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Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You

Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You

by Susan Forward, Donna Frazier

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A practical guide to better communication that will break the blackmail cycle for good, by one of the nation's leading therapists, Susan Forward.

“Breathe a sigh of relief! Susan Forward helps you identify and correct an intensely destructive and confusing pattern of relating with those you love. I highly recommend this important book!"—Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

"If you really loved me..."

"After all I've done for you..."

"How can you be so selfish..."

Do any of the above sound familiar? They're all examples of emotional blackmail, 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 are our mothers, our partners, our bosses and coworkers, our friends and our lovers. And no matter how much they care about us, they use this intimate knowledge to give themselves the payoff they want: our compliance.

Susan Forward knows what pushes our hot buttons. Just as John Gray illuminates the communications gap between the sexes in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, and Harriet Lerner describes an intricate dynamic in The Dance of Anger, so Susan Forward presents the anatomy of a relationship damaged by manipulation, and gives readers an arsenal of tools to fight back.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062036179
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/30/2019
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 240,333
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Susan Forward, PhD, is an internationally renowned therapist, lecturer, and author. Her books include the number-one New York Times bestsellers Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them and Toxic Parents. In addition to her private practice, she has served as a therapist, instructor, and consultant in numerous Southern California psychiatric and medical facilities.

Read an Excerpt

An Excerpt from Emotional Blackmail

I told my husband I was going to take a class one night a week and he went ballistic in that quiet way of his. "Do whatever you want, you always do anyway," he told me, "but don't expect me to be waiting for you when you get home. I'm always there for you; why can't you be there for me?" I knew his argument didn't make sense, but it made me feel so selfish. I asked for my registration fee back. -- Liz

I was planning to spend Christmas traveling with my wife, a vacation we'd been looking forward to for months. I called my mom to tell her the news that we'd finally gotten the tickets, and she almost started to cry. "But what about Christmas dinner?" she said. "You know everyone always gets together for the holiday. If you go on that trip instead of coming, you'll ruin the holiday for everyone. How can you do this to me? How many Christmases do you think I have left?" So of course I gave in. My wife's going to kill me, but I don't see how I could enjoy a vacation while I'm buried under all that guilt. -- Tom

I went in to tell my boss that I had to have help or a more realistic deadline on a big project I'm doing. As soon as I mentioned that I really needed some relief, he started on me. "I know how much you want to get home to your family," he said, "but even though they miss you now, you know they'll appreciate that promotion we've been considering you for. We need a team player with real dedication for that job -- that's what I thought you were. But go ahead. Spend more time with the kids. Just remember that if those are your priorities, we might have to reconsider our plans for you." I felt totally blindsided. Now I don't know what to do. -- Kim

What's going on here? Why do certain people leave us thinking "I've lost again. I always give in. I didn't say what I was really feeling. Why can't I ever get my point across? How come I can never stand up for myself?" We know we've been had. We know we feel frustrated and resentful, and we know we've given up what we want to please someone else, but we just don't know what to do about it. Why is it that some people are able to emotionally overpower us, leaving us feeling defeated?

The people we're coming up against in these can't-win situations are skillful manipulators. They swathe us in a comforting intimacy when they get what they want, but they frequently wind up threatening us in order to get their way, or burying us under a load of guilt and self-reproach when they don't. It may seem as though they map out ways to get what they want from us, but often they're not even aware of what they're doing. In fact, many can appear sweet or long-suffering and not threatening at all.

Generally, it's one particular person -- a partner, a parent, a sibling, a friend -- who manipulates us so consistently that we seem to forget everything we know about being effective adults. Though we may be skilled and successful in other parts of our lives, with these people we feel bewildered, powerless. They've got us wrapped around their little fingers.

Take my client Sarah, a court reporter. Sarah, a vivacious brunette, has been seeing a builder named Frank for almost a year. A close couple in their 30s, they got along well -- until the subject of marriage came up. Then, said Sarah, "his whole demeanor toward me changed. He seemed to want me to prove myself." It all became clear one weekend when Frank invited her up for a romantic weekend at his cabin in the mountains. "When we arrived, the place was full of tarps and paint cans, and he handed me a brush. I didn't know what else to do, so I painted." They worked, mostly in silence, all day, and when they finally sat down to rest, Frank pulled out a huge diamond engagement ring.

"I asked him, 'What's going on?"' Sarah said, "and he said he needed to know that I was a good sport, that I would pitch in and not expect him to do everything in the marriage." Of course, that wasn't the end of the story.

