The toxic cycle of emotional blackmail and how to stop it

stop emotional blackmail

“I will kill myself if you leave me.”

“I’ve done everything to make you happy. Why can’t you do just this simple thing for me?”

“If you will not do this, I will tell everyone your secret.”

“I thought you loved me.”

“If you really loved me, you’ll do this for me.”

It’s quite hard to go down the memory lane, but I’ve heard a few of these before. Been there, done that.

If you’re familiar with this too, then you’ve been emotionally blackmailed. According to Susan Forward, emotional blackmail is about manipulation.

It happens when someone close to us uses our weaknesses, secrets, and vulnerabilities against us to get exactly what they want from us.

And personally, I couldn’t agree more. Good thing I grew my spine and took back the life that’s mine.

Well, maybe it’s my zodiac sign (I’m a Libra) which is represented by the scales to show our need for justice, balance, and harmony or maybe it’s some higher power that told me something’s wrong. But what I knew was that I don’t want to live a life feeling worthless.

So, from a previous victim to a present-day victor, let me give you an overview of emotional blackmail.

Emotional blackmail is something people do when they’re desperate to get you to do what they want. 

It’s a manipulative tool generally used by people in close relationships: partners, parents and children, siblings and close childhood friends.

It is in these relationships, where people’s lives are closely linked, that emotional blackmail is at its strongest. 

In this article, I’m going to go deeper into what emotional blackmail is, how it manifests and how you can handle it (and escape unscathed). 

What is emotional blackmail relationship?

emotional blackmail relationship

According to the book, Emotional Blackmail:

“Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten to punish us for not doing what they want. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationships with them. They know our vulnerabilities and our deepest secrets. They can be our parents or partners, bosses or coworkers, friends or lovers. And no matter how much they care about us, they use this intimate knowledge to win the pay-off they want: our compliance.”

Needless to say, it is a tactic used by the people closest to us to hurt and manipulate us, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Emotional blackmail involves the blackmailer telling someone that if they don’t do as they say, they’ll end up suffering for it. 

The blackmailer might say:

“If you leave me, I’ll kill myself”

No-one wants to be responsible for a suicide, and so the blackmailer wins. 

Sometimes the threats are less extreme, but still designed to play on the victim’s natural fears. The blackmailer might make the victim believe that they will end up isolated or disliked if they don’t do what they’re asking. For example, they might say:

“Everyone agrees with me. You shouldn’t be doing that”

Usually, an emotional blackmailer won’t just come out with big statements now and again. Their emotional blackmail will be part of a bigger pattern of emotional abuse where they’ll use more minor forms of blackmail and blame regularly.

They might say:

“If you could have given me a lift, I wouldn’t have been late for work”

They’ll say this even though they know that you couldn’t give them a lift because you had an appointment to be at, and despite the fact that they’re an adult who should be responsible for getting themselves to work. 

Why do people use emotional blackmail?

Most people use some form of minor emotional blackmail occasionally.

We’ve all been guilty of getting frustrated when someone hasn’t done something that we would like them to have done.

For example, you might complain that your boyfriend didn’t pick up any chocolate on the way home, even though he knew you were sick.

While it can become a problem if it’s frequent, it’s not something to be too concerned about on its own. 

People who use serious emotional blackmail are abusers attempting to control another person’s thoughts and feelings.

Emotional blackmailers are very good at making their victims feel powerless and confused.

They can often manage to make their victim feel as if they’re being completely reasonable, and that it is the victim who is being unreasonable. 

Emotional blackmail victims often find themselves trying to anticipate their blackmailer’s moods and will apologize profusely for things that weren’t their fault. 

Fear, obligation and guilt

The term emotional blackmail was popularized by leading therapists and psychologists Susan Forward and Donna Frazier in their 1974 book of the same name.

The book also introduced the concept of fear, obligation and guilt, or FOG.

FOG is what emotional blackmailers rely on for success. Their victims can be manipulated by them because they feel scared of them, obligated to them and guilty for not doing what they’ve been asked. 

The blackmailer knows very well that their victim feels like this, and quickly learns which parts of the FOG triad are most effective in manipulating them. They get to learn which emotional triggers will work. 

Emotional blackmailers, like any abusers, are often very good at spotting the people who are likely to respond to them the best. 

What types of emotional blackmail are there?

