In Emotional Blackmail (1998) author Susan Forward analyzes the manipulative dynamics between emotionally close individuals -be it family, close friends, or intimate relationships-.
Forward writes from the point of view of the victims of manipulations, describing both the manipulative strategies that blackmailers deploy, and the solutions you can implement.
- Emotional blackmail is an abusive and manipulative game people play
- If you let it go unchecked, it will ruin your mental health, harm you physically, and destroy your relationship
- You don’t cure emotional blackmail hoping your partner will change, but by working on yourself first and foremost
- It will take courage to change the power dynamics, but with assertiveness, self-help, and some courage, you will do it
About the Author: Susan Forward is an American psychotherapist and author. Susan had her own practice, as well as being a therapist, instructor and consultant to several Southern California psychiatric and medical facilities.
1. Emotional Blackmail: A Definition
Forward defines emotional blackmail as:
Emotional blackmail is a form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don’t do what they want.
The basic threat, which can be expressed in many different ways, is : If you don’t behave the way I want you to, you will suffer.
The closer people are to us, the more they know what they can leverage to push our buttons.
2. FOG: The Emotional Manipulators’ Tool of The Trade
When the manipulative fog descends upon the victim, reality distorts, and you cannot recognize anymore what’s real or manipulated, what’s fair or unfair.
FOG stands for:
- Fear: afraid to cross them, or afraid of the consequences of not submitting and do as they want
- Obligation: feel like we are obliged to help, support, or consent to whatever it is they want
Says the author:
Blackmailers never hesitate to put our sense of obligation to the test, emphasizing how much they’ve given up, how much they’ve done for their targets, how much we owe them (social exchange manipulation, En).
They may even use reinforcements from religion and social traditions to emphasize how much their targets should feel indebted to them. “A good daughter should spend time with her mother.”
- Guilt: Guilt is normal in any empathic individual, and the blackmailer leverages it. The blackmailer seeks to make us feel guilty if we don’t comply with whatever they request. When guilt is unwarranted and the product of manipulation, the author calls it “undeserved guilt”
What out for guilt! Because it can lead to self-esteem vicious circles.
The guilt we feel easily becomes a sense that “I’m bad, so I deserve this treatment.”
3. The Six Steps of Emotional Blackmail
These are the steps of a typical emotional blackmail:
- Pressure: they don’t try to understand your needs or point of view, but pushes to change your mind
- Threats: if you don’t cave in, here come the threats. They can be direct threats like breakup threats, but can also be more covert “guilt trips“, promises of future rewards, or promises of love and intimacy
- Compliance: if you give in, then there comes the:
- Repetition: once the manipulator understands what makes you comply, they will be doing more and more of the same
Susan calls them “symptoms”, but they seem more like steps along a progression than “symptoms”.
4. The Four Types of Emotional Blackmailers
Susan differentiates four archetypes of blackmailers.
- Punishers: they make their demands and threats most obvious. Sometimes with direct talk, but also with smoldering silences. They still let us know clearly.
- Self-punishers: they emphasize what they’ll do to themselves.
Says Susan about these two:
Where punishers turn their targets into children, self-punishers cast their targets in the role of the grown-up—the only adult in the relationship.
- Sufferers: victims per excellence, blamers and guilt-trippers, they make us feel bad if we don’t give them what they need. Sometimes, they pull away without even explaining what’s the issue. Other times, they tell us they are ruined if we don’t do them whatever favor they’re asking for.
- Tantalizers: hold out a promise of something great to happen if we only do what they want. Sometimes they can frame their requests as shit-tests we need to pass to get to the promised land.
5. The Tools of Emotional Blackmail
- The spin: derived from political manipulation, it means that whatever they do is “good” (well-intentioned or wise), and whatever we do is “bad”. Resisting to their manipulation is evidence of our flaws.
- Pathologizing: if you resist them, you’re ill, crazy, or need some help -maybe their help (urgh!)-. Questioning our ability to love when someone wants our love is an example of pathologizing.
