The Emotional Hostage: 4 Ways to Tell What Emotional Blackmail is

Scene: You’re on the phone with a friend. They’ve made you angry and in your fight you told them that you just want to be left alone for a bit. You say they aren’t allowed to come to your house until further notice and that’s when the dam breaks. They tell you that if you don’t let them come over they’ll drive their car over a cliff. This makes you panic. You don’t want to be the reason they do something like that so you agree to allow them to come over right then. While this might seem like a far-fetched scenario it is in fact an example of an emotional hostage situation.

This is sometimes referred to as emotional blackmail and is in fact a form or abuse. By offering up this list, Psych2Go hopes to bring to light a form of emotional abuse many don’t even know exists. If you notice similarities to the above scenario or any of the points listed below, please speak with a licensed mental health professional. The situation may seem benign now but it can escalate very quickly

1. Understanding what emotional blackmail really is

Emotional blackmail, as described by Susan Forward, PhD, in her book Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You, is a tactic used by abusers to threaten you to get what they want. The point is to make you feel FOG (fear, anger, guilt) so that they can have things their way. This may be something as simple as throwing a fit, as an adult, to get out of something. Or it could be a case of threatening to go back to drug use if they can’t see someone or be somewhere they want to be. The whole point is to refuse to take responsibility for their own actions and instead blame you, or threaten to blame you, for every bad decision they could make if they don’t get their way.

2. Knowing what constitutes an emotional hostage situation 

By the definition above it could be easy to assume that all children take their parents hostage emotionally. As R. Skip Johnson points out in his article Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt (FOG), the use of the term “blackmail” can illicit a negative response. Johnson points out that using such a term equates to there being forethought from the individual, or premeditation if you will. This is often not the case and the things that the people are wanting are in fact legitimate to desire.

A child throwing a tantrum in the store to get a toy isn’t necessarily emotional blackmail as they are merely subject driven and have no concept of the manipulation factor. A teenager exploding emotionally over not being able to borrow the car then running off to their room with a knife is an emotional hostage situation. They want to get something and will make it appear that they will injure themselves to get it. If the parent gives in, then the manipulation worked and their actions are reinforced. If the parent doesn’t then they will worry about their child and feel immense guilt if their child follows through with the threat.

3. Know where your emotional boundaries are

By knowing where your emotional boundaries are you will be able to tell when someone oversteps them. In the early stages of this form of abuse you might not even register that something is truly amiss. You may just assume that the other person is passionate about something and thus gets carried away at times. As time goes on you might start to feel like the other person places you between a rock and a hard place. Either option you have is a bad one but you tend to favor those that are the lesser of the two evils. This is emotional manipulation at its finest. What you want isn’t important, it’s about what the other person can do to illicit the emotional response that they want.

4. You are where their feelings lie 

Someone who holds you hostage emotionally will hold you accountable for their feelings. This may take the form of a significant other stating that a breakup from you would cause them to commit suicide. You might see this as them being so in love with you that they would rather die without you. That isn’t the case. They are manipulating you to get what they want. The point is to hold you accountable for the feeling of sadness that would follow a breakup. They may be feeling anxious about the relationship, but instead of facing those fears head on they force you to carry them.

Being an emotional hostage can and will take its toll on a person. Their relationships will suffer, their emotional wellbeing will suffer, and they can become miserable overall. Sometimes we don’t see these things sneaking up on us. We are then left to pick up the pieces when things go off course. Understanding what being held hostage emotionally, and emotional blackmail, really means is a great start. But remember, just because someone makes you feel guilty for something, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are manipulating you. It all has to do with how with the present situation and past experiences.


Have you been in a situation of emotional blackmail before? If so, and if you are comfortable with sharing your story please do so in the comments below.

Other reading from Psych2Go:

9 Tell Tale Signs of Manipulation You Should Watch Out For


Johnson, R. Skip. “Emotional Blackmail: Fear, Obligation and Guilt (FOG).” Borderline Personality Disorder, BPDFamily, 6 Dec. 2015, Retrieved November 29, 2017

Zwolinski , Richard. “Are Other People’s Feelings Holding You Hostage?”, Psych Central , 15 Sept. 2013, Retrieved November 29, 2017

Zwolinski, Richard. “Standing Up For YOU With An Emotional Hostage Taker.”, PsychCentral , 15 Sept. 2013, Retrieved November 29, 2017

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  1. I have. Two out of three times, it just turned off my feelings for the person. I didn’t even go anywhere emotionally; I was just disgusted. Neither person hurt themselves, although the 2nd (mind you there was almost a 50-gap in my getting to know these people,) stayed in the hospital and ran up for himself a $7, xxx.xx bill.
    The third time, just came out at me as a total surprise from the dark . The ex-narcissist who was once my husband played this on me and it was the only time I responded to it.I was terrified. (I fell for it.) Our family therapist did too (he had police helicopters looking in Missouri at motels looking for his license plate.) (I don’t remember how the therapist got involved: the ex must have made a