Forward and Frazier identified four different types of emotional blackmailers. These are:


Punishers will threaten to directly hurt the person they’re blackmailing. They might stop you from seeing your friends, or withdraw affection, or even physically hurt you if you don’t do what they say. 


Self-punishers will threaten to hurt themselves as a form of blackmail, and will tell you that it will be your fault if they do. 


Sufferers will blame you for their emotional state. They’ll expect you to comply with their wishes to make them feel better. They might say “Go out with your friends if you want, but I’ll spend the whole evening feeling sad and lonely if you do.”


Tantalizers won’t make direct threats, but will dangle the promise of something better if you do what they ask. So they might say “I’ll book us a holiday if you stay home with me this weekend”.

The stages of emotional blackmail

Forward and Frazier identified six stages of emotional blackmail. 

Stage 1: A demand

The blackmailer tells the victim what they want from them, and adds an emotional threat to it: “if you leave me I’ll hurt myself”.

Stage 2: Resistance

The victim initially resists the demand, unsurprisingly, as the demand is often unreasonable.

Stage 3: Pressure

The blackmailer pressures their victim to give in, without caring how they make them feel. They will often deliberately try and make the victim feel scared and confused, so that they will begin to wonder whether their initial resistance was reasonable.

Stage 4: A threat

The blackmail itself. “If you don’t do as I say, then I will…”.

Stage 5: Compliance

The victim gives into the threat

Stage 6: The pattern is set

The emotional blackmail cycle ends, but the pattern is now set and the blackmail will almost certainly happen again.

Strategies and signs of emotional blackmail

There are three strategies that manipulators use to blackmail their victims. They can use just one or a combination of three until you submit to them.

The strategies involve everything that makes you tick. Being aware of these tactics will help you identify the behaviors you might not have otherwise recognized as manipulative.

These strategies create a FOG in their relationships, which is an acronym that stands for fear, obligation, guilt. The following is a detailed discussion about the three techniques used:

They use your fears (F)

According to this study, fear is an emotion that protects us from danger. The fear we feel when we anticipate that something bad will happen and the fear of losing our loved ones are one and the same.

Sad to say, some people use our fears to make us comply with their demands. To hold a person hostage emotionally, manipulators use different kinds of fears such as:

  1. Fear of the unknown
  2. Fear of abandonment
  3. Fear of upsetting someone
  4. Fear of confrontation
  5. Fear of tricky situations
  6. Fear for your own physical safety

They use your sense of obligation (O)

Manipulators make us feel obligated to give them their way. With that, they use different techniques to press our buttons to the point that we see ourselves in a very bad light if we don’t do our obligations.

For example, a manipulator parent will remind the child about all the sacrifices made or nag about ungratefulness when the child does not do what the parent wants.

Another thing is when your partner claims that they would do whatever it is they have asked you to do so you should do what he/she tells you.

Whatever it is they use, it will definitely make us feel duty bound to do what they want, even when we don’t like it.

They use guilt-tripping (G)

What comes after being obligated to do something is the guilt of not doing it. Manipulators make it seem like we deserve to be punished for not doing our obligations.

If you’ve been guilt-tripped for just being happy when your partner or friend is feeling down, then you’re emotionally blackmailed.

What are the types of emotional blackmail roles?

emotional blackmail roles

According to Sharie Stines:

“Manipulation is an emotionally unhealthy psychological strategy used by people who are incapable of asking for what they want and need in a direct way. People who are trying to manipulate others are trying to control others.”

For emotional blackmail to occur, the manipulator needs to make a demand followed by a threat if the victim refuses to comply.

And if you don’t know it yet, manipulators adopt one or more roles using one or more of the strategies discussed above to emotionally blackmail you. Here are the four types of roles used to get you to do what they want:

1. Punisher role

This role uses the fear strategy where they threaten to punish you if demands are not met. They tell you what the consequences are if you will not do a particular thing.

The punishments include but is not limited to withholding affection, ending the relationship, restricting you from seeing friends and family, financial penalties, and physical punishment.

2. Self-punisher role

Self-punishers threaten to harm themselves just to get what they want. It’s a way to trigger fear and guilt so that you’ll be compelled to do what is being asked.

My personal experience involved my then boyfriend cutting himself with a blade in front of me to get what he wanted. However, it can also be someone close to you threatening to take their own life or harm themselves if you do not do what they ask you to do.

