Psychologist Briony Leo explains how this common behaviour pattern can have harmful effects if you’re not aware it’s being used on you. Here’s how to identify emotional blackmail, and how to stop it in its tracks.
Ever get the feeling that there’s something about your relationship that’s just a bit … off? Like, you feel a bit emotionally trapped but not exactly sure why? Or how you got there? Maybe you’re wondering if you’re dating a narcissist? Or if your relationship has veered into toxic territory of late? Or perhaps you suspect your partner might be gaslighting you. Well, add this unhealthy behaviour to your list of potential red flags to look for.. emotional blackmail.
Popularised by psychotherapist Susan Forward, emotional blackmail is more common that you might think. In her book, co-authored by Donna Frazier, Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You, Forward offers this definition: “emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten to punish us for not doing what they want. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationships with them. They know our vulnerabilities and our deepest secrets. They can be our parents or partners, bosses or co-workers, friends or lovers. No matter how much they care about us, they use this intimate knowledge to win our compliance.”
We asked Briony Leo, a Melbourne-based psychologist who specialises in relationships, to help identify the signs and signals that you might be a victim of emotional blackmail, and what to do to stop the unhealthy behaviour in its tracks.
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What is emotional blackmail?
“Emotional blackmail is a term used to describe someone close to us trying to leverage our sense of responsibility or connection with then, in order to achieve some kind of outcome. Sometimes emotional blackmail can fit within the normal realms of a family dynamic (eg. your mum telling you not to ride your bike without a helmet because it will make her worry), but other times it can be used to control behaviour and decisions (eg. a partner threatening suicide or self harm if they do not get what they want).
It is useful to be able to recognise when emotional blackmail is happening and whether we are guilty of participating in it ourselves. Often in our close relationships we can find ourselves resorting to emotional blackmail if we do not feel heard, or if we feel that direct communication is not possible.”
How to deal with emotional blackmail?
“If your partner or a family member is resorting to emotional blackmail, it is useful to speak about this with them and explore the reasons behind this – do they feel unable to ask directly for what they need, or do they feel that pulling on your emotional strings is the only way that you will respond?
Often parents or children will engage in emotional blackmail without realising it, and a gentle discussion can offer some other ways of asking for things, or communicating. In relationships, emotional blackmail can be more sinister and might benefit from professional counselling in order to re-establish ways of asking for needs to be met, and taking personal responsibility for our own emotional state.”
If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.
Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 46 36 or online here for a chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.
Briony Leo is a Melbourne psychologist who works with couples, individuals and addictions. She is interested in helping people have good relationships and improve their wellbeing through better understanding of psychology, as well as ongoing behavioural changes.