Emotional blackmail can happen in any kind of relationship: between lovers, parents and children, friends, relatives, but also in a working environment. Although it looks as if the blackmailer would be the bad guy, emotional blackmail only works when the victim plays his/her role. Both sides are controlled by emotional schemes created in early childhood, which shape the respective patterns of behaviour, so usually the blackmailer does not notice how he acts, rather he thinks he has no alternative and is right. Equally, the victim thinks that she has no other chance as to give in to the pressure to avoid worse things to happen.
Four Types of Emotional Blackmail
The punisher: He tells the victim exactly what he wants and which consequences the other person has to face when she does not comply. He can play his role aggressively or by silently withdrawing. Yet his anger is directly pointing at the victim when his demands are not fulfilled.
The self-punisher: She directs her threats towards herself and tells the victim what she will do to herself when she does not get what she wants.
The sufferer: He has a talent in finger-pointing and addressing guilt feelings in the victim. He requires the victim to find out what he needs. He assumes that the other always has to take care of him so that his needs can be met.
The tantalizer: She presents tests to the partner and promises wonderful rewards when he passes.
All types share the strategy to work with conditional phrases for enforcing their needs: When you do not A, B will happen. Or: Only when you do A, B can be avoided and C will happen. Conditions narrow the activity space of the other person, who then only has the option of accepting or rejecting.
Six Typical Phases of Emotional Blackmail
A partner in a relationship shares a wish to the other person and strives with all means for getting what he wants. Thus, the wish becomes a demand. Often the wish is presented in a way that it should also be in the interest of the partner and that it is indispensable for the development of the relationship.
The other partner reacts with resistance as he feels overpowered or disrespected.
The blackmailing partner increases the pressure e.g. by bringing the issue up again and again and by insisting on the fulfillment of the demand. Devaluations can be used like: You are so egotistic. Unconsciously, the intention is to produce guilt feelings in the partner, which could motivate him to do what the blackmailer wants. Another strategy consists in comparing the partner with other people who would act according to the demands of the blackmailer or who hold the same standards and values. Thus, the partner should get a feeling of being wrong.
When resistance persists in the sense of not complying with the demand, consequences are depicted as threats. Drastically is described what would happen, when the wish, which has become a demand, is not fulfilled.
Some partners react with giving in at this point. Yet they unconsciously stay in resentment. They decline their will-power for the sake of peace in the relationship. But this harmony is shaky.
The blackmailing partner is content and happy, and the other partner is glad about the harmony, although an underlying unpleasant feeling remains. The blackmailer has learned a way to pursue his aims. The partner has understood how he can put an end to the pattern of demand, pressure and threat quickly: By subjection and resignation. In this way, the doors are open for repeating the pattern.
The Emotional Atmosphere
Everyone has encountered states of fear, obligation and guilt. We all know many different kinds of fear, which all have to do with relationship in the core. As infants, we were dependent on other people to take care of us. So we developed fears, which should warn us for risking these crucial relationships. From there, the sense of obligation emerged, which has its constructive sides in taking responsibility for people around us when needed. But in its unconscious form, obligation feels like pressure and burden. Guilt feelings remind us of mistakes we made and of situations we would like to revert. They all have to do with hurting someone and risking a relationship.
In general, we have learned to deal with these feelings, yet in the case of emotional blackmail, these feelings get instrumentalized for a power struggle in the relationship. Blackmailers increase the energetic load and pressure by becoming louder, quicker and more intense, trying to overpower the victim, which tends to comply in any way just to return to a normal atmosphere of communication. The victim reacts, dominated by a FOG of feelings: Fear, Obligation and Guilt. This reaction becomes automatic like holding the ears when someone starts to scream. The victim has little chance to reflect and just can react – and this is the key to effective emotional blackmail.
Although it looks like a well-planned process, most blackmailers produce this fog of fear, obligation and guilt without being aware of it.
How to activate fears:
Act the way I want it, and I will not leave you, I will not scream at you, I will not devaluate you; but if you do not give in, you will have to bear the consequences.
How to address feelings of obligation:
• A good daughter should spend time with her mother.
• I am working day and night for this family, so I can expect at least that you are present, when I come home.
• The boss is always right, so obey.
An example for the dynamics of guilt-feelings:
1. I tell a friend that I cannot go to the cinema tonight with her.
2. She is upset.
3. I feel terrible and am convinced that it is my fault that she is upset. I feel as if I were a bad person.
4. I cancel my other appointment se we can go to the cinema together. She feels better, and I feel better because she feels better.
Stopping Emotional Blackmail
The victim of blackmail has to resolve the fog of fear, obligation and guilt. These feelings have emerged in the course of infancy as survival strategies; in grown-up life, they lead to the trap of blackmail. When fears are replaced by the power of self-assertion, when feelings of diffuse obligation become conscious responsibility and guilt-feelings are turned into self-acceptance, the blackmailer has no more chance. Either he quits his strategy, or the victim quits the relationship.
Literature: Susan Forward, Donna Frazier: Emotional Blackmail. When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You. Morrow Paperback, 1998