3. Sufferer role

Sufferers use fear, obligation, and guilt tactics to manipulate people. They use and hold their misery over their partner’s head to get what they want.

For example, they will claim that the state they’re in, whether physical, mental, or emotional, is the fault of the other person. Other manipulations include telling you that they will suffer if you refuse to do what they want you to do.

4. Tantalizer role

Tantalizers promise a reward, which will never materialize. It’s like leading you on and asking you to do something in return for something else, but it’s usually not a fair trade.

An example is when your partner, friend or family member makes lavish promises that are contingent on your behavior and then rarely keep them.

Examples of emotional blackmail statements

emotional blackmail statements

While this list may not cover all, this will help you identify what is and what is not an emotional blackmail statement:

  1. If I ever see another man look at you I will kill him.
  2. If you ever stop loving me I will kill myself/kill you.
  3. I’ve already discussed this with our pastor/therapist/friends/family and they agree that you are being unreasonable.
  4. I’m taking this vacation – with or without you.
  5. How can you say you love me and still be friends with them?
  6. You’ve ruined my life and now you are trying to stop me from spending money to take care of myself.
  7. It was your fault that I was late for work.
  8. If you wouldn’t cook in an unhealthy way, I wouldn’t be overweight.
  9. I would have gotten ahead in my career if you had done more at home.
  10. If you don’t take care of me, I’ll wind up in the hospital/on the street/unable to work.
  11. You’ll never see your kids again.
  12. I’ll make you suffer.
  13. You’ll destroy this family.
  14. You’re not my child anymore.
  15. You’ll be sorry.
  16. I’m cutting you out of my will.
  17. I’ll get sick.
  18. I can’t make it without you.
  19. If you’ll not have sex with me, I will get it from someone else.
  20. If you can’t buy me a new phone, you’re a worthless sister/mom/dad/brother/lover.

How to STOP emotional blackmail

emotional blackmail how to stop

1. Change your mindset

“Change is the scariest word in the English language. No one likes it, almost everyone is terrified of it, and most people, including me, will become exquisitely creative to avoid it. Our actions may be making us miserable, but the idea of doing anything differently is worse. Yet if there’s one thing I know with absolute certainty, both personally and professionally, it is this: Nothing will change in our lives until we change our own behavior.” – Susan Forward

You deserve respect. Period.

You need to change your mindset and approach the situation in a different way. Change is scary but it’s the only thing that will help you. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a ruined life.

2. Choose a healthy relationship

“Yet if there’s one thing I know with absolute certainty, both personally and professionally, it is this: Nothing will change in our lives until we change our own behavior. Insight won’t do it. Understanding why we do the self-defeating things we do won’t make us stop doing them. Nagging and pleading with the other person to change won’t do it. We have to act. We have to take the first step down a new road.” – Susan Forward

We all have choices about how to engage in a relationship: As a human being, you have the right to negotiate for a healthier relationship or end the relationship.

Remember that no relationship is worth your emotional and mental health. If it is becoming too toxic, you always have the choice to do what’s good for you.

3. Set boundaries

Sharie Stines, a California-based therapist who specializes in abuse and toxic relationships said:

“People who manipulate have lousy boundaries. You have your own volitional experience as a human being and you need to know where you end and the other person begins. Manipulators often have either boundaries that are too rigid or enmeshed boundaries.”

When you set boundaries, it tells the manipulator that you’re done being manipulated. It may be scary at first but when you successfully break this toxic behavior pattern, it means you have started to love yourself.

So, learn to say “no” and “stop” when needed.

RELATED: What J.K Rowling can teach us about mental toughness

4. Confront the blackmailer

You cannot set the boundaries unless you try and confront the manipulator. If you want to save the relationship, you can try these examples:

  1. You are pushing our relationship to the edge and I feel uncomfortable.
  2. You are not taking me seriously when I tell you how unhappy I am with your actions.
  3. We need to find ways to deal with conflicts that do not leave me feeling emotionally abused and worthless.
  4. I always comply with your demands and I feel depleted. I am not willing to live like that anymore.
  5. I need to be treated with respect because I deserve it.
  6. Let’s talk about it, don’t threaten and punish me.
  7. I’m not going to tolerate those manipulative behaviors anymore.

5. Get psychological help for the manipulator

Rarely, emotional blackmailers own up to their mistakes. If you want to save the relationship, you can request that he or she get psychological help where positive negotiation and communication skills will be taught.

