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Emotional Blackmail: When the People In Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You

Emotional Blackmail: When the People In Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You

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by Susan Forward, Donna Frazier

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"If you really loved me..."

"After all I've done for you..."

"How can you be so selfish..."

Do any of the above sound familiar? They're all examples of emotional blackmail, 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


"If you really loved me..."

"After all I've done for you..."

"How can you be so selfish..."

Do any of the above sound familiar? They're all examples of emotional blackmail, 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 are our mothers, our partners, our bosses and coworkers, our friends and our lovers. And no matter how much they care about us, they use this intimate knowledge to give themselves the payoff they want: our compliance.

Susan Forward knows what pushes our hot buttons. Just as John Gray illuminates the communications gap between the sexes in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, and Harriet Lerner describes an intricate dynamic in The Dance of Anger, so Susan Forward presents the anatomy of a relationship damaged by manipulation, and gives readers an arsenal of tools to fight back. In her clear, no-nonsense style, Forward provides powerful, practical strategies for blackmail targets, including checklists, practice scenarios and concrete communications techniques that will strengthen relationships and break the blackmail cycle for good.

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An Excerpt from Emotional Blackmail

I told my husband I was going to take a class one night a week and he went ballistic in that quiet way of his. "Do whatever you want, you always do anyway," he told me, "but don't expect me to be waiting for you when you get home. I'm always there for you; why can't you be there for me?" I knew his argument didn't make sense, but it made me feel so selfish. I asked for my registration fee back. -- Liz

I was planning to spend Christmas traveling with my wife, a vacation we'd been looking forward to for months. I called my mom to tell her the news that we'd finally gotten the tickets, and she almost started to cry. "But what about Christmas dinner?" she said. "You know everyone always gets together for the holiday. If you go on that trip instead of coming, you'll ruin the holiday for everyone. How can you do this to me? How many Christmases do you think I have left?" So of course I gave in. My wife's going to kill me, but I don't see how I could enjoy a vacation while I'm buried under all that guilt. -- Tom

I went in to tell my boss that I had to have help or a more realistic deadline on a big project I'm doing. As soon as I mentioned that I really needed some relief, he started on me. "I know how much you want to get home to your family," he said, "but even though they miss you now, you know they'll appreciate that promotion we've been considering you for. We need a team player with real dedication for that job -- that's what I thought you were. But go ahead. Spend more time with the kids. Just remember that if those are your priorities, we might have to reconsider our plans for you." I felt totally blindsided. Now I don't know what to do. -- Kim

What's going on here? Why do certain people leave us thinking "I've lost again. I always give in. I didn't say what I was really feeling. Why can't I ever get my point across? How come I can never stand up for myself?" We know we've been had. We know we feel frustrated and resentful, and we know we've given up what we want to please someone else, but we just don't know what to do about it. Why is it that some people are able to emotionally overpower us, leaving us feeling defeated?

The people we're coming up against in these can't-win situations are skillful manipulators. They swathe us in a comforting intimacy when they get what they want, but they frequently wind up threatening us in order to get their way, or burying us under a load of guilt and self-reproach when they don't. It may seem as though they map out ways to get what they want from us, but often they're not even aware of what they're doing. In fact, many can appear sweet or long-suffering and not threatening at all.

Generally, it's one particular person -- a partner, a parent, a sibling, a friend -- who manipulates us so consistently that we seem to forget everything we know about being effective adults. Though we may be skilled and successful in other parts of our lives, with these people we feel bewildered, powerless. They've got us wrapped around their little fingers.

Take my client Sarah, a court reporter. Sarah, a vivacious brunette, has been seeing a builder named Frank for almost a year. A close couple in their 30s, they got along well -- until the subject of marriage came up. Then, said Sarah, "his whole demeanor toward me changed. He seemed to want me to prove myself." It all became clear one weekend when Frank invited her up for a romantic weekend at his cabin in the mountains. "When we arrived, the place was full of tarps and paint cans, and he handed me a brush. I didn't know what else to do, so I painted." They worked, mostly in silence, all day, and when they finally sat down to rest, Frank pulled out a huge diamond engagement ring.

