four Faces of Blackmail’: punishers, self-punishers, sufferers and tantalizers, each with their own particular style of mental manipulation. ”My way or the highway’ is the punisher’s motto. No matter what you feel or need, punishers override you. Tantalizers are the most subtle blackmailers… offer nothing with a free heart.’ By contrast, ‘self-punishers cast their targets in the role of the ‘grown-up’ – the only adult in the relationship… supposed to come running when they cry,’ while sufferers take the position that ‘if… you don’t do what I want, I will suffer, and it will be your fault.”

According to Harriet Braiker, people with borderline personality disorder are particularly likely to use emotional blackmail. In a similar way, ‘the destructive narcissist appears to feel that they have a right to exploit others… will resort to emotional blackmail… and/or promote shame and guilt.’ Some, however, would suggest that while the term ‘implies some sort of devious, planned intent… people with BPD who appear to be blackmailing usually act impulsively out of fear, loneliness, desperation, and hopelessness.’

Affluenza – the status insecurity derived from obsessively Keeping up with the Joneses – has been linked by British psychologist Oliver James to a pattern of childhood training whereby sufferers were ‘subjected to a form of emotional blackmail as toddlers. Their mothers’ love becomes conditional on exhibiting behavior that achieved parental goals.’

More widely, ‘in the nexal family… each person is expected to be controlled, and to control the others, by the reciprocal effect that each has on the other… may then act on the other person to coerce him (by sympathy, blackmail, indebtedness, guilt, gratitude or naked violence).’ Growing up in such a family will produce ‘an acuity and sensitivity to subtext.’

Conversely, while often presented solely as victims, ‘children employ tactics of resistance – deceit, Special Pleading, and emotional blackmail – whereby they gain a measure of control over their lives, writing their own narratives of maturation.’

Susan Forward, stresses that ‘Honoring and protecting our integrity isn’t easy. Blackmailers shout down our inner guidance… contact with the knowing parts of ourselves. She designated several techniques for resisting emotional blackmail, including strengthening personal boundaries, resisting demands, ‘a power statement… ‘I can stand it,’ and buying time to break old patterns. Others describe how in the face of emotional blackmail they ‘never failed to feel a tinge of guilt at such times, even though I knew my guilt was irrational and was playing into her manipulative hands’; but were nevertheless able, on realizing that they were ‘overcompensating…to just more or less ignore it as you would a child who throws a tantrum just to get attention.”

Then, ‘what happens if the other person doesn’t comply with the manipulation, but just goes on being pleasant and friendly… [is that] your manipulation steadily amplifies… there will be arguments, emotional pressures, even separations.’ Thus ‘when one person changes the signals by pulling out of the family system,’ they may find others ‘brand the victim, crazy, unforgiving or a family wrecker.’

Critics object that in popular psychology emotional blackmail has been misused as a defence against any form of fellow-feeling: ‘The English talk of emotional blackmail, the mere idea that you should have to contemplate the feelings of others, becomes a threat to personal freedom. So generosity, kindness, consideration are all transformed into the curse of emotional blackmail.’

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