If they are truly taking responsibility for their actions, they will be open to creating a safer environment in the relationship and that is through eliminating emotional blackmails. Manipulators who take accountability show hope for learning and change.

6. Love is without blackmail

“Some people earn love. Some people blackmail others into it.” – Rebekah Crane, The Upside of Falling Down

Know that true love has no blackmail attached to it. When a person truly loves you, there is no threat involved.

See the situation as it is. Safety is the primary element of defining a healthy or not healthy relationship. When you’re being threatened, it’s no longer safe for you.

7. Remove yourself or the manipulator in the equation

Oftentimes, you cannot make a manipulator take responsibility for his actions. However, you can control yourself and act on it.

When you remove yourself from the situation (break up or move away), you will no longer be subject to threats, thus stopping the cycle. Dr. Christina Charbonneau said:

“We all have choices, and you can choose to help yourself. Stop the vicious cycle of allowing yourself to be emotionally blackmailed by others by questioning what others are saying to you before you simply take it as fact and believe it.”

A Take Home Message

emotional blackmail

Emotional blackmail is a vicious cycle that strips away your self-worth and fills you with fear and doubt.

Being in that situation years ago, I’ve realized how lucky I am to come out scratch-free. And it was because I took a stand, no matter how suicidal and verbally abusive the manipulator became.

But not all are as lucky as me.

If you’re emotionally blackmailed, you don’t have to endure it. Yes, you can still take back your life.

It all starts by knowing your worth.

And let me tell you this.

You deserve to be loved and respected.

RELATED: I was deeply unhappy…then I discovered this one Buddhist teaching

Why people become emotional blackmailers

People who resort to emotional blackmail often have a complex history that has led them to a place where their relationships are toxic and they are abusive. 

Often, they will have had an emotionally abusive childhood and will have been on the receiving end of emotional blackmail from their parents.

This can mean that they find it very difficult to know what it normal and what is not, and they may lack enough knowledge of what a healthy relationship looks like to be able to build one themselves. 

Their work colleagues and friends might not realize this about them, because they don’t have an intense relationship with high emotional stakes with those people.

But with a partner, things are different, and the abuse and blackmail comes out. 

There are some personality traits that many emotional blackmailers share. They include:

Lack of empathy

Most people are able to imagine what it might be like to be another person.

This means it’s difficult for them to consciously cause someone else harm (think how difficult many people find it to end a relationship that has run its course, for example).

Emotional blackmailers often don’t have real empathy. When they do imagine they’re in someone else’s shoes, it’s usually from a position of distrust.

They think that they other person wants to cause them harm, and this justifies the way they treat them. 

Low self-esteem

It may seem like a bit of a cliche, but it is often true that emotional blackmailers, like all abusers, have low levels of self-worth.

Rather than seeking to raise their self-esteem, they look to lower that of those they’re closest to.

They’re often very needy, and look for a relationship to give them all the things they feel they’re missing elsewhere.

Their lack of self-esteem can mean they struggle to form close friendships, so their romantic partner is all they have.

This means that if they think that partner is growing away from them, they can get increasingly desperate to make them say and resort to ever more extreme emotional blackmail.

Tendency to blame others

Emotional blackmailers are rarely able to accept that they are responsible for problems in their relationship, or for failings in other areas of their life, such as their careers.

Rather than thinking about whether they could have done something else differently, they tend to assume that someone else is at fault for their pain.

This means they feel justified in threatening their victims.

Why some people are more likely to be emotional blackmail victims than others

No-one is ever to blame for being the victim of emotional blackmail. The responsibility is entirely with the blackmailer. 

That said, there are some personality traits that can make it more likely that a blackmailer (or any emotional abuser) will target you. They look for people who are more likely to respond to their abuse. That can mean:

  • People with low-self-esteem, who are less likely to feel that they deserve a healthy relationship. 
  • People who have a heightened fear of upsetting others, so that they’re more likely to give in to the blackmail.
  • People who have a strong sense of duty or obligation, so that they’re more likely to feel that they should go along with what the emotional blackmailer wants.
  • People who tend to take responsibility or others’ feelings easily and who tend to feel guilty for things that they didn’t cause. 

Not every emotional blackmail victim will display these all or any of these traits initially. Most will begin to over time as a result of the emotional blackmail.