We set a date and everything, but we went up and down like a yo-yo. He kept giving me gifts, but he also kept testing me. If I didn't want to go take care of his sister's kids one weekend, he said I didn't have a strong sense of family and maybe we should think about calling off the wedding. Or if I talked about expanding my business, it meant I wasn't really committed to him. So of course I put that on hold. It went on and on, with me always giving in. But I kept telling myself what a great guy he was and that maybe he was scared of getting married and just needed to feel more secure with me.

Frank's threats were quiet, yet they were powerfully effective because they alternated with a closeness enticing enough to obscure what was really going on. And like most of us, Sarah kept coming back for more.

She gave in to Frank's manipulations because, in the moment, making him happy seemed to make sense -- there was so much at stake. Like so many of us, Sarah felt resentful and frustrated at Frank's threats, but she justified her capitulation to them in the name of peace.

In such relationships, we keep our focus on the other person's needs at the expense of our own, and we relax into the temporary illusion of safety we've created for ourselves by giving in. We've avoided conflict, confrontation -- and the chance of a healthy relationship.

Maddening interactions like these are among the most common causes of friction in almost every relationship, yet they're rarely identified and understood. Often these instances of manipulation get labeled miscommunication. We tell ourselves, "I'm operating from feelings and he's operating from intellect" or "She's just coming from a different mind-set." But in reality, the source of friction isn't in communication styles. It's more in one person getting his or her way at the expense of another. These are more than simple misunderstandings -- they're power struggles.

Over the years I've searched for a way to describe these struggles and the troubling cycle of behavior they lead to, and I've found that people almost universally respond with a charge of recognition when I tell them that what we're talking about here is pure and simple blackmail -- emotional blackmail.

I realize that the term blackmail is one that conjures up sinister images of criminals, fear and extortion. Certainly it's difficult to think of your husband, your parents, your boss, your siblings or your children in that context. Yet I've found that blackmail is the only term that accurately describes what's going on. The very sharpness of the word helps us pierce the denial and confusion that cloud so many relationships, and doing that brings us to clarity.

Let me reassure you: Just because there's emotional blackmail in a close relationship doesn't mean it's doomed. It simply means that we need to honestly acknowledge and correct the behavior that's causing us pain, putting these relationships back on a more solid foundation.


Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don't do what they want. At the heart of any kind of blackmail is one basic threat, which can be expressed in many different ways: If you don't behave the way I want you to, you will suffer. A criminal blackmailer might threaten to use knowledge about a person's past to ruin her reputation, or ask to be paid off in cash to hide a secret. Emotional blackmail hits closer to home. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationship with them. They know our vulnerabilities. Often they know our deepest secrets. And no matter how much they care about us, when they fear they won't get their way, they use this intimate knowledge to shape the threats that give them the payoff they want: our compliance.

Knowing that we want love or approval, our blackmailers threaten to withhold it or take it away altogether, or make us feel we must earn it. For example, if you pride yourself on being generous and caring, the blackmailer might label you selfish or inconsiderate if you don't accede to his wishes. If you value money and security, the blackmailer might attach conditions to providing them or threaten to take them away. And if you believe the blackmailer, you could fall into a pattern of letting him control your decisions and behavior.

We get locked into a dance with blackmail, a dance with myriad steps, shapes and partners.


How do so many smart, capable people find themselves groping to understand behavior that seems so obvious? One key reason is that our blackmailers make it nearly impossible to see how they're manipulating us, because they lay down a thick fog that obscures their actions. We'd fight back if we could, but they ensure that we literally can't see what is happening to us. I use fog as both a metaphor for the confusion blackmailers create in us and as a lens for burning it off. FOG is a shorthand way of referring to Fear, Obligation and Guilt, the tools of the blackmailer's trade. Blackmailers pump an engulfing FOG into their relationships, ensuring that we will feel afraid to cross them, obligated to give them their way and terribly guilty if we don't.

Because it's so tough to cut through this FOG to recognize emotional blackmail when it's happening to you -- or even in retrospect -- I've devised the following checklist to help you determine if you are a blackmailer's target.

Do important people in your life:

  • Threaten to make your life difficult if you don't do what they want?

  • Constantly threaten to end the relationship if you don't do what they want?

  • Tell you or imply that they will neglect, hurt themselves or become depressed if you don't do what they want?

  • Always want more, no matter how much you give?

  • Regularly assume you will give in to them?

