As the last of her children left for college, Janet realized she was done with her marriage. She had maintained the image of a “perfect family” for too long. It took her several years to get to this point – including many hours with a counselor – but after all that time she was finally here and ready to move forward into a new phase of life. The emotional, mental, verbal, and financial abuse she endured had taken its’ toll on her and while she was no longer impacted by it daily, she knew did not want to live with it anymore.
She, of course, had asked her husband to get help, but he refused. Instead, he only escalated his emotional abuse tactics to include emotional blackmail. The regular, more frequent abuses of name-calling (verbal), gaslighting (mental), and interfering with her success at work (financial) were typical experiences and ones she already knew how to counteract. But the emotional blackmail she was now experiencing was intense and far more hurtful.
Gangster movies such as “The Godfather” 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 situation to be real or significant. Emotional blackmail is a subtle threat. Here is how it works:
What is Blackmail? For Janet to understand the impact of emotional blackmail, it was helpful for her to think of examples of blackmail in everyday life. Here is a couple of them. 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.
What is Emotional Blackmail? This is a bit different. The threat is not tangible, instead, it is emotional. Susan Forward and Diane Frazier (Forward and Frazier, 1997), coined the acronym FOG (fear, obligation, and guilt) to describe the three primary emotions a blackmailer uses against a victim. Because the threat is not tangible, the villain can easily claim no responsibility. Janet’s husband used Janet’s fears, her sense of obligation to the family, and feelings of guilt to make demands of her. Janet, unknowingly at first, gave in to his demands of perfection because she didn’t want to experience the negative emotions. This is often cyclical and can build in intensity as the threats are incredibly useful.
Fear. After being married for so long, Janet’s husband knew which fears to target for Janet. Apparent fears are left alone such as a fear of spiders or heights. Instead, the fear targeted is deep-rooted such as a fear of abandonment, loneliness, humiliation, or 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. This allows the villain to have some additional cover in their deception. Janet’s fear was of failure. Her husband threatened to tell Janet’s boss about how she got fired years ago if Janet didn’t stop hanging out with a friend her husband did not like. Other examples include, “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 other past failures.
Obligation. As a functioning alcoholic, Janet’s husband talked and acted like most addicts including using this blackmail tactic. Addicts need to justify their use of a substance, so they blame others for things they are responsible for doing. This refusal of accepting any responsibility translates into projecting responsibility unfairly onto others. Thus, emotional blackmail through obligation is born. Janet, who is the enabler to her husband, repeatedly fell into this trap hoping that by doing what is asked, her husband will stop. However, he didn’t, and matters just escalated. Here are a couple of examples. “If you kick me out of the house, I’ll drink more, and the kids will blame you.” “If you don’t take the fall for me (because he was late and missed an important work meeting), I’ll lose my job and then we will lose the house.” “I won’t drink if you give me sex.”
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 Janet feel guilty for causing some negative outcome to her husband. 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 left Janet feeling guilty for causing some pain to her husband. However, the pain does not have to be real to her for her husband to utilize it, rather it is a projection of the pain that he might be feeling.
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 in to the demands. For Janet, she had enough and left. If you are unsure of how emotional blackmail may be playing a role in your life, get help – and be ready to maybe make some tough decisions.