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Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail

Family decision-making is an intriguing phenomenon. Many factors become part of the decision-making process. Emotions play an important part in this activity.

Parents and children each use emotions to steer decisions favorable way to themselves. Using emotions to influence decisions develops naturally.

The use of emotions becomes harmful when they are used as threats to control or intimidate others. Emotionally charged threats and intimidation leaves their victims feeling helpless. Victims of emotional blackmail often give in, believing they have no other options.

Emotional blackmail occurs across ages. Parents use it on children, children use it on parents and even grandparents often enter the picture with their opinions. One parent may even use it on the other parent.

Threats often show up as emotion or behavior-based. Emotional threats are those where the blackmailer uses an emotional state to control the victim. This commonly occurs through rage, screaming, crying, whining or complaining.

Through making the situation uncomfortable enough, they force the victim to do something. When this occurs in public places, embarrassment adds pressure to yield. After several episodes of emotional threats, the victim often gives in to avoid the very possibility of another scene. The very threat of emotional discomfort or blackmail creates pressure to give in.

Behavioral blackmail is where potential actions are used to intimidate. These include threats of violence, suicide, running away, disowning and even calling Children's Protective Services. The perpetrators may intensify the threats if the victim 'tells anyone' about the initial threat. Blackmailers may also threaten to go public with dirty laundry to force the victims into obedience.

By using such threats, the blackmailer gets their way. Rarely does the blackmailer consider the effects the threats have on other members of the family. The effect of repeated threats creates a hostage situation within the home.

Threats also occur in the form of withholding. The blackmailer threatens to withhold love, attention, money or dignity. These things are held out like a carrot to entice the family to do things their way. The phrase "it's my way or the highway" is a common expression of this behavior.

In healthy families, decisions are made through negotiation, clearly defined rules and a just authority structure. Although pleasing every member of the family in the decision-making process rarely occurs, parents can listen to each person's input before making the final decision. Discussion allows issues to be "out in the open" rather than someone's will imposed on the family. Such discussion also reduces the feeling of being a hostage.

Displeasure can be expressed in ways without using emotional blackmail. When rules and expectations are clear, the need for manipulation is lessened. When the authority structure is clear and just, family members develop trust in the decisions that are made.

Jeffrey D. Murrah, LPC, LMFT, LCDC is The Results-Oriented Therapist specializing in marriage and family conflicts. Visit to sign up for his free newsletter.


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