"I asked him, 'What's going on?"' Sarah said, "and he said he needed to know that I was a good sport, that I would pitch in and not expect him to do everything in the marriage." Of course, that wasn't the end of the story.

We set a date and everything, but we went up and down like a yo-yo. He kept giving me gifts, but he also kept testing me. If I didn't want to go take care of his sister's kids one weekend, he said I didn't have a strong sense of family and maybe we should think about calling off the wedding. Or if I talked about expanding my business, it meant I wasn't really committed to him. So of course I put that on hold. It went on and on, with me always giving in. But I kept telling myself what a great guy he was and that maybe he was scared of getting married and just needed to feel more secure with me.

Frank's threats were quiet, yet they were powerfully effective because they alternated with a closeness enticing enough to obscure what was really going on. And like most of us, Sarah kept coming back for more.

She gave in to Frank's manipulations because, in the moment, making him happy seemed to make sense -- there was so much at stake. Like so many of us, Sarah felt resentful and frustrated at Frank's threats, but she justified her capitulation to them in the name of peace.

In such relationships, we keep our focus on the other person's needs at the expense of our own, and we relax into the temporary illusion of safety we've created for ourselves by giving in. We've avoided conflict, confrontation -- and the chance of a healthy relationship.

Maddening interactions like these are among the most common causes of friction in almost every relationship, yet they're rarely identified and understood. Often these instances of manipulation get labeled miscommunication. We tell ourselves, "I'm operating from feelings and he's operating from intellect" or "She's just coming from a different mind-set." But in reality, the source of friction isn't in communication styles. It's more in one person getting his or her way at the expense of another. These are more than simple misunderstandings -- they're power struggles.

Over the years I've searched for a way to describe these struggles and the troubling cycle of behavior they lead to, and I've found that people almost universally respond with a charge of recognition when I tell them that what we're talking about here is pure and simple blackmail -- emotional blackmail.

I realize that the term blackmail is one that conjures up sinister images of criminals, fear and extortion. Certainly it's difficult to think of your husband, your parents, your boss, your siblings or your children in that context. Yet I've found that blackmail is the only term that accurately describes what's going on. The very sharpness of the word helps us pierce the denial and confusion that cloud so many relationships, and doing that brings us to clarity.

Let me reassure you: 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.


Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don't do what they want. At the heart of any kind of blackmail is one basic threat, which can be expressed in many different ways: If you don't behave the way I want you to, you will suffer. A criminal blackmailer might threaten to use knowledge about a person's past to ruin her reputation, or ask to be paid off in cash to hide a secret. Emotional blackmail hits closer to home. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationship with them. They know our vulnerabilities. Often they know our deepest secrets. And no matter how much they care about us, when they fear they won't get their way, they use this intimate knowledge to shape the threats that give them the payoff they want: our compliance.

Knowing that we want love or approval, our blackmailers threaten to withhold it or take it away altogether, or make us feel we must earn it. For example, if you pride yourself on being generous and caring, the blackmailer might label you selfish or inconsiderate if you don't accede to his wishes. If you value money and security, the blackmailer might attach conditions to providing them or threaten to take them away. And if you believe the blackmailer, you could fall into a pattern of letting him control your decisions and behavior.

We get locked into a dance with blackmail, a dance with myriad steps, shapes and partners.


How do so many smart, capable people find themselves groping to understand behavior that seems so obvious? One key reason is that our blackmailers make it nearly impossible to see how they're manipulating us, because they lay down a thick fog that obscures their actions. We'd fight back if we could, but they ensure that we literally can't see what is happening to us. I use fog as both a metaphor for the confusion blackmailers create in us and as a lens for burning it off. FOG is a shorthand way of referring to Fear, Obligation and Guilt, the tools of the blackmailer's trade. 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.

