Using fear, obligation and guilt linked to emotional blackmail
I recently watched a B-grade midday movie about a woman who had a very traumatic relationship with her mother. The situation was one we all know. Mother had a list of expectations and they had to be met. This is a familiar scenario. But the demands grew beyond any normal parent-child dynamic. If demands weren’t met, there were several reactions.
One was anger and making the daughter feel humiliated or deprived. Another reaction was hysterical outbreaks of tears and drama. Mother made herself seem small, fragile, the victim, hence her daughter felt “obliged to help”.
“Darling, I’m just not coping; I need someone to help me fix this up,” the mother would say. “Please, darling, can you just do this for me? You are so good at it.”
She used guilt. “I’ve done all this for you. If you really loved me you would …” and “Please don’t upset me, I’ll get sick again.”
She used manipulation: charming, bribing. She praised her daughter in public, gave gifts and pandered to a natural need for attention and validation. But this was conditional on subservience. There was always the threat of rage just around the corner, instilling in her child a sense of fear.
It mattered not what technique was used so long as the outcome was obedience. By the end of the film the girl was powerless. Unable to move an inch in either direction, confused, the only way out was drugs — exchanging one tyranny for another.
The same situation is played out day after day in homes and offices everywhere; not just parents with children but bosses with staff, between partners and with friends. It’s a condition dubbed FOG, an acronym for using fear, obligation and guilt to get one’s way — a disorder where someone close to us controls us through a variety of techniques linked to emotional blackmail. Like the girlfriend who says: “I really need you to come over tonight, like I did when your aunt Jenny died.”
Or the partner who demands sex with the veiled blackmail. “There are so many gorgeous women at work at the moment.” Tacky as it sounds, these obvious things work.
According to the US-based psychotherapist who coined the term FOG, Susan Forward, bestselling author of the book Emotional Blackmail, emotional blackmail is a “powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don’t do what they want … ‘If you don’t behave the way I want you to, you will suffer.’ ” It describes the dynamics at play between the controller and the person being controlled.
I call it the Otherwise game. “I will do this for you, if you do this for me. Otherwise …” Fill in the blanks: I will withdraw love, attention, money; I may hit you, abandon you, cry, fall to my knees, get sick. It’s the old “I’ll die and you’ll be sorry” routine. There is also an implicit reward system. If you do it (that is, get those results at school, work overtime) then the sun will come shining down.
Emotional blackmail is particularly prevalent in today’s society because of a desperate need to control our environment. There are no longer rules about marriage, gender roles, work hours, sexuality. It’s flexi-everything. With the omnipresent threat of terrorism and an unstable economy, we live in a constant state of insecurity and unknowing. This brings out the inner control freak in many of us, which is normal under the circumstances. But for some, it becomes pathological.
Forward breaks emotional blackmailers down into subgroups. An example would be the Punisher: “Eat the food I cooked for you or I’ll hurt you.” Self-Punisher: “Eat the food I cooked for you or I’ll hurt myself.” Sufferer/victim (engendering obligation): “Eat the food I cooked for you even though I was so busy or I will be hurt by you.” Then the Tantaliser: “Eat the food I cooked for you and you get a surprise.” Some blackmailers, like the mother dearest character in the schlock film, use all of these personas — especially narcissists and those with borderline personality disorder, who are adroit manipulators on every level. Basically it’s “whatever it takes to get my way”.
Every relationship has a degree of co-dependency and hence emotional blackmail.
There are always Mephistophelean pacts made with the devil in every intimate pair-bonding, or friendship. “You will be my daddy and protect me and in return I will …” or “I’ll keep you safe, and you keep me excited”. Most barter deals (I stress here between “equal adults”) are unspoken and harmless. And, yes, within that framework there will always be a bit of manipulation, petulant threats or nagging since there are reasonable expectations involved in the tacit trade-off.
But FOG is a dangerous condition where the blackmailer repeatedly ignores the needs and boundaries of another and, according to therapists, the seriousness can be gauged by the degree to which a patient feels controlled and suffocated. Is there a constant feeling that things are unjust? A rising sense of resentment, an inability to express one’s true feelings, fear of the person coming home, sex used as a weapon, the unspoken threat of abuse, humiliation or withholding? Are there too many shoulds? (“A good partner/daughter would…”)
As one friend describes it of her husband: “It’s like walking on eggshells. It’s like me and the kids are being held hostage.”
We’ve all been blackmailed, had the boss who has demanded our “yea-saying” in order to give us security.
The word lackey comes to mind though blackmailers will often use the word “team member”, as if there is equality. And there are those who blackmail from below. As parents, we are all used to the pouting, pleading eyes, the tantrums, if children don’t get their own way.
So what do we do to protect ourselves from it? According to the Positive Psychology Program website: “Blackmail is a duet, not a solo performance. It cannot work without the target’s active participation.”
While there is no suggestion that the victim provokes blackmail, sufferers are urged to help break the cycle by turning attention inward to locate their own co-dependency and role as enablers of the behaviour.
There is the need to examine what wounds or hot spots leave them open to blackmail — being an approval junky or intimacy addict, an insecure self-hater or a blame taker.
Assertive training is uniformly advised — learning to be strong but non-reactive. Learn to make simple, clear statements that establish boundaries: “No, thank you, I’m not hungry. But I can understand why that has upset you.” Or pause button: “I’m not sure how I feel about that. I will think about it and we can discuss it tonight.”
The final consensus on how to deal with FOG is to shine a light on it. Gently call it as you see it to the culprit‘s face. “I feel like you are using emotional blackmail on me.” Once outed, manipulators will often crawl under a rock. They don’t like being seen in their true colours.
But be aware that not all demands are blackmail. If someone cooks for you and you don’t eat it or do not turn up, this can often be just plain rude, neglectful, hurtful, disrespectful or lacking gratitude. The key is learning to know the difference.