Emotional blackmail

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Emotional blackmail and FOG are terms, coined by psychotherapist Susan Forward, about controlling people in relationships and the theory that fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG) are the transactional dynamics at play between the controller and the person being controlled. Understanding these dynamics is useful to anyone trying to extricate 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.[1]


The first documented use of "emotional blackmail" appeared in 1947 in the Journal of the National Association of Deans of Women in the article "Emotional Blackmail Climate". The term was used to describe one type of problematic classroom control model often used by teachers.[2]

Emotional blackmail typically involves two people who have established a close personal or intimate relationship (parent and child, spouses, siblings, or two close friends).[3] Children, too, will employ special pleading and emotional blackmail to promote their own interests, and self-development, within the family system.[4]

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 (e.g., withhold love) or take them away altogether, making the second person feel they must earn them by agreement.[5] 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.[1]

Under pressure, one may become a sort of hostage, forced to act under pressure of the threat of responsibility for the other's breakdown.[6] 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".[7]


Forward and Frazier identify four blackmail types each with their own mental manipulation style:[8]

Type Example
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.[1]

Patterns and characteristics[edit]


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.[9]

Mental illness[edit]

People with certain mental conditions are predisposed to controlling behavior including those with paranoid personality disorder,[10] borderline personality disorder,[11] and narcissistic personality disorder.[12]

People with borderline personality disorder are particularly likely to use emotional blackmail[11] (as too are 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]


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.[14]

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."[15]

Assertiveness training[edit]

Assertiveness training encourages people to not engage in fruitless back-and-forths or power struggles with the emotional blackmailer but instead to repeat a neutral statement, such as "I can see how you feel that way," or, if pressured to eat, say "No thank you, I'm not hungry." They are taught to keep their statements within certain boundaries in order not to capitulate to coercive nagging, emotional blackmail, or bullying.[16]


Techniques for resisting emotional blackmail include strengthening personal boundaries, resisting demands, developing a power statement—the determination to stand the pressure—and buying time to break old patterns. Re-connecting with the autonomous parts of the self the blackmailer had over-ruled is not necessarily easy.[8] One may feel guilty based on emotional blackmail, even while recognizing the guilt as induced and irrational;[17] but still be able to resist overcompensating, and ignore the blackmailer's attempt to gain attention by way of having a tantrum.[18]

Consistently ignoring the manipulation in a friendly way may however lead to its intensification, and threats of separation,[19] or to accusations of being "crazy" or a "home wrecker".[8]

Cultural examples[edit]


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

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.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Johnson, R. Skip (16 August 2014). "Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation and Guilt (FOG)". BPDFamily.com. Retrieved 18 October 2014. 
  2. ^ "Unknown". Journal of the National Association of Deans of Women. 11-12: 10. 1947. 
  3. ^ Stanlee Phelps/Nancy Austin, The Assertive Woman (1987) p. 133
  4. ^ Nigel Rapport ed., British Subjects (Oxford 2002) p. 141
  5. ^ Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing (2004) p. 52
  6. ^ Jean Baudrillard, The Revenge of the Crystal (1999) p. 174
  7. ^ Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1973) p. 554
  8. ^ a b c Susan Forward/Donna Frazier, Emotional Blackmail (London 1997) p. 28, 82, 145, 169
  9. ^ Fenley, Jr., James L. Finding a Purpose in the Pain (2012)
  10. ^ Goldberg, MD, Joseph (23 May 2014). "Paranoid Personality Disorder". Retrieved 20 October 2014. 
  11. ^ a b Braiker, Harriet B., Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation (2006)
  12. ^ a b 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. ^ Codependents Anonymous: Patterns and Characteristics Archived 2013-08-24 at the Wayback Machine.
  15. ^ Oliver James, Britain on the Couch (London 1998) p. 66
  16. ^ Sue Bishop, Develop Your Assertiveness (2006) p. 13
  17. ^ Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes (1974) p. 284
  18. ^ Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961) p. 320
  19. ^ Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Life and how to survive it (London 1993) p. 349 and p. 352
  20. ^ Aiden Day, Angela Carter: The Rational Glass (1998) p. 138
  21. ^ Gayle, Green, Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change (1997) p. 9
  22. ^ Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things (2008) p. 41

Category:Popular psychology