Emotional Blackmail

Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Click here for part two

Dear Neil:  My wife and I were going to spend Christmas in Hawaii, and we were both greatly looking forward to this trip.  We hit a snag, however, when I told my parents, who are in their mid-70’s.  My mother’s response was: “How could you do this to me?  After all I’ve done for you, you don’t even want to spend Christmas with me?”  My father’s reaction was similar: “How many more Christmases do you think your mother and I will be alive?  Why don’t you go to Hawaii some other time and visit us (on the East Coast) for Christmas?”

This is repeat of type of a behavior my parents have used on me—in one form or another—my whole life.  My wife refuses to go to my parents, and has even said that if we don’t go to Hawaii as we planned, she’ll consider divorcing me because I will have proved beyond doubt that my priority lies with my parents instead of with her

I am left not knowing what to do.  I have enough money and vacation days to take only one of these trips.  Can you help?

Struggling in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Dear Struggling:  You really do have a problem, don’t you?  You are guaranteed to hurt or anger either your wife or your aging parents no matter what you choose to do—and either decision you make will likely cause you  to feel obligated, manipulated, controlled and resentful.

Perhaps it would be useful for you to step back and look at what both your parents and your wife are doing:  they are both using forms of emotional blackmail on you.

Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us directly or indirectly threaten:  “If you don’t do what I want you to, I will punish you or make you suffer.”  Emotional blackmailers know our vulnerabilities—often they know our deepest secrets—and they use this intimate knowledge to get what they want:  our compliance.   Blackmailers threaten to withhold love or approval, or threaten to take it away altogether, or make us feel we must earn it.  So says Susan Forward, in the book Emotional Blackmail (Quill).

Forward says you are being emotionally blackmailed if important people in your life:

  • Threaten to make your life difficult, or constantly threaten to end the relationship, or threaten to hurt themselves if you don’t do what they want.
  • Regularly ignore or discount your feelings, needs and desires.
  • 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 into 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.

Emotional blackmailers are skillful manipulators.  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.   In such relationships, we keep our focus on the other person’s needs at the expense of our own, says Forward.  We have avoided conflict, confrontation and the power struggle—but also the chance for a healthy relationship.

I will address how to deal with emotional blackmail in next week’s column.

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