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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.
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL?
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.
LOST IN THE FOG
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.