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Amongst social influences, emotional blackmail is a form of psychological manipulation - it is "the use of a system of threats and punishment on a person by someone close to them in an attempt to control their behavior".[1] "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)."[2] When subjected to emotional blackmail, "we become the other's emotional hostage". As Jean Baudrillard puts it: "If you don't give me that, you will be responsible for my breakdown".[3]


According to psychotherapist Susan Forward, who did much to popularise the term,[4] "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"[5] - 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",[6] 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".[7]

Emotional blackmailers use fear, obligation and guilt 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, standing for Fear, Obligation, Guilt - feelings which often result from being exposed to emotional blackmail when in a relationship with a person who suffers from a personality disorder.[8]


Forward and Frazier identify four blackmail types each with their own mental manipulation style:[9]

  1. punishers - 'My way or the highway' is the punisher's motto. No matter what you feel or need, punishers override you.
  2. self-punishers - "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"
  3. sufferers - sufferers take the position that "if you don't do what I want, I will suffer, and it will be your fault" (see victim playing)
  4. tantalizers - Tantalizers are the most subtle blackmailers, they offer nothing with a free heart.

Borderline personality disorder

Main article: Borderline personality disorder

According to Harriet Braiker,[10] 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."[11]

Some, however, would suggest that while the term "emotional blackmail" "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."[12]

Affluenza, children and emotional blackmail

Affluenza - the status insecurity derived from obsessively keeping up with the Joneses - has been linked by 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 behaviour that achieved parental goals."[13]

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)" (R. D. Laing).[14] Growing up in such a family will produce "an acuity and sensitivity to subtext":

I became an expert in emotional blackmail by the time I was five" —Doris Lessing[15]

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".[16]


Susan Forward, stresses that "Honoring and protecting our integrity isn't easy. Blackmailers shout down our inner with the knowing parts of ourselves."[17] Forward then goes on to outline several techniques for resisting emotional blackmail, including strengthening personal boundaries, resisting demands, developing a power statement, (e.g., silently repeating to oneself, "I can stand it"),[18] and buying time to break old patterns. In one instance, a man describes how in the face of emotional blackmail, he "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."[19] But he was nevertheless able, on realising that he was " just more or less ignore it as you would a child who throws a tantrum just to get attention."[20]

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".[21] 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."[22]


Daniel Miller objects 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".[23]

Fictional examples

Beauty and the Beast was described by Angela Carter as '"an advertisement for moral blackmail"... at the end of the story the Beast performs an act of pure emotional blackmail: "I'm dying, Beauty... since you've left me". Conditioned emotional susceptibility condemns Beauty to continuing impairment and possession by the male."[24]

In the 21st century novel, The Beckoners, when the heroine Zoe tries urgently to get her mother to listen to her problem, she is put off with the words, "'That is emotional blackmail, Zoe.' Ah, another one of her tapes. A series she'd started listening to since they'd moved."(In Emotional Blackmail - What Is It and Do You Do It? Emotional Blackmail at Work - The Invisible Tiger. Parenting and Emotional Blackmail - How To Parent Effectively Without Emotionally Blackmailing Your Children. [25]

See also


  1. "Emotional Abuse"
  2. Stanlee Phelps/Nancy Austin, The Assertive Woman (1987) p. 133
  3. Jean Baudrillard, The Revenge of the Crystal (1999) p. 174
  4. Tom Butler-Bowdon, 50 Psychology Classics (2007) p. 98
  5. Susan Forward/Donna Frazier, Emotional Blackmail (London 1997) p. 9
  6. Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing 92004) p. 52
  7. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1973) p. 554
  8. Emotional Blackmail
  9. Forward/Frazier, p. 28
  10. Braiker, Harriet B., Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation (2006)
  11. Nina W. Brown, Children of the Self-Absorbed (2008) p. 35
  12. Blaise A. Aguirre, Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents (2007) p. 73-4
  13. Oliver James, Britain on the Couch (London 1998) p. 66
  14. R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (Penguin 1984) p. 73-5
  15. quoted in Gayle, Green, Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change (1997) p. 9
  16. Nigel Rapport ed., British Subjects (Oxford 2002) p. 141
  17. Forward/Frazier, p. 145
  18. Forward/Frazier, p. 169
  19. Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes (1974) p. 284
  20. "Mrs S.", in Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961) p. 320
  21. Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Life and how to survive it (London 1993) p. 349 and p. 352
  22. Forward/Frazier, p. 82
  23. Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things (2008) p. 41
  24. Aiden Day, Angela Carter: The Rational Glass (1998) p. 138
  25. Carrie Mae, The Beckoners (2004) p. 84-5

External links

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