Because it's so tough to cut through this FOG to recognize emotional blackmail when it's happening to you -- or even in retrospect -- I've devised the following checklist to help you determine if you are a blackmailer's target.

Do important people in your life:

  • Threaten to make your life difficult if you don't do what they want?

  • Constantly threaten to end the relationship if you don't do what they want?

  • Tell you or imply that they will neglect, hurt themselves or become depressed if you don't do what they want?

  • Always want more, no matter how much you give?

  • Regularly assume you will give in to them?

  • Regularly ignore or discount your feelings and wants?

  • Make lavish promises that are contingent on your behavior and then rarely keep them?

  • Consistently label you as selfish, bad, greedy, unfeeling or uncaring when you don't give in to them?

  • Shower you with approval when you give in to them and take it away when you don't?

  • Use money as a weapon to get their way?

If you answered yes to even one of these questions, you are being emotionally blackmailed. But I want to assure you that there are many changes you can put into practice immediately to improve your situation and the way you feel.

Excerpted from EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL, by Susan Forward, Ph.D. with Donna Frazier, published by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. Copyright © 1997 by Susan Forward. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Susan Jeffers
"Breathe a sigh of relief! Susan Forward helps you identify and correct an intensely destructive and confusing pattern of relating with those you love. I highly recommend this important book!"

Meet the Author

Susan Forward, PhD, is an internationally renowned therapist, lecturer, and author. Her books include the number-one New York Times bestsellers Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them and Toxic Parents. In addition to her private practice, she has served as a therapist, instructor, and consultant in numerous Southern California psychiatric and medical facilities.

