What is Emotional Blackmail?

By: Christine Hammond, LMHC
Movies love to portray the Inner and outer conflict that arises from being blackmailed, especially when someone’s life hangs in the balance. There is the villain (the blackmailer), the victim (the target), a demand (what is being asked for), and a threat (what negative thing will happen if the victim refuses to comply). But blackmail does not have to be a life or death threat to be real. It can be more subtle than that.
Blackmail. Here are a couple of examples in everyday life. At school, one child says to another, “If you don’t say I’m the coolest, then I’ll beat you up.” In a neighborhood, it is a neighbor threatening to do property damage if turned into the homeowner’s board. At the office, a co-worker who knows some private personal information threatens to use it against another in exchange for a small fee. This type of blackmail has some sort of physical or tangible harm attached.
Emotional Blackmail. This is a bit different. The threat is not tangible, rather it is emotional. Susan Forward and Diane Frazier (Forward and Frazier, 1997), coined the acronym FOG (fear, obligation, and guilt) to describe the three main emotions a blackmailer uses against a victim. Because the threat is not tangible, the villain can easily claim no responsibility. Their logic is that if the victim did not feel fear, obligation, or guilt then they wouldn’t be able to blackmail them. The target gives into the demand because they don’t want to experience the negative emotion. This is often cyclical and can build in intensity as the threats are effective.
Fear. In order for a blackmailer to be successful, they must know what the target fears. This fear is often deep rooted such as fear of abandonment, loneliness, humiliation, and failure. These fears tend to be unique in intensity to individuals so one person may not perceive that a threat is being made while another one is mortified. The allows the villain to have some additional cover in their deception. A common threat is “If you don’t do this,” the blackmailer will leave the relationship, isolate the victim from friends, ridicule the victim in front of family, or expose some past failure.
Obligation. This is a favorite blackmail tactic of most addicts. In order for an addict to justify their addiction, they need to blame others. This refusal of accepting any responsibility for their behavior translates into projecting responsibility onto others. Thus, emotional blackmail through obligation is born. The victim, who is usually the enabler, repeatedly falls into this trap hoping that by doing what is asked, the villain will stop. However they don’t, it just escalates. Here are a couple of examples. “I won’t need to look at porn if you gave me sex.” “If you kick me out of the house, I’ll be forced further into my addiction (or some criminal activity).” “If you don’t take the fall for me, I’ll wind up losing my job (in prison, homeless, or dead).”
Guilt. This type of emotional blackmail is more commonly known as “guilt-tripping.” Unlike the other two categories, this one has a mutual negative threat attached to the villain. The threat is designed to make the victim feel guilty for causing some negative outcome to the blackmailer. Many times the guilt is implied and the demand is not overtly stated. For instance, “You make me feel so angry (rejected, abandoned, or unloved),” “Only a selfish person would do that,” or “If only my life was as easy (good) as yours.” These backhanded remarks leave the victim feeling guilty for causing some pain to the villain. However, the pain does not have to be real for the blackmailer to utilize it, rather it is a projection of the pain the target might feel.

Understanding emotional blackmail is a critical step in eliminating its effectiveness. The next part is harder; the target must stop being a victim. This can be done by ignoring the comments or refusing to cave into the demands.

To schedule an appointment with Christine Hammond, please call our office at 407-647-7005.

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