What is emotional blackmail? How to find the toxic behavior.

Let’s say you’re in a romantic relationship. You have shared a dog with your partner for five years, but the dog is technically your partner’s dog; he adopted it six months before you met. You love this dog, and during a particularly heated argument with your boyfriend, he says, “If you leave me, you’ll never see the dog again.”

This is just an example of emotional blackmail, which Karla Ivankovich, a Chicago-based clinical counselor, said it is when “someone close to us uses the things they know about us against us as a means of harm or manipulation.” Usually the manipulator uses fear, guilt or obligation to get what they want.

The concept of emotional blackmail became popular with psychotherapists Susan Forward in the late 1990s. It can exist in the context of a romantic relationship or any relationship where the bonds are close. It is not always a sign that the relationship is doomed and over, but it can be a sign of a very unhealthy dynamic if it continues.

This is what emotional blackmail looks like

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Some forms of emotional blackmail can be obvious and shocking, according to Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of “Conquering Shame and Codependency.”

“Easy examples of emotional blackmail are obvious or implicit threats, such as, ‘I tell the kids you had an affair’ or ambiguous threats, such as’ You will be sorry if you … ‘or’ How would you like like that your parents, friends, boss, etc. know you did XYZ? ” Threats are meant to evoke fear.

On the flip side, some of them can be very subtle or cavalier, like guilt. For example, Lancer said something along the lines of, “A friend would lend me money. How can you say you’re my friend and not help me when I’m in such a predicament?” Or, “What about the time you borrowed money from me back in college?”

Pressing or reminding someone of their duties can be another low-key tactic for emotional blackmail. Let’s say your mom wants you to come home to visit and help your family, but you do not think it is smart to travel. “But this is family. This is what you have to do for each other,” she might say. This tactic is meant to evoke a sense of commitment.

Emotional blackmail is not always malicious, although it can be used as a conscious means of strategic control – a means of achieving what they want. Maybe your friend knows you have tendencies toward people so they get angry when you say you can do nothing for them.

“Gaslighting is another example of it where the manipulator deliberately plants seeds of doubt in the victim,” Lancer said. For example, you notice that your partner is flirting with their colleague and then they make you feel crazy because you think they could ever be someone they work with.

That said, it is not always done with ulterior motives; sometimes the manipulator feels really justified in their request or opinion. “Emotional blackmail can be born out of insecurity or out of a lack of understanding of how to communicate emotions, so it’s not always toxic,” Ivankovich said.

Maybe your partner simply does not understand how to say that they feel you have been distant and they are afraid that you are planning to break up with them – so they pose a threat.

Lancer said narcissists, those with borderline personality disorders or other related psychological conditions may use emotional blackmail more often and often unconsciously – but this is certainly not always the case.

“It usually arises from a fear of being abandoned or a sense of shame,” Lander said. “At least the manipulator feels a serious threat to their ego and sense of self.”

How to Confront Emotional Extortion

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It is not your responsibility to “fix” someone who treats you badly. “Remember that the manipulator has choices about their behaviors and dilemmas, and that they are trying to shift that responsibility to you,” Lancer said. “Do not let them.”

That said, there are ways to bring your concerns up with a loved one if you think this unhealthy behavior is something they are not aware of.

For example, if your partner threatens to leave or tell the world about your indiscretion, Lancer said, you should directly and definitely set a limit by asking them to stop.

Lander said this may feel scary, but it usually works. “Threats are often absent because they are usually a plea for more attention,” she explained. “You can also assure the manipulator that you love them and want the relationship intact but are unwilling to do what they want.”

If you’re dealing with a repeat offender, Ivankovich said, all good solutions start with communication.

“You should talk to your partner to express concern,” she said. “If their goal is to hijack your emotions, then you must first be aware of yourself what you are willing to accept. Express it to them and hold on to it.” You can clearly say that you will not be manipulated.

“If this person does not stop despite your requests and continues, then it’s time to consider stepping away,” she said. Emotional blackmail is an offensive dynamic, especially if it continues after the boundaries are clearly set. You deserve to feel loved and supported, not threatened.

But beyond that, says Ivankovich, talk to the manipulator about why it happens.

“If there is uncertainty, ask what you can do to help them feel more secure,” she said. Maybe your mom needs more phone calls each month. Maybe your partner needs more regular romantic gestures. Maybe your friend is not aware of the guilt and discomfort they cause by repeatedly asking for something when you have already said no.

“Communication leads to success,” Ivankovich said.

Need help? In the United States, call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 to National Dating Abuse Helpline.


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