  • Regularly ignore or discount your feelings and wants?

  • Make lavish promises that are contingent on your behavior and then rarely keep them?

  • Consistently label you as selfish, bad, greedy, unfeeling or uncaring when you don't give in to them?

  • Shower you with approval when you give in to them and take it away when you don't?

  • Use money as a weapon to get their way?

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you are being emotionally blackmailed. But I want to assure you that there are many changes you can put into practice immediately to improve your situation and the way you feel.

Excerpted from EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL, by Susan Forward, Ph.D. with Donna Frazier, published by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. Copyright © 1997 by Susan Forward. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Susan Jeffers

"Breathe a sigh of relief! Susan Forward helps you identify and correct an intensely destructive and confusing pattern of relating with those you love. I highly recommend this important book!"


On Monday, June 9th, welcomed Susan Forward, author of EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL. Susan Forward, Ph.D., is an internationally acclaimed therapist, television and radio personality, lecturer, and author of the groundbreaking books TOXIC PARENTS, OBSESSIVE LOVE, and the bestselling MEN WHO HATE WOMEN AND THE WOMEN WHO LOVE THEM. She joined us to discuss her new book, EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL.

Question: What issues do you address in EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL?

Susan Forward: EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL is about partners, parents, friends, adult children, siblings who use fear, obligation, and guilt to manipulate us, to give them their way, often at the expense of our own wishes, feelings, and well-being. The book also tells people very specifically how to get blackmail out of these relationships so that they can regain their self-respect, and the relationship can be much healthier.

Question: What exactly is 'emotional blackmail,' and how is it different from other kinds of manipulation?

Susan Forward: Well, the difference is, with emotional blackmail, there is always a serious consequence. Discomfort, mistrust -- the other person lets you know how much you are making them angry by not giving them enough of what they want. They will apply pressure by acting selfish, unloving, uncaring, if you don't give them their way. And they may threaten you, with things like, "If you leave me, you'll never see your kids again." Or the parent who says, "If you marry that man, you are no longer a member of this family." So, the consequences are far more painful and scary than they are in everyday manipulation, which we all do -- with emotional blackmail, you are going to suffer in some way if you don't give in to what the blackmailer wants. So this is manipulation with consequences, That's the big difference.

Question: Was it difficult for you to get people to open up to you while researching this book?

Susan Forward: No, quite the opposite. The minute I would give them the title and subject of the book people would be begging for me to use their stories. This is such a universal problem for so many people who have found themselves feeling defeated, bullied, emotionally steamrollered, and bewildered by the question, "How can someone who says that they care for me constantly pressure me in these unloving and unpleasant ways?" And they wanted to know what they could do to get this aspect out of what could otherwise be a very good relationship.

Question: How do you stop bringing up past issues in fights with your spouse so you can get back the intimacy and feel more love?

Susan Forward: Well, sometimes its important to bring up past issues, but not in a 'rubbing your nose in it' kind of way. If something is unresolved, in a way that neither person can feel some sort of closure, then it is going to create feelings of distance and lack of trust anyway. So, the best way to deal with past issues is to say things like, "I don't want to keep bringing up past issues, but this is a hindrance to our relationship and I don't want it to keep getting in the way. You enlist the other person's help, which makes them now feel like an ally, instead of an enemy.

Question: What are the stages of emotional blackmail?

Susan Forward: The first stage is demand. Somebody wants something. The second: the target's resistance. They don't want to give the other person what they want, it is unhealthy, and for whatever reason, that's the way it is. Then, the person making the demand, seeing that they are not going to get what they want, applies pressure using emotional blackmail. They may threaten, suffer, label us as selfish, unreasonable. If the pressure isn't sufficient to get us to capitulate, then they will let us know what the consequences will be with threats, or threats about what they might do to themselves, or they may withdraw love and approval, and sulk and pout. The next stage is capitulation, because we feel so uncomfortable, and so stressed by the tension and the guilt that we give in, and we have then shown the blackmailer what our hot buttons are for the next time. So the last stage is repeat of the pattern, because we have now taught the blackmailer what works.

Question: Do people who fall prey to emotional blackmail tend to continue on a downward path of abuse?

