The term ‘emotional blackmail’ is not commonly known, but if you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone who uses fear, obligation, or guilt to manipulate you into doing what they want, you’ve experienced it. This type of emotional manipulation can be confusing, so let’s break it down.


What is emotional blackmail?


The concept of emotional blackmail was popularized by psychotherapist Susan Forward, and she explains that this can exist in the context of a romantic relationship or any relationship where the ties are close-knit.

Emotional blackmail is a manipulative tactic (typically a narcissist) that is used to control others by leveraging their emotions. It involves the use of fear, obligation, and guilt to get someone to do what the manipulator wants. This type of abuse can be difficult to identify because it often involves subtle, covert tactics that make the manipulators’ demands seem reasonable. As a result, victims of emotional blackmail can find themselves in a state of confusion, questioning their own behavior and doubting their lived experiences.


What does this type of emotional manipulation look like?


Dr. Forward put blackmailers into four different categories:

  1. Punishers
  • If you go back to work, I’ll leave you.
  • If you try to divorce me, you’ll never see the kids again.
  • If you marry her, I’ll cut you out of my will.
  1. Self-punishers
  • If you don’t do that, I’ll hurt or kill myself.
  • Don’t argue with me, or I’ll get depressed.
  • Do XYZ, or I’ll quit my job
  1. Sufferers
  • If you don’t do what I want, I’ll suffer, and it will be your fault.
  • If you really love me, you’ll be able to figure out what’s bothering me.
  • Guess what you did to me – I’m upset, depressed, and sick.
  1. Tantalizers
  • Unless you do what I want, I won’t do what I promised you I’d do.
  • I’ll do this if you do what I want (with no follow-through).
  • I will help you if…

Understanding emotional manipulation


Those who are most vulnerable to emotional blackmail are typically people pleasers or empathetic individuals who are easy to manipulate. They may also have a fear of abandonment or low self-esteem and struggle with self-doubt and have a need for validation for their decisions. Regardless, in relationships with emotional blackmailers, all roads lead back to the victim being in the wrong. And it can be difficult to see things clearly when you are in the midst of the “fog” created by emotional manipulation.


Conclusion: You can break free from emotional blackmail


It’s important to set boundaries in all relationships, but especially in a relationship with a manipulator. The quality of our life depends on the quality of our relationships, both with ourselves and others. This is why it’s so important not to settle for relationships that make us question ourselves or feel these ways. There is life outside of emotional blackmail and, ultimately, any form of emotional manipulation.

Dr. Janie Lacy, LMHC, NCC, CSAT-S is a Licensed Relationship Trauma Psychotherapist. She is also a faculty member with the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals and an entrepreneur who took her counseling business from a solo practice to a group specialty practice.  She’s the creator of Woman Redeemed, an intensive experiential group experience that uses proven therapy strategies to start women on their healing journey.