Someone who is capable of upsetting others when they need to in a work or family situation,  for example, might find it very difficult to do the same when they’re in an abusive relationship with an emotional blackmailer.

Being subject to long-term emotional blackmail and abuse can change your personality.

Emotional blackmail and other types of abuse

Emotional blackmail often goes hand-in-hand with other forms of abuse, both emotional and physical. Emotional blackmailers often have a personality disorder, particularly narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.

People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) desperately need people to be with them and have relationships with them.

If they feel as if they are losing someone, they often resort to increasingly extreme measures to try and make them stay, including emotional blackmail.

They are not necessarily deliberately manipulative, but the nature of their disorder means they cannot deal with relationship difficulties.

People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) use emotional blackmail in a deliberately manipulative way.

Narcissists often take pleasure in causing others pain, so they can use emotional blackmail as a way of making other people feel bad and gaining control over them.

Victims of narcissistic emotional blackmailers will often continue to give in to their demands because they don’t fully understand the degree to which the narcissist lacks empathy.

Parent and child emotional blackmail

While much of the focus of this article is on couple relationships, emotional blackmail frequently happens between parents and children.

Many people grow up being so used to their parents emotionally blackmailing them that, as adults, they fail to see the signs in an abuser.

They are often key targets for emotional blackmailers who like having them as partners as they’re so deep in FOG, they are easy to blackmail.

If you grew up with an emotional blackmailer for a parent, it might be difficult to see their behavior for what it was.

It’s often very hard to detach as an adult, but doing so is the route to healing from an emotionally abusive childhood.

How to tell if you’re being emotionally blackmailed

Because emotional blackmailers often rely on their victims being confused by their behavior and unsure of themselves, it can be hard to tell if you’re being emotionally blackmailed.

You’ll often feel that something isn’t right, but not know exactly what. You might recognize that your relationship isn’t the same as other people’s, but you might not realize why. 

Here are some tell-tale signs that you’re a victim of emotional blackmail:

  • You often find yourself trying to find a reason to say sorry for something, even though you’re not entirely sure that you have something to say sorry for. 
  • You often feel that you need to be responsible for your partner’s feelings. 
  • You’re often scared of what mood your partner might be in and try to anticipate their moods.
  • You seem to be constantly making sacrifices for their sake without getting the same in return.
  • They always seem to be in control.

How to handle emotional blackmail

Handling emotional blackmail is incredibly difficult, because the whole purpose of emotional blackmail, from the blackmailer’s point of view, is to confuse and disarm you so you don’t know how to deal with them. 

The first thing to remember is that you cannot change their behavior. You can only change how you react to it. 

That is hard, especially if you’re deep in FOG and have been for some time. This means that usually, the way to deal with emotional blackmail is to detach completely from the blackmailer. Do whatever you need to do to remove yourself from the situation.

This won’t be easy. You might find that you need some support from people you trust. Because emotional blackmailers threaten harm either to you or themselves, leaving is exceptionally hard.

If you have a trusted friend you can confide in, speak with them and ask them to be your guide. Because you’re so deeply involved in the situation, you may not be able to see a way out on your own.

Once you have put some distance between yourself and the blackmailer, you’ll be in a position to make real decisions.

Victims of emotional blackmail are often natural people-pleasers who find it difficult not to do everything they can to keep the other person happy. 

If you do need to talk to the blackmailer, try and be as neutral as possible rather than engaging in an emotional exchange.

Use language that makes it clear that you aren’t taking responsibility for their feelings. You could say “I’m sorry you feel like that”.

This doesn’t dismiss them completely, but it means you’re not taking responsibility for them.

If you decide to leave the blackmailer permanently, then be aware that they may escalate their attempts to emotionally blackmail you.

They’ve relied for a long time on you complying with their blackmail, and so you leaving them will scare and unsettle them.

Be wiling to close down all forms of communication, including blocking them on social media, 


Emotional blackmail is a form of emotional abuse. Blackmailers rely on their victims being frightened of the consequences of not doing what they ask and on them losing sight of what is normal. 

Emotional blackmail is a widely-used term, made popular by psychologists Forward and Frazier.

They identified that victims of emotional blackmail are usually stuck in a state of fear, obligation and guilt, and that these are the emotions blackmailers rely on for their blackmail to be effective. 

Usually, the only way to escape from a relationship characterized by emotional blackmail is to leave, whether permanently or not. This can be very difficult, and potentially dangerous.

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