- Negative comparisons:
- Enlisting allies: the closer to you they can enlist an ally, the more leverage they will have over you
6. The Psychological Profile of Emotional Blackmailers
In this section, the author goes into the psychology of an emotional blackmailer.
Some of the traits that stand out:
- Hate to lose: it’s OK to be angry at a “no”, but emotionally healthy can accept and compromise. With emotional blackmailers, frustration at a “no” doesn’t lead to negotiation, but to pressure and threats
- Selfish, it’s about them, not you
It’s a strange kind of love that is so blind to the target’s feelings.
It is indeed.
I’d even wonder whether one can call it “love”. At least, it’s definitely not value-adding love.
- They want to take, not give (“value-takers”)
To an emotional blackmailer, keeping your trust doesn’t count, respecting your feelings doesn’t count, being fair doesn’t count. The ground rules that allow for healthy give-and-take go out the window.
- Scarcity mindset
Say the author:
Often blackmailers’ self-centeredness springs from a belief that the supply of attention and affection available to them is finite—and shrinking fast.
- Thin-skinned, make mountains out of molehills
Emotional blackmailers often behave as though each disagreement is the make-or-break factor in the relationship.
Even mild frustration is viewed as potentially catastrophic.
That’s why they react with everything they have.
This can happen sometimes with emotional blackmailers who never learned to handle difficulties in life
See this forum entry for more.
- Catastrophizing + scarcity mindset
Deprivation tape starts to play in their heads: This isn’t going to work out. I never get what I want. (…)
With these thoughts cycling through their minds in an endless loop, blackmailers believe they haven’t got a chance of prevailing—unless they play hardball. That belief is the common denominator underlying all emotional blackmail: “I don’t trust that I’m going to get what I need, so I have to give myself every advantage”.
- Maintaining a strong connection with pain
Negative emotions, albeit negative, are still an emotional investment.
Says the author:
(…) they are activating the target’s feelings for them, and even if the feelings are negative, they’ve created a tight bond.
You may resent or even hate the blackmailer, but as long as your focus is on them, they haven’t been abandoned or discarded with indifference.
- Punishers see themselves as maintaining orders
Some punishers see themselves not as punishing, but as maintaining order, doing what’s right, or proving they can’t be pushed around.
Some of them can be very sensitive, and perceive a fair enforcing of your boundaries as an attack on their persona.
7. The Traits That Make You Vulnerable to Emotional Blackmail
- Need for approval: it’s much stronger with authority figures and people we admire. Also see “the judge power dynamics“
- Fear of anger
- Need for peace at any price
- Taking too much responsibility for other people’s lives
- High level of self-doubt
7.2. Beliefs Predisposing to Emotional Abuse
Some of the beliefs of the victims include:
- It’s OK to give a lot more than I get
- If I love someone, I’m responsible for their happiness
- Good, loving people make others happy
- If I do what I really want to do, the other person will see me as selfish
- If no one else will fix the problem, it’s up to me
- I never win with this person
- They’re smarter or stronger than I am
- It won’t kill me to do this, because they really need me
- Their needs and feelings are more important than mine
And, says the author, to change your behavior you first need to change your beliefs.
8. Manipulators Destroy Relationships
Getting compliance with manipulation and blackmail ruins relationships.
Relationships become toxic, or they are hollowed out of any feelings and true intimacy.
The emotional blackmailer doesn’t seem to realize this simple truth.
Says the author:
They seem to have a childlike inability to connect behavior to consequences, and they don’t appear to give any thought to what they will be left with once they’ve gotten the target’s compliance
In my opinion, that’s can be the case also because they are low in emotional intelligence, or high in psychopathy, and so form no real bond.
Says again the author:
They’re in a FOG of their own that makes them oblivious to how much they alienate other people with their bullying.
Emotional blackmailers who use their partners’ weaknesses against them also actively train their partners to never share their true selves.
And that kills intimacy.
Says the author:
What’s left when we must consistently walk on eggs with someone?