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Emotional Blackmail: When the People In Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A friend gave me this book and though reading it I realized what I had been living with for far too long. It gave me ways to deal with my abusive husband and ways to gain back control in my life. It gave me the courage to get myself and my children out of an abusive 9 yr. marriage. This booked saved whatever soul I had left and helped me to rebuild my life. I give this book to friends that are going through the same.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have the older version by Dr. Forward and was just stunned as I read the book. Here is an author who, for the most part, accurately described the environment in which I grew up. I'm appreciative of this book because Dr. Forward gives many suggestions and examples for dealing with emotional blackmail. At the same time, Dr. Forward does not encourage or even hint at one donning a martyrdom behavior either.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books that I save and re-read from time to time. My last relationship was with an angry, controlling Dr. Jekyl, Mr. Hyde. After I broke up with him, we bumped into each other on the street. One minute he was begging me to give him a second chance, the next minute he was blaming me for everything and tried to make me feel guilty. Fortunately, after reading this book, I recognized the emotional blackmail for what it was and called him on it. Additionally, I told him he was trying to dish out guilt and I was simply not going to accept it. He stood there silent and stunned. I had stood up for myself. I walked away feeling dignified and empowered. This book helped me take a step forward in my self-discovery and growth!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book helped me grow in ways I never thought possible. The person in my life who used Emotional Blackmail on me daily, was totally intimidating to me. After reading this book, I was able to confront this person and let it be known that this type of communication was unacceptable to me. It was a hard, painful process however, the outcome has been wonderful. No more Emotional Blackmailing and I feel more in control of my life. I recommend that you buy this book and refer to it often and as needed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book discusses the "FOG" - Fear Obligation and Guilt. I'm taking time to get my life in order after a fall out with my remaining parent and this book was recommended to me. It's my opinion that manipulation using the techniques of the emotional black mailer is one of the most common forms of emotional abuse. The book will certainly assure you that you are not alone. If you feel like you've been in the FOG or even may be in it, then I highly recommend buying this book. Tempting to give to the emotional black mailer when you're done with it, but it's not something I will do or I would advise.
HONEST-HEARTED More than 1 year ago
the book is not a book i would have picked but it was a book i was asked to read. i read it lightly, then i read a line that sounded like my life, like my world. it doesn't matter if you start to read it lightly just start to read it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book should be read my all who lives with guilt, from things they had no controll over, even for the ones that seem to control. This book plus others, Lucky, The Lost Boy, Secrets in the Night, are very helpful. Keep up the good work.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my family in a nutshell even my biological has even gone too far as to petition the Florida court to have me put into a '' forced guardianship '' yup you heard right a '' forced guardianship '' and no I am not disabled and I'm not a mentally retarded woman as some have falsely accused me of being that, slamming a young woman in her 40's into a forced guardianship along with humiliating her by dumping her in a place for the elderly is more then humiliating enough. and this has been going on since 2011 I am so emotionally broken from within that no one can possibly really understand what I'm going through because they cannot walk in my shoes just like I cannot walk in theirs. but I will let you all in on a secret concerning how to get through the nightmares that each of us may experience but God forbid that but here it is, never allow anyone to tell you who you are, meaning never allow anyone to shape your life to what they think it ought to be because that is only for us that individual to decide, not the courts or anyone other than us ourselves because as I said our lives were given to us and not to others. and don't let anyone try to break your spirit because '' we are who we choose to be''. and last but certainly not least, never stop believing in yourself nor in your abilities. and do I believe that I will be free from '' forced guardianship? Yes I do. so with all that said just know that you all are loved. I love you and I believe in you.
BruceWayne90016 More than 1 year ago
Wow! When I first saw this book (which seemed to glimmer or BEAM with a glowing light off of the shelf at me) I read the front cover and 2 pages inside the book and knew right away that this book was coming home with me. Through so much damaging emotional torment from cultural crap and tradition, the writings of this fantastic woman has helped me recognize various ways in which the "toxic trio" can and often is used. 5 Stars ALL The WAY for this book and Dr. Susan Forward & Fonna Frazier's work!  
AVR_37 More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books that you read it once and you keep coming back for more, and each time it makes you a stronger person. I have shared this book with many family members and close personal friends (some who are themselves “Emotional Blackmailers”); and I can honestly say that it has changed how we relate to one another. Whether you acknowledge it or not. Everyone has been a victim of “Emotional Blackmail” It come at you in all shapes and sizes and labels, Friends, Family and strangers. This book takes you on a journey of self discovery. That brings you face to face with your most dormant fears and with the people “you’ve unknownly empower” to use them against you. If you feel that you have lost control of your life read this book and get it back!. Thank you Susan, for writing such an impressive and insightful book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book and easy reading. When dealing with an emotional blackmailer, define your stand, state what is satisfactory for a solution, and give the other person a choice. By not giving the other person a choice, you then take on the role of the emotional blackmailer. "Be an observer of both yourself and the other person." Some people might see another side to this that you can place on any self help book, everyone is pretty much messed up. No way ;) this book defines me. In my medical training I have learned that there is no set definition for emotional or physical pain, because it is as they perceive it. We all have a different awareness of what is normal. In reflecting back on the book, one can create a sense of balance within them self when able to cut through the FOG (fear, obligation, and guilt).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book during a relationship in which was over, but I was coerced into staying into. My ex used guilt, fear and manipulation to keep me in the realtionship another 4 years. I was able to use most of the information to my advantage, learned a great deal about myself and how I react to others, and began to stand up for myself and my beliefs. The book also has scenarios with sample responses that were really helpful for me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I find this book leaves alot to be desired. From the authors point of view, practically everyone is a manipulator including parents who warn their children of consequences for bad behavior. To Dr. Forward a person that clearly communicates ones intentions when faced with unacceptable behavior is manipulative. This hints of 'black and white' thinking and makes me question her credibility. I was especially surprised by the assumption that some one that chooses to disengage from a confrontation with a significant other that has abandonment issues is being manipulative. I do believe that taking a 'time out' is one of the most common recommendations from any professional in a conflict. Over all there are too many contradictions for this to be taken seriously.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book really helped me see how my mother was using Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to get me to betray my friends and myself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I read the examples, I was surprised to find how many of them fit present and past experiences. A further surprise was being shown how my own actions/non-actions allowed emotional blackmail into my life. I recommend this to anyone beginning to realize that living with verbal/mental abuse is an unhealthy choice.