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Emotional blackmail has been used as a general term to describe psychological coercion in relationships that involves some kind of threat. Susan Forward has been given credit for coining the term in a book on the same topic.

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While the legal definition involves a payment being extorted by means of intimidation or threatening to divulge hurtful information about the victim, when used in the emotional sense, blackmail is most often referring to trying to get the other person to do something. It is much more likely a matter of psychological manipulation.

You can think of it as happening in several different forms of threat

  • Punisher's Threat: "Eat the food I cooked for you or I'll kill you."
  • Self-punisher's Threat: "Eat the food I cooked for you or I'll kill myself."
  • Sufferer's Threat: "Eat the food I cooked for you or I'll be miserable and you'll have to hear my whining, muttering, and sighing."
  • Tantalizer's Threat: "Eat the food I cooked for you and you just may get a really yummy dessert."

Notice is that the person doing the threatening or manipulating wants something from the other person that is legitimate to want. They want to feel loved, safe, valuable, appreciated, supported, needed, etc. It's most often more a matter of how they are going about getting what they want than what they want.

Dangers of Labelling

For a couple, throwing around psychological labels is very likely to make the situation worse not better. Perhaps there is a person somewhere on the planet who would respond to being told that what they are doing is emotional blackmail (or one of a myriad of other psychological and pop-psychological descriptors) by saying "Oh, I didn't know that. What would work better?", but I haven't met them yet.

One person's manipulation is another person's seeking to meet their own needs.

Best Use of These Kinds of Organizing Concepts

Probably the best use of such concepts is as a means of making sense of what is going on for yourself. To be able to understand and appreciate what the underlying interests and intentions of the other person are. To be able to keep yourself from falling into the traps of their ineffectiveness. To craft a sane, caring, and effective response.

Return from Emotional Blackmail to Psychology of Relationships.

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