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Emotional Blackmail
Make me happy...or else

By Kenda-Ruth Stumpf

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological response exhibited in cases of abuse wherein the victim is loyal to and often defensive of the abuser. For a powerless victim, forming an emotional bond with the person in power or control is a mechanism of survival. Emotional blackmail is a transaction and agreement between two willing participants, a blackmailer and a target. It is a personal form of extortion consisting of a demand and a direct or implied threat of consequences which will yield guilt or emotional distress in the target for failing to comply.

Emotional blackmail is often present in distressed relationships--MLCer and spouse or MLCer and OW. In her book, Emotional Blackmail, Susan Forward uses the acronym FOG to represent Fear, Obligation and Guilt. Fog is a murky condition of the atmosphere--often the vapor of clouds that is near the ground and directly envelopes people. The term is commonly used metaphorically to represent a state of confusion or something that is obscure. This is a fitting description of the MLCers state of mind. The acronym plays on the dual use of the words metaphorical connotation and the meaning of the words in the acronym which create confusion and obscurity--fog. Emotional blackmailers use FOG (Fear, Obligation, Guilt) as well as character assassinations to achieve compliance or as a consequence of failure to comply. Traditional blackmail is understood easily: fail to comply and suffer specific and often painful consequences such as death or exposure of embarrassing or criminal activity--there is no FOG. Emotional blackmailers use FOG as a manipulative device to obscure the blackmail. The guilt and obligation project the blame or responsibility to the target and the fear creates a feeling of dependency. To give in to the demands of emotional blackmail is to hand over your power.

Emotional blackmail is a basic component for the functioning of Stockholm Syndrome; it enables the belief that escape is impossible. In an abusive or controlling relationship decision-making of the victim is governed by his perception of the controller's emotional state and his anticipation of how they will react. In his fear, an MLCer becomes completely focused on the OW, and though he treads carefully his feet bleed from shards of eggshell. Through the nature of the relationship, a blackmail target willingly participates in his own victimization, sometimes believing he is to blame for anything that goes wrong. Even when the target recognizes that abuse is occurring he may rationalize and support the actions of the abuser, exhibiting what psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance: conflict arising from simultaneously holding opposing beliefs or attitudes.

The dysfunctionality of a situation matches the dysfunctionality of survival adaptations within the situation--absurd situations breed absurd the excuses. Anger and hostility directed at friends and family may be a protection mechanism to avoid conflict with an OW who may be suspicious of attempts to undermine and destroy the relationship. Such displays by the MLCer reassure the fearful OW that she is his first priority and that he is on her side. Most MLCers project and blame the spouse more than anyone else, but they may also direct attacks at friends and other family members. Anyone who stands in his way or in the way of the OW is a target for hostility. An MLCer needs an unconditional friend who will listen without judgment and reassure him of his worth--regardless of whether the friend approves of the MLCer's behaviours. In the absence of such a person, an OW is the only confidant an MLCer has. The more his family or friends withdraw and withhold support, the greater his distress and hostility. Such conditions lead to greater bonding between an MLCer and OW, as she poor baby's him that he is right, everyone else is making a mistake unlike those betrayers, she will remain forever loyal.

The more a person invests in a position, the more he clings to it and justifies it with unreasoning belief--even in the face of opposing evidence. Loyalty increases with energy output--the level of investment in a process. Higher energy output produces greater emotional vulnerability which is an ingredient in bonding. A dramatic, traumatic or crisis environment draws energy to those exposed and is a conducive breeding ground for vulnerability. This creates an emotional investment of shared intimacy wherein two people share secrets and where each may mutually be rescuing the other. In addition there is pride. An MLCer leaves his life behind to start over with a new person. He is too stubborn and embarrassed to admit his new life is not going well or worse, that he made a mistake; thus he will fight to maintain and defend the affair relationship.

The consequences of failing to comply with emotional blackmail may be direct, implied or unspoken; for understanding of the latter two, fear may be sufficient for compliance, but often the target must experience the consequences to realize the emotional affects, and then comply to return to a previous state and avoid experiencing the unpleasant consequences again.