Susan Forward: Obviously, in the most blatant and punitive kinds of blackmail, there is a great need on the part of the blackmailer to be in control. "I want my way, and the hell with you." Control, of course, is the core issue in all abuse, and it's just a short step from, "I want my way, if you don't give it to me, I will retaliate and make your life unpleasant, with the type of abuse that includes name-calling, denigrating, and stripping of someone's dignity and self-consciousness, which I wrote about in MEN WHO HATE WOMEN AND THE WOMEN WHO LOVE THEM. When emotional and psychological abuse are not sufficient to control and intimidate the other party, it can also often escalate into physical abuse. Emotional blackmail is always a precursor to later control issues that may become very detrimental to your well-being.

Question: I am married to an emotional blackmailer who never did this until after our marriage. The more I tried methods like you suggest, the better I held up, but the worse he became, adding type after type. I have moved out for now. When do you give up?

Susan Forward: If you behave in non-defensive, self-protective, limit-setting ways, which are healthy and appropriate, and the other person responds to those behaviors with: more anger and abuse, less willingness to negotiate with you for a better relationship, refusal to take personal responsibility for their part in the disintegration of the relationship, or adamant refusal of any type of professional help, then there is really nothing there to build from. What's happened is by your changing the signals, and being less a victim, the other person is feeling threatened. Any relationship that can only survive by your willingness to stay in the victim role has nothing to do with love, and is not something that you will be able to maintain your emotional and mental well-being in. It is not worth it.

Question: I do not speak to my father anymore because he was verbally abusive and used emotional blackmail. My mother has to sneak to see me because she is still being abused. Is there any way to help her?

Susan Forward: You cannot help your mother, only your mother can help your mother, and just remember what happens when the referee gets in-between two boxers. It's the referee who gets clobbered. You must not get in the role of being a dumping ground for your mother's unhappiness. You must encourage your mother to get some sort of counseling and not be so dependent on you. I know it's hard, because you feel so sorry for her, but she is an adult, and she does have options.

Question: Are there personality traits that blackmailers have? What should I watch out for in starting a new relationship?

Susan Forward: There is no real profile, because blackmailers have such different styles. Certainly, the angry controlling ones are easier to spot because they have that punitive, aggressive personality style. Look for: how does this person handle frustration, anger, not getting their way if they are able to express themselves when they are really upset or disappointed, wishing you would change your mind, these are signs that they will not use emotional blackmail. But if they withdraw into angry silences, and punish you in some way, even in words, or with moods, then chances are you are going to have problems with this person, because they are not going to be direct, or have problems with being direct. The bottom line: Does this person behave like a grown-up, or a spoiled child, when they don't get their way?

Question: Do you have suggestions for working with jealous partners?

Susan Forward: Obviously, jealousy and possessiveness again having nothing to do with love but the other person's emotional instabilities, and it is their problem. You have to make it their problem. If after the normal kinds of reassurances, the other person continues to get upset when you spend time with friends, or interrogates you about it, those behaviors are always preludes to some form of abuse -- either emotional or physical. And if the jealousy is real heavy-duty, watch out. Please be careful.

Question: How do we know if WE may be doing this to others?

Susan Forward: People often change roles from target to blackmailer. Often we can be emotionally blackmailed by someone, say, a boss. We feel resentful, and we come home and use the same tactics on people in our own lives to feel better. The thing to remember is that when we feel blackmailed or betrayed, to express our feelings openly and not try to coerce the other person to feel afraid, or that they owe you, or that they are being a terrible person. Watch out for statements like "How can you be so selfish after all I've done for you?" "How can you ruin my life like this?" And, "If you really loved me, you would..."

Question: How far should people go in setting restraints for their relationships?

Susan Forward: Too vague to address -- but help each other out, I guess.

Question: How do you immediately recognize the warning signs of emotional blackmail when embarking upon a new relationship, and how do you avoid being blackmailed?

Susan Forward: Already got to that one.

Question: Do emotional blackmailers blackmail their loved ones purposely or is it something that happens unconsciously?

Susan Forward: I think that most people who use emotional blackmail don't realize how painful and unpleasant their behavior is. They want what they want, and they are so frightened that they won't get what they want, that they resort to these tactics to feel safer, stronger, more powerful. And often when we point out to them what they are doing, they are shocked, because they don't mean necessarily to hurt us, and they don't realize how awful that they make us feel with their guilt peddling, and their threats. It is up to us to take a stand, and not capitulate, and to say "The answer is no, I'm sorry you're upset, you are entitled to your opinion, let's talk about it when you are calmer," and all the other strategies I talk about in my book to get this poison out of their relationships.

OnlineHost: Thank you for joining us, good night. Thank you Susan Forward, we enjoyed having you.