(Upon reflection, it seems to me that this blog post is an apropos follow-up to the Wanting & Letting Go blog posts…)
Lately, I’ve been reading a powerful book written by Susan Forward, Ph.D called Emotional Blackmail and I am struck by how prevalent this type of behavior has been through my life: how often I’ve been emotionally blackmailed since early childhood and how I’ve unconsciously played the role of blackmailer to others. Forward writes about the presence of Fear, Obligation, and Guilt (FOG) as prime indicators that emotional blackmail is occurring. She describes the many different overt and covert ways that emotional blackmail manifests. Essentially, the threat presented by any blackmailer can be summed up as follows: “If you do not do what I want you to do, you’re going to suffer.”
Yikes! Sounds very cold-hearted, unloving, and uncaring, yes? Blackmail is an overt and clearly power imbalanced quid pro quo crime. You do what the blackmailer wants and in exchange, they do not visit the threatened suffering upon you. Pretty mean and ruthless, yes?
And that’s just plain old criminal blackmail. Emotional blackmail is more insidious, subtle, and often an unconscious series of choices and behaviors. I find it fascinating that we are more apt to emotionally blackmail those whom we profess to love and care about the most – our kids, our spouses, lovers, friends, and other family members. When emotional blackmail is happening, there is no thought for the well-being of the person being blackmailed. Instead, the focus for all involved parties is on placating the blackmailer.
In her book, Forward describes the “Six Deadly Symptoms”: 1) The Demand, 2) Resistance, 3) Pressure, 4) Threats, 5) Compliance, and 6) Repetition. She then goes on to illuminate the “faces” of blackmail or the categories of blackmailers: 1) Punishers, 2) Self-Punishers, 3) Sufferers, and 4) Tantalizers.
Blackmailers who are overt Punishers dangle threat of tangible damage, destruction, and loss (Examples: “You will never see our kids again.” “I will divorce you and take you for every penny you have.” “I will post compromising pictures of you on social media.” “You will never have sex with me again.” “I will disown you.”). When they want their way (or don’t get it), the covert Punishers throw up a wall of silence, withholding connection, affection, communication, support, and good will… AND make you guess what you must do to regain their good will again.
The Self-Punishers remind me of the scene in the film, Blazing Saddles where the new sheriff dramatically puts his gun to his own head and threatens to shoot himself unless the (bigoted and violent) townspeople put down their weapons (which are already trained on the new sheriff because they disapprove of his race and ethnicity). Self-Punishers threaten suicide or engage in other types of self harm. A prime example is: “If you leave me, I’m going to kill myself.”
These folks are already feeling tortured, sick, miserable, and unhappy and the message from them is “my continued misery is your fault.” Why? Because you should have already KNOWN what I want and given it to me. Even when asked what they want, the sufferers still don’t come out with it. When angry, they retort, “you already know.” When down and depressed, they might go mute or sigh, “nothing.” Another aspect of the sufferer is the victim of circumstance. “I’m unlucky.” “Nobody ever gives me a chance.” This kind of sufferer preys on the rescuer in us. “I could succeed. I could turn this around. I could really make a go at this… IF you give me what I want.”
These emotional blackmailers are subtle vampires. They take and take while dangling the proverbial “carrot” just in front of us. They hypnotize us with all sorts of seductive potential gifts (whatever they perceive we really want: time, attention, material gain, specific opportunities, and so forth) and while we are led on by their promises, we are pre-paying them by giving them what they want.
Do any of these faces sound familiar to you? Have you worn any of these faces yourself?
Forward then goes on to explain how it takes two to engage in emotional blackmail. When we are the “victim” of emotional blackmail, we often do not realize that we actually have power to stop the pain. More on that in Part 2…