Stopping emotional blackmail
December 20, 2003
Some people who use emotional blackmail are passive, some quite aggressive. Some are direct and others are extremely subtle. Some let us know precisely what the consequences will be if we displease them. Others emphasize how much we are making them suffer.
Yet no matter how different they appear to be on the surface, they are all manipulative and destructive to love, trust and good will in an intimate relationship.
Everyday manipulation becomes emotional blackmail when it is used repeatedly to coerce us in complying with the blackmailer’s demands, at the expense of our own wishes and well-being. So says Susan Forward in the book “Emotional Blackmail” (Quill).
She says that if a person genuinely wants to resolve a conflict or difference with you in a fair and caring way, s/he will talk openly about the conflict with you; inquire about your feelings and concerns; explore why you are resisting what s/he wants, and accept responsibility for his/her part of the conflict. But if someone’s primary goal is to win, s/he will try to control you, ignore your protests; insist that his/her character and motives are superior to yours, and avoid taking personal responsibility for his/her part of the conflict.
What can you do about emotional blackmail? Forward recommends:
First, don’t make a decision about how to respond the moment a demand is made. You could say things like: “I don’t have an answer for you right now. I’m not sure how I feel about what you’re asking. I need to give thought to what you want.”
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Second, notice your emotions. Are you feeling angry, irritated, wrong, anxious, trapped, threatened, insecure, inadequate, unloved, unlovable, overwhelmed, hurt, frustrated, doomed, resentful, guilty, disappointed, stuck?
Third, examine what your personal triggers are that lead you toward giving in to a demand. Think over past instances of blackmail and then list the behaviors that get to you the most, such as yelling, door slamming, particular words (like “selfish”) that make you feel bad about yourself: crying, sighing, anger, the silent treatment.
Fourth, focus on which behaviors you’re most vulnerable to, such as: “I’m afraid of his/her disapproval; I’m afraid of his/her anger; I’m afraid s/he won’t like/love me anymore, or may even leave me; s/he has done so much for me, I can’t say no; It’s my duty; I’ll feel selfish-unloving-greedy-mean or guilty if I don’t; I won’t be a good person if I don’t.”
Now ask yourself: What am I afraid of? What’s my fantasy of what will happen? What part of the demand is OK for me, and what part is not? Is what the other person wants going to hurt me or anyone else? Does the other person’s requests take into consideration my wants and feelings? Is something in the demand or the way it was presented to me making me feel afraid, obligated or guilty? What is it? Am I defining who I am rather than being defined by others? Am I protecting my physical and emotional health? Am I betraying anyone? Am I telling the truth? What’s in all of this for me?
Finally, the following questions can help cut through a lot of animosity and tension: Can you help me understand why this is so important to you? Can you help me understand why you are so angry-upset? I wonder if you can help me find a way to … . I wonder how we could do this better and make this work.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Boulder. He can be reached at (303) 758-8777 or e-mail at his Web site http://www.heartrelationships.com