4 Signs Of Emotional Blackmail In Relationships

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By Levita Galinksy

Even healthy relationships can be challenging. They require sincerity and the ability to be there for one another through compassion and wisdom.

Ideally, a relationship should encourage both parties to evolve and grow into powerful, confident, and kind individuals. However, sometimes people begin to take advantage of a relationship by breaking all the rules and boundaries with psychologically abusive and controlling behavior like emotional blackmail.

In essence, they turn into bullies. But unlike the type of bullying you encounter in school or online (by people who are somewhat distant from your immediate life in both a personal and professional setting), I am talking about the undercover bullies you currently have a deep relationship with.

Undercover bullies are the kind of people you might live with, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend, or they could be friends or family. They are the people you want to rely on for emotional support on a daily basis. Yet they might actually be tearing down your self-esteem instead of encouraging your authenticity to shine through.

Are you in a relationship where you feel suffocated or controlled, and your needs don’t seem to matter? Are you unable to express your true feelings in a safe, supportive environment, and are your emotions constantly being ignored? You may have an emotional blackmailer on your hands.

What is emotional blackmail?

The relationships you have with close people you count on for love and support are said to be the backbone of your emotional well-being. As much as those who are close to you can enhance your self-esteem, they can destroy it just the same.

Researcher Chung-Chu Liu cited Susan Forward's definition of emotional blackmail in their study, as she was among the first to popularize the term. For his study, he explained emotional blackmail as "when one person asks another to do something by using verbal or body language in order to achieve his or her goals, and this person’s behavior will lead to uncomfortable feelings in the other."[1]

Emotional blackmailers create pain through control and manipulative tactics to prey on you because they feel worthless themselves. Because they don’t have a tangible way to cope with or appropriately express their true feelings, they try to bring you down to their level.

RELATED: 7 Things That Look Like Love (But Are Actually Emotional Abuse)

As explained in an article published in the journal Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, emotional blackmail "is a form of repetitive emotional manipulation in which to exact compliance, a perpetrator threatens to hurt or abandon a person close to him or her, by inducing fear, obligation, or guilt."[2]

In other words, emotional blackmail typically involves situations in which someone (close enough to you to know your weaknesses and use them against you) often threatens you through feelings of fear, obligation, and guilt,[3] either indirectly or directly, in order to get what they want.

Emotional blackmail is ultimately abusive, as it is either their way or no way.

RELATED: If Answering These Questions Make You Uncomfortable, You Might Be In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Signs of emotional blackmail

1. They guilt-trip you.

In a healthy, stable relationship, there is always a give-and-take balance.

But your emotional blackmailer can indirectly start bribing you with gifts so you begin to feel obligated to them. They will take advantage of your good nature and generosity, sometimes without your even noticing, to get something in return — whether it's material or an unhealthy sense of emotional commitment.

You may hear them threaten you with phrases similar to, "After all I've done for you, I can't believe you won't do [Y] for me," or "If you don't do [X], you clearly don't love me like you said you did."

2. You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them.

After repeated, unreasonable demands, you may have tried to push back, only to realize this creates more tension and friction in the relationship.

Sometimes, despite how unhealthy or outlandish a demand may be, you start to cave in rather than fight back for fear of turning the battles in your relationship into full-on wars. This may also come in the form of appeasing the blackmailer when speaking to them as much as possible when attempting to refuse a demand.

Because of the strain emotional blackmailing causes in a relationship, it's impossible to have clear, open lines of communication. Instead, you choose your words very carefully, doing your best to avoid confrontation in the form of a threat or other manipulative behavior from your abuser.

This is all about cultivating deep-seated feelings of fear.

3. They manipulate you through direct and indirect threats.

Through the power of manipulation, your emotional blackmailer can appear charming to you so that you will comply with their wishes. Their controlling words may be so subtle that you do not notice the havoc it has wreaked on you and your relationship, let alone recognize that your abuser is implying threats through these words (toward you or themselves).

It might lead to extreme statements from the emotional blackmailer to make you feel like you will be punished if you do not comply with their wishes.

While directly threatening you, they might say, "If you don't cancel your plans and stay home with me this weekend, I'm calling off the wedding."

An indirect threat, say, from a blackmailer who's your boss might be, "If you don't stay late and come in this weekend to have this entire project on my desk by Sunday evening, you should seriously consider how much you care about your future here."

They may even go so far as to threaten to hurt you or even themselves to get you to do something for them. This is dangerous, but you should not kowtow to your abuser just because of the nature of their threats.

You should seek immediate help by contacting The Hotline, calling the police, or asking for professional help.

4. Their controlling behavior becomes a broken record.

Emotional blackmailing is repetitious. It doesn't just happen once or twice. Your abuser employs these tactics over and over again to manipulate you into caving into their demands.

With emotional blackmailers, they do all the taking, so it is their way only, and this is how they place fear in you so that you cannot speak to them without feeling unworthy or afraid.

When repeating their behavior, it is a genuine form of abuse, as they slowly break you down, so you don't even realize you're being blackmailed constantly, or you feel like you're so deep into such a toxic relationship that you don't know how to extract yourself anymore.

If one or more family members are the culprit, your backstory is vital to delve into to acknowledge and understand your inner wounds and emotions fully.

Initially, if you grow up with the same condescending words and remarks, you start to adapt to it, and you end up feeling insecure, worthless, and powerless as an adult.

RELATED: How I Saved Myself From An Emotionally Abusive Man — And You Can, Too

How to start healing from emotional blackmail

Understand that the emotional blackmailer essentially makes you seem responsible for their overall stability as a person. This places a burden on you, as you automatically feel obligated to help them in every way you can, and they make you feel guilty and fearful if you do not obey their endless demands.

But remember this: you are not responsible for another person’s needs and feelings.

If normal, healthy communication is not working out, begin setting boundaries.

Protect yourself. Know that you are enough just as you are right now, no matter how hurtful people’s words or actions are towards you.

Remove yourself from the environment if you cannot make clear statements without feeling helpless and afraid.

Pay attention to the people you regularly interact with and how they treat you on a daily basis. Are they by your side through thick and thin? Do you feel emotionally supported by them?

Find a support system where you can openly discuss your feelings about being emotionally abused. Begin your journey of inner reflection to find that light within you so you can feel a sense of emotional freedom again.

Rebuilding your self-worth is the foundation for healing and establishing healthy relationships in your life. Once you can do this, you will discover a newfound sense of strength, confidence, and gratitude underneath all the wounded feelings of pain and insecurity and beneath all the hurt and trauma caused by your abuser.

You will be able to move forward by honoring yourself, what you've been through, the boundaries you've created, and the emotional space where you are now.

RELATED: The Painful Reality Of Being Emotionally Abused By An Ex Every Day

Levita Galinsky is a lifestyle coach and freelance journalist.

This article was originally published at Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission from the author.