Emotional Blackmail


The full title of the book reads: Emotional Blackmail; When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You (1997). The author is Susan Forward, Ph.D, and she uses the acronym–actually, metaphor–F. O. G. (Fear, Obligation, Guilt) to indicate the confusion that emotional blackmailers create in us. “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” (p. xi). And, even though emotional blackmailers don’t use heavy-handed abuse, it doesn’t mean that the stakes aren’t high. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of emotional blackmail can attest to that. One’s whole sense of self-respect in put in jeopardy. It’s a frequent, sometimes tragic, issue in therapy.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One is more diagnostic; how emotional blackmail operates – and why. Part Two is more prescriptive; what we can do about it. Dr. Forward believes we have many more choices than we realize, and choice empowers us.

One of the most helpful sections in Part One comes early in the book, as Dr. Forward identifies the “six deadly symptoms” (stages) of emotional blackmail. They are as follows:

1. Demand – For example, Jim “suggests” to Helen that he move in. After all, he practically lives at Helen’s already, so why not? Sounds innocent enough. So far.

2. Resistance – Helen feels uncomfortable and expresses such. She cares deeply for Jim, but wants him to have his own place. Her answer is clear. “No.”

3. Pressure – Jim begins to turn up the heat. Rather than respecting Helen’s feelings and wishes, he begins pushing her to change her mind; possibly even transforming Helen’s position into statements of her deficiencies – while casting his own “demands” in the most benevolent terms.

4. Threats – Realizing now that Helen’s not budging, Jim begins to threaten; that is to say, there will be consequences. For example, “If you can’t commit to this after all we’ve shared, maybe it’s time to begin seeing other people.”

5. Compliance – Because Helen is torn between what Jim wants (Demands!) and what she wants, she acquiesces and talks herself into the sensibility of this new arrangement. “Okay, let’s do it.”

6. Repetition – With Jim’s conquest comes a quiescent period. He’s gotten his way and the pressure is removed. The relationship appears to stabilize  – until the next time. In the meantime, Jim’s tactic is reinforced (good, old behavioral psychology). Pressuring–even threatening–Helen, intimidates and guilts her into getting what he wants.

Dr. Forward writes: “(Blackmailers) are people for whom blackmail is the ticket to feeling safe, and in charge. No matter how confident they look on the outside, (they) are operating out of high degrees of anxiety. But when they snap their fingers and we jump, for a moment our blackmailers can feel powerful. Emotional blackmail becomes their defense against feeling hurt and afraid” (p. xiv). She further adds: “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” (p. x).



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