Emotional blackmail

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Emotional blackmail is a form of psychological manipulation, employing a mixture of threats, appeals and emotionally punitive behaviour to control an intimate.[1] It may occur between parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings or close friends.[2]

Under pressure from emotional blackmail, one may become a sort of hostage, forced to act under pressure of the threat of responsibility for the other's 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.

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 swamped by guilt if they resist. Knowing that the victim wants love, approval or confirmation of identity and self-esteem, blackmailers may threaten to withhold them or take them away altogether, making the victim feel they must earn them by agreement.[6]

If the victim believes the blackmailer, he/she could fall into a pattern of letting the blackmailer control his/her decisions and behavior, lost in what Doris Lessing described as "a sort of psychological fog".[7] Indeed Forward (and Frazier) invented 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]

While often presented solely as victims, children too will employ special pleading and emotional blackmail to promote their own interests, and self-development, within the family system.[9]


Forward and Frazier identify four blackmail types each with their own mental manipulation style:[10]

  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[edit]

People with borderline personality disorder are particularly likely to use emotional blackmail,[11] (as too are the destructive narcissists}.[12] However, their actions may be impulsive and driven by fear and a desperate sense of hopelessness, rather than being the product of any conscious plan.[13]

Affluenza and children[edit]

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."[14]

Resisting blackmail[edit]

Forward outlined several techniques for resisting emotional blackmail, including strengthening personal boundaries, resisting demands, developing a power statement – the determination to stand the pressure - and buying time to break old patterns: she accepted nonetheless that re-connecting with the autonomous parts of the self the blackmailer had over-ruled was not necessarily easy.[15] One may for instance feel guilty even while recognising the guilt as induced and irrational;[16] but still be able to resist overcompensating, and ignore the blackmailer's attempt to gain attention by way of a tantrum.[17]

Consistently ignoring the manipulation in a friendly way may however lead to its intensification, and threats of separation,[18] or to accusations of being crazy or a home wrecker.[19]

Cultural examples[edit]

  • Doris Lessing claimed that “I became an expert in emotional blackmail by the time I was five"[21]


Daniel Miller objects that in popular psychology the idea of emotional blackmail has been misused as a defence against any form of fellow-feeling or consideration for others .[22]

See also[edit]


  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 (2004) p. 52
  7. ^ Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1973) p. 554
  8. ^ Emotional Blackmail
  9. ^ Nigel Rapport ed., British Subjects (Oxford 2002) p. 141
  10. ^ Forward/Frazier, p. 28
  11. ^ Braiker, Harriet B., Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation (2006)
  12. ^ Nina W. Brown, Children of the Self-Absorbed (2008) p. 35
  13. ^ Blaise A. Aguirre, Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents (2007) p. 73-4
  14. ^ Oliver James, Britain on the Couch (London 1998) p. 66
  15. ^ Susan Forward/Donna Frazier, Emotional Blackmail (London 1997) p. 145 and p. 169
  16. ^ Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes (1974) p. 284
  17. ^ Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961) p. 320
  18. ^ Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Life and how to survive it (London 1993) p. 349 and p. 352
  19. ^ Susan Forward/Donna Frazier, Emotional Blackmail (London 1997) p. 82
  20. ^ Aiden Day, Angela Carter: The Rational Glass (1998) p. 138
  21. ^ quoted in Gayle, Green, Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change (1997) p. 9
  22. ^ Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things (2008) p. 41

External links[edit]