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Emotional Blackmail is a term used to cover a central form of psychological manipulation. 'Emotional blackmail...typically involves two people who have established a close personal or intimate relationship (mother and daughter, husband and wife, sister and sister, two close friends)'[1].

Susan Forward and Emotional Blackmail

While well recognised earlier both formally and informally, "emotional blackmail" as a concept was brought into greater prominence by the book of that title by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier: ' Emotional Blackmail is a perfect example of how a self-help book can make a significant contribution to psychology'[2].

According to psychotherapist Susan Forward, "emotional blackmail" is a powerful form of manipulation in which blackmailers who are close to the victim threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish them to get what they want. They may know the victim's vulnerabilities and their deepest secrets. 'Many of the people who use emotional blackmail are friends, colleagues and family members with whom we have close ties that we want to strengthen and salvage'[3] - parents, partners, bosses or lovers. No matter how much the blackmailer cares about the victim, they use their intimate knowledge to win compliance.

Types of Blackmailers

Forward and Frazier distinguish 'Four Faces of Blackmail...Punishers...Self-punishers...Sufferers...Tantalizers '[4], each with their own particular style of mental manipulation.

'"My way or the highway" is the punisher's motto. No matter what you feel or need, punishers override you'[5]. By contrast, 'self-punishers cast their targets in the role of the "grown-up" - the only adult in the relationship...supposed to come running when they cry', while sufferers tack the position that ' don't do what I want, I will suffer, and it will be your fault '[6]. Finally for Forward and Frazier, 'Tantalizers are the most subtle blackmailers...offer nothing with a free heart'[7].

Knowing that the victim wants love or approval, blackmailers may threaten to withhold it or take it away altogether, or make the victim feel they must earn it. If the victim believes the blackmailer, he/she could fall into a pattern of letting the blackmailer control his/her decisions and behavior.

Emotional blackmailers use fear, obligation and guilt (FOG) in their relationships, ensuring that the victim feels afraid to cross them, obligated to give them their way and feeling guilty if they don't.

Blackmail and the Borderline Personality

According to Braiker,[8] people with borderline personality disorder are particularly likely to use emotional blackmail. In a similar way, 'the destructive narcissist appears to feel that they have a right to exploit others...wil resort to emotional blackmail...and/or promote shame and guilt'[9].

Resisting Emotional Blackmail

'In the second half of Emotional Blackmail [Forward] provides tools and techniques for identifying our emotional vulnerabilities, so that we...learn to stand our ground'[10].

Resisting emotional blackmail is not necessarily straightforward. 'Honoring and protecting our integrity isn't easy. blackmailers shout down our inner with the knowing parts of ourselves'[11].

Strengthening personal boundaries; resisting demands; 'a power statement..."I can stand it"'[12]; and buying time to break old patterns are all recommended tactics. They may however be initially met by increased pressure and opposition: 'when one person changes the signals by pulling out of the family system', they may find others 'brand the victim, crazy, unforgiving or a family wrecker'[13].

See also


  1. Stanlee Phelps/Nancy Austin, The Assertive Woman (1987) p. 133
  2. Tom Butler-Bowdon, 50 Psychology Classics (2007) p. 98
  3. Susan Forward/Donna Frazier, Emotional Blackmail (London 1997) p. 9
  4. Forward/Frazier, p. 28
  5. Forward/Frazier, p. 29
  6. Forward/Frazier, p. 38 and 40
  7. Forward/Frazier, p. 43-5
  8. Braiker, Harriet B., Whos Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation 2006
  9. Nina W. Brown, Children of the Self-Absorbed (2008) p. 35
  10. Butler-Bowdon, p. 98
  11. Forward/Frazier, p. 145
  12. Forward/Frazier, p. 169
  13. Forward/Frazier, p. 82

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