    Let me leave or...
  • I won't come back.
  • I won't support you financially.
  • You'll never see me again.
  • I'll file for divorce.
  • I'll make your life miserable.
  • I'll suffer and be depressed.
  • I'll hate you...more.
  • I'll get the house and you'll be on the street.
  • I'll tell everyone...[truth or fiction: something unpleasant or embarrassing]
    Don't leave me or...
  • I'll harm myself physically.
  • I'll kill myself.
  • I'll harm you.
  • I'll pout and cry.
  • I'll make your life miserable.
  • I'll make you feel guilty.
  • You'll never see the kids again.
  • You'll miss the fun we always have together.
  • Without my cooking your health will suffer.
  • I'll tell your employer/family about us.
  • I'll stalk you.
  • I'll get all your money in court.
  • You will miss out on the great sex.
  • We won't be working out and you'll get fat.

The threats to leave include the implication that the person will leave regardless of compliance, but that complying rather than resisting will make the process less painful. The threats to prevent leaving include active retributive consequences as well as natural consequences that the blackmailer does not apply--suffering health or fitness. Though these consequences may be true, stating them includes an implication that the target is unable to care for himself or find someone else to provide these benefits. The message is you cannot survive without me. These are not the only threats used by a blackmailing OW, spouse or MLCer; I these examples because Standing spouses have an experiential understanding of abandonment. An OW may threaten consequences if the MLCer does not file, if he visits his spouse or family or if he does not do certain things which she feels prove his commitment to her. Additional blackmail actions are specific to individuals and the relational dynamics.

Conflict avoiders are more likely to be compliant. An MLCer who is a conflict avoider is more susceptible to emotional blackmail. But blackmail tactics escalate, creating an environment so stifling that in its discomfort a person will do anything to de-escalate the situation and compliance creates a temporary peace and an illusion of stability. MLCers open themselves emotionally and like a vampire, blackmailing OWs suck the life from them. The emotional blackmail and affair create a cycle of control and manipulation meant to elicit emotional bonding and protect against abandonment, this is successful in the early phases of the relationship when the investment is high due to all the MLCer risked and sacrificed for a relationship with the OW. The emotional investment increases with time, but so does the emotional blackmail. Eventually the pain and damage of the blackmail outweigh the investment and the relationship begins a greater downward spiral, the MLCer withdraws emotionally and abandonment becomes imminent.

The blackmailing relationship is one of opposition. Each person takes a side and keeps score, a met demand is victory and to comply is to lose. This may even be true when both people want the same thing. But treatment in which there is a demand or requirement breeds resentment and eventually leads to challenge and rebellion. Because of this, relationships between a blackmailer and target are a fa├žade. A blackmailing OW creates her enemy while encouraging him to hide his growing negative feelings and growing motivations to undermine and dissolve the relationship. Emotional blackmail removes security and intimacy from relationships; such things are necessary foundational building blocks and without them the relationship is a house of cards.

When the broken and bruised MLCer considers rebuilding a relationship with his wife, he fears exhibiting positive emotions for fear of feeding her hopes. The OW trained him that to comply with her demands was to relinquish power, allowing her to control him. He transfers this training to his wife and fears she will become like the OW. Even without a prior history of emotional blackmail in his marriage this is a valid concern; an adulterous MLCer loses his spouse's privilege of trust, such a crisis often invites emotional blackmail into relationships. This fear can contribute to the cycling affair, sending him back to the OW multiple times.

An MLCer who returns home multiple times may have done so to test and provoke his wife--deliberately making her his jailer while he continued his affair. This is a form of emotional blackmail. If his wife is vigilant, she will discover his continuing infidelity and must then apply the consequences she promised for broken boundaries and inappropriate spousal behaviour. If she misses his indiscretions--though she may suspect--and thus fails to apply consequences, her blackmailing MLCer feels empowered and taunts her with an escalation in his behaviour. His wife feels used and resents being forced into the position of being her MLCer's keeper.

I'm Kenda-Ruth and I believe in marriage.
Are you tired of hearing...
  • Once a cheater always a cheater?
  • You're better off without him?
  • She doesn't deserve you?
  • I guess it just wasn't meant to last?
  • Divorce is no big deal?
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