Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don't do what they want. "Emotional Blackmail" and "FOG", terms coined by psychotherapist Susan Forward, Ph.D., are about controlling relationships and the theory that fear, obligation or guilt ("FOG") are the transactional dynamics at play between the controller and the person being controlled. Understanding these dynamics are useful to anyone trying to extricate themselves from the controlling behavior of another person, and deal with their own compulsions to do things that are uncomfortable, undesirable, burdensome, or self-sacrificing for others.
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). Children, too, will employ special pleading and emotional blackmail to promote their own interests, and self-development, within the family system.
Emotional blackmailers use fear, obligation and guilt in their relationships, ensuring that others feel afraid to cross them, obligated to give them their way and swamped by guilt if they resist. Knowing that someone close to them wants love, approval or confirmation of identity and self-esteem, blackmailers may threaten to withhold them or take them away altogether, making the person feel they must earn them by agreement. Fear, obligation or guilt is commonly referred to as "FOG". FOG is a contrived acronym—a play on the word fog which describes something that obscures and confuses a situation or someone's thought processes.
The person who is acting in a controlling way often wants something from the other person that is legitimate to want. They may want to feel loved, safe, valuable, appreciated, supported, needed, etc. This is not the problem. The problem is often more a matter of how they are going about getting what they want, or that they are insensitive to others needs in doing so that is troubling - and how others react to all of this.
Under pressure... one may become a sort of hostage, forced to act under pressure of the threat of responsibility for the other's breakdown. and 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".
Forward and Frazier identify four blackmail types each with their own mental manipulation style:
- Punisher's Threat - Eat the food I cooked for you or I'll hurt you.
- Self-punisher's Threat - Eat the food I cooked for you or I'll hurt myself.
- Sufferer's Threat - Eat the food I cooked for you. I was saving it for myself. I wonder what will happen now.
- Tantalizer's Threat - Eat the food I cooked for you and you just may get a really yummy dessert.
There are different levels of demands... demands that are of little consequence, demands that involve important issues or personal integrity, demands that affect major life decisions, and/or demands that are dangerous or illegal.
Patterns and characteristics
Addicts often believe that being in control is how to achieve success and happiness in life. People who follow this rule use it as a survival skill, having usually learned it in childhood. As long as they make the rules, no one can back them into a corner with their feelings.
People with certain mental conditions are predisposed to controlling behavior including those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Paranoid Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder
People with borderline personality disorder are particularly likely to use emotional blackmail, (as too are the destructive narcissists). 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.
Codependency often involves placing a lower priority on one's own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships.
Affluenza and children
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."
Assertiveness movement, training
People have been told to do some pretty obnoxious things in the name of assertiveness - like blankly repeating some request over and over until you got your way. The line between repeatedly demanding with sanctions ("broken record") versus coercive nagging, emotional blackmail, or bullying, could be a fine one.
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. One may for instance feel guilty even while recognizing the guilt as induced and irrational; but still be able to resist overcompensating, and ignore the blackmailer's attempt to gain attention by way of a tantrum.
- Angela Carter described Beauty and the Beast as glorifying emotional blackmail on the part of the Beast, as a means of controlling his target, Beauty.
- Doris Lessing claimed that “I became an expert in emotional blackmail by the time I was five"
Labeling of this dynamic with inflammatory terms such as "blackmail" and "manipulation" may not be so helpful as it is both polarizing and it implies premeditation and malicious intent which is often not the case. Controlling behavior and being controlled is a transaction between two people with both playing a part.
- Appeal to emotion
- Borderline personality disorder
- Coercive persuasion
- Domestic violence
- Double bind
- Family nexus
- Fear mongering
- Narcissistic personality disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Paranoid personality disorder
- Personal boundaries
- Psychological manipulation
- Susan Forward/Donna Frazier, Emotional Blackmail (London 1997) p. 28, 82, 145, 169
- Johnson, R. Skip (16 August 2014). "Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation and Guilt (FOG)". Retrieved 18 October 2014.
- Stanlee Phelps/Nancy Austin, The Assertive Woman (1987) p. 133
- Nigel Rapport ed., British Subjects (Oxford 2002) p. 141
- Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing (2004) p. 52
- Jean Baudrillard, The Revenge of the Crystal (1999) p. 174
- Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1973) p. 554
- Fenley, Jr., James L. Finding a Purpose in the Pain (2012)
- Goldberg,MD, Joseph (23 May 2014). "Paranoid Personality Disorder". Retrieved 20 October 2014.
- Braiker, Harriet B., Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation (2006)
- Nina W. Brown, Children of the Self-Absorbed (2008) p. 35
- Blaise A. Aguirre, Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents (2007) p. 73-4
- Codependents Anonymous: Patterns and Characteristics
- Oliver James, Britain on the Couch (London 1998) p. 66
- Mark Mark Eisenstadt, Freedom as of Agoraphobia (2003) p. 203
- Sue Bishop, Develop Your Assertiveness (2006) p. 13
- Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes (1974) p. 284
- Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961) p. 320
- Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Life and how to survive it (London 1993) p. 349 and p. 352
- Aiden Day, Angela Carter: The Rational Glass (1998) p. 138
- Gayle, Green, Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change (1997) p. 9
- Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things (2008) p. 41