Superficial small talk, strained silences, lots of tension. Just below the artificial calm that surrounds a placated blackmailer and a target who’s given in is the widening chasm that’s opening between them.
This is why abusers ultimately fail, and struggle to keep high-quality partners.
Which leads me back to one of the tenets of this website: power that lasts it not coercive, but built on buy-in and making others want to follow you.
This is one of the reasons why I discourage guys on this website to learn from any “dark psychology” courses around.
Not only are they toxic, but they’re based on a defensive, low-value mindset.
9. In Good Relationships, It’s About Needs, Not Wins
Healthy relationships seek to find a middle ground, or to find out who has the bigger needs.
Then, the person who cares less, will usually let the partner with the stronger needs “win”, since it matters more to him/her.
Actually, in many cases, the outcome doesn’t matter too much, and the person with the strongest preference usually wins by default.
But if someone wants to win, they won’t try to negotiate, but, try to:
- Control you
- Ignore your protests
- Insist that his or her character and motives are superior to yours
- Avoid taking any responsibility for the problems between you
The author says that good relationships have a balance of give and take, including a sense of balance and fairness.
People feel like they can give in and still not feel like they’re losing, because they know the other party is not out to take advantage of them.
10. Curing Emotional Blackmail
Addressing emotional blackmail starts with you.
- Start with 15 minutes a day with:
- Contract: you write to yourself that you’re an adult with options, and that you are going to stand up for your rights and for fair treatment. Every day you read it and sign it.
- Power statement: Victims always indirectly tell them they can’t stand or can’t take their blackmailer’s pressure. Instead, you will repeat “I CAN STAND IT.
- Self-affirming phrases: these are empowering new phrases that you will repeat to yourself in order to change your beliefs
- When dealing with emotional blackmail, use SOS
- Stop: take distance from the blackmailer when you feel pressured
- Observe: take stock of what’s happening
- Strategize: strategize about your response, then follow through
The strategies that the describes explains are:
- Nondefensive communication: this is about communicating while remaining calm and detached
- Making an ally out of an adversary: ask a question on how you can understand them better, how they can help you have a better relationship, and generally asking them if they can help you with more value-adding collaboration (the power moves approves of this solution, won’t work with everyone, but worth a try)
- Bartering: the author lists bartering and humor together, but I prefer separating them
She says that bartering is better than imposing because
No one likes to look or feel as though they’re giving in, and our distaste for one-sided solutions holds most people back from taking the first step toward resolving a dispute. But bartering creates a win-win situation that’s easy for everyone to accept.
Also see “frame control techniques“.
- Using humor: this works best when the relationship is overall good. So you can poke some fun at their bossy ways as a way to highlight that it’s actually annoying, but while keeping it light and fun
The author also recommends lots of exercises.
See a real-life example I used against an emotional blackmailer:
Finally, keep in mind that “sorry isn’t enough”.
Many blackmailers will pretend to go along with the new assertive you, but they will then get back to their old selves.
Instead of relying on words, monitor their behavior for actual change.
And it’s not a bad idea if you learn how to test people, too.
Keep in mind that some relationships will improve as you empower yourself. But some partners cannot accept you as a healthy human being, and you must be ready to let go of those relationships.
They weren’t good to begin with, anyway.
- Devaluing others to lessen the pain: angry blackmailer will sometimes attack their partner and devalue her. It’s a way of downplaying their feelings of loss. Scared blackmailer might also initiate they breakup out of fear of getting hurt first
- If you speak very indirectly, seek to be more direct: indirect like “gee, I wish someone would open the window” is an act of “daily manipulation” for Susan Forward. Instead, ask directly for what you want.
Susan says that asking is high-risk, but protecting yourself too can come across as sneaky. I agree.
- Don’t blindly trust any doctor, they’re people just like anyone else: says Susan Forward:
Pathologizing is especially persuasive when it comes from an authority figure—a doctor, professor, lawyer or therapist. Our relationships with these people are based on trust, and we tend to cloak professionals in a mantle of wisdom that some don’t deserve.
And she shares the story of an abusive therapist.
These are more than simple misunderstandings—they’re power struggles.
Emotional blackmail takes to extremes behavior that we use and encounter all the time: manipulation. Many forms of manipulation aren’t troublesome at all. We all manipulate one another at times, and we all get manipulated.
On the sufferers’ type manipulation:
When Carol saw that I was really resisting, she pulled out all the stops: “I have no one else to turn to.” “I don’t know what else to do—I thought you could turn to your family when you’re in trouble”—suddenly I’m family again.
On blackmailers abusing the social exchange system:
Memory, as employed by a blackmailer, becomes the Obligation Channel, with nonstop replays of the blackmailer’s good and generous behavior toward us.
When we receive a kindness from a blackmailer, it’s not soon forgotten. More like an open-ended loan than a gift, it’s always got payments attached—with interest—and we can never seem to get out of the red.
Examples of emotional blackmailers destroying relationships:
What kind of relationship does Josh’s father expect to have with his son if Josh provides the victory his father is demanding by giving up his lover? Margaret, whose husband, Cal, pressured her to take part in group sex, gave in to her husband’s emotional blackmail, but it was the death knell for the marriage.
On the failure of blackmailers:
Karen’s mother resorts to arm-twisting to get Karen to spend more time with her, yet for all the closeness that’s left between them, she’d do just as well to talk to a cardboard cutout of her daughter. The rigid interaction between them has no room for the real Karen or what matters to her.
Friends and relatives at different levels of achievement or monetary success frequently have seething envies and resentments toward one another that severely contaminate their relationships.
If you fear physical harm, get out:
If you truly fear that another person will harm you, you don’t belong in a relationship with them.
From the letter a woman wrote to her punishing husband (so vulnerable and powerful):
Maybe instead of punishing me you could help me.
It’s up to you to set limits:
Blackmailers learn how far they can go by observing how far we let them go.
- Some small generalizations
Writes the author:
Parents using this kind of blackmail will inevitably find a flaw in the next person, and the next, and in anyone who represents a threat to their control.
You know that generalizations are one of this website’s pet peeves, so I disagree with the “inevitably”.
- Sometimes it feels like the author “psychologizes” to never calls an a-hole an a-hole
Sure, there are reasons why people do mean things.
But sometimes it feels like it was too much justification, and never calling a spade a spade.
In this case, never calling an a-hole an a-hole.
The author even says:
blackmailers may convince themselves that they’re helping us with their punishments.
Sure, they can.
But I didn’t read of blackmailers who are just simple, plain a-holes.
But I’m more in line with George Simon‘s take on manipulation: sometimes, you gotta call a a-hole an a-hole, and stop psychologizing on what are the inner drives that make him an a-hole.
- Nore sure on taking verbal abuse on the chin while remaining nonreactive
If the blackmailer gets vicious, the author recommends you remain calm and detached.
A worthy goal, of course, but I feel that’s too challenging for most people and they’ll just pretend they’re calm, while instead they are growing angry and resentful.
“Emotional Blackmail” is a treasure trove, so just considered these a small sample of “pros”:
- Lots of “how-to” guides & helpful exercises
This is a “how-to”, “can-do” book, with lots of great actionable tips and exercises.
See one of the exercises here.
- Great examples
The authors weaves her concepts around real-life examples that back-up her theory, and that helps readers understand better, as well as helping them to understand what they need to do to combat emotional blackmail.
- Great psychology analyses
As a social researcher looking for wisdom, I appreciated the good psychological analyses.
I consider “Emotional Blackmail” one of the foundational books of interpersonal manipulation.
Particularly, this is about manipulation in close and intimate relationships.
I learned a lot from Susan Forward and I will be using what I learned for this website’s content and products.
And that’s the biggest compliment I can mane to any author.
This is a highly recommended book to anyone who wants to protect themselves against emotional manipulation, emotional blackmail or, in general, learn more about power dynamics and psychology.