Emotional blackmail is when a person tries to achieve a goal by emotionally manipulating another party. It centers around the threat, “If you do not do this for me, something bad will happen.”

According to a 2022 study, it is psychological violence that may cause more harm than other types of violence.

The way it works involves identifying the vulnerabilities of a person, creating emotional pressure, and demanding compliance. People do it to shield themselves from their own insecurities and to provide a means of staying in control.

A beneficial response to the blackmail entails setting healthy boundaries and seeking support from trusted family members and friends.

This article explains what emotional blackmail is, including signs, examples, why individuals do it, how to respond to it, and the support available.

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Emotional blackmail is a type of behavior that an individual uses to achieve their goals at the expense of another party. It involves emotional manipulation, which is psychological violence, notes research.

This behavior is frequently more damaging than verbal or physical violence because it affects a person’s conscience.

Medical News Today sought the expertise of Marissa Moore, MA, LPC, a licensed professional counselor and mental health consultant writer at Mentalyc.

She states that emotional blackmail uses the other party’s own emotions against them. “It entails pressuring someone into complying with demands or wishes,” said Moore. “This behavior can harm their emotional well-being and create a toxic dynamic in relationships.”

Moore lists the following as signs of emotional blackmail:

  • making an individual feel responsible for the blackmailer’s emotions or problems
  • threatening retaliation, punishment, or withdrawal of affection if a person does not comply with the blackmailer’s requests
  • using emotional manipulation to gain sympathy and control, such as:
    • playing the victim
    • using tears
    • exaggerating feelings
  • withholding affection, communication, or support as a form of punishment or control
  • making demands to force compliance
  • gaslighting — which involves distorting a person’s perception of reality to make them doubt their feelings or beliefs

“Emotional blackmail can manifest in various forms,” said Moore. She lists the below examples:

  • Guilt-tripping: The blackmailer may frequently mention that they cannot afford to buy certain things. The purpose of this is to make a provider feel guilty for not having a bigger income.
  • Silent treatment: The blackmailer may become silent when they do not get their way. The goal is to punish or control a person.
  • Threats and ultimatums: The blackmailer may threaten divorce, a relationship breakup, or other dire consequences if a person does not comply with their demands.
  • Victimhood: The blackmailer may become noticeably upset and cry to instill feelings of obligation in an individual and get their support.
  • Playing on insecurities: The blackmailer may talk about a person’s fears or weaknesses to gain control over them.

Moore explains the process in the following steps:

  • Identify vulnerabilities: The blackmailer observes a person’s emotional triggers and weak points, such as fear of abandonment, guilt over past actions, or a need for approval.
  • Create emotional pressure: The blackmailer then uses tactics such as guilt-tripping, emotional manipulation, or threats to apply pressure on them.
  • Demand compliance: The blackmailer makes explicit or implicit demands, attempting to control a person’s actions or decisions.
  • Reward and punishment: The blackmailer may offer affection, attention, or support as a reward for compliance while withdrawing them to punish resistance.
  • Reinforcement: If a person complies, it reinforces the blackmailer’s behavior, encouraging them to use emotional blackmail as an effective means of control in the future.

Jeanette Raymond, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, discusses how emotional blackmail is an unhealthy method of trying to cope with vulnerabilities.

“When people feel somewhat insecure, helpless, or desperate, they may seek to counter those destabilizing threats with a sense of strength, power, and control,” said Raymond. “Using emotional blackmail is a strategy for that purpose because it makes them feel that they have the upper hand. It removes bad feelings and gives them to another person, which — in effect — turns the tables.”

“Using emotional blackmail makes blackmailers feel that they are not the needy, dependent one,” said Raymond. “In contrast, it gives the illusion that the other party needs and depends on them and is likely to succumb to the blackmail.”

“Additionally, the practice fills blackmailers with a feeling of importance when they are at their most vulnerable,” said Raymond. “It enables them to avoid the humiliation of lashing out at the hurt that the other has caused, which would confirm their worst fear of being needy.”

“In other words, emotional blackmail fulfills the purpose of shielding blackmailers from their real vulnerabilities,” said Raymond. “It provides a more acceptable way of being in control.”

Dr. David Tzall, PsyD, a licensed psychologist practicing in Brooklyn, NY, explains how to respond.

“The first step is for people to recognize emotional manipulation through tactics, such as guilt-tripping or threatening,” said Tzall. “During such encounters, they should try to remain calm to gain a clearer perspective. It helps to take time to understand the reasons that underlie feelings of guilt or obligation.”

“Communication is key in responding to emotional blackmail,” said Tzall. “Someone should set firm boundaries with clear and assertive expressions that they will not tolerate manipulation or succumb to attempts to instill guilt or fear.”

“Seek support from trusted friends, family members, or even a therapist to gain perspective,” advised Tzall. “Additionally, individuals should use ‘I’ statements to express how they feel and what they need, rather than attacking or blaming the blackmailer. They should also avoid resorting to retaliation or aggression, as it will only escalate the situation and lead to more issues.”

When emotional blackmail is an ongoing problem, a person should seek counseling from a mental health professional. However, if an individual feels that they are in a crisis and need help immediately, the below resources can help:

  • Crisis Text Line offers 24/7 access to a trained counselor.
  • Lifeline Chat is a 24/7 service within the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. It connects people with crisis counselors.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness has a toll-free phone number — 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) — that is available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Emotional blackmail involves using another party’s fear, guilt, or sense of obligation to pressure them to comply with a demand.

Signs may include withholding affection or threatening retaliation to get compliance. For example, the blackmailer may become silent or threaten to end a relationship if the other party does not bend to their wishes.

People engage in the device as a means of countering their own insecurities because it gives them the upper hand.

To respond, a person should establish healthy boundaries via assertive communication so that they will not tolerate emotional manipulation. It also helps for a person to seek support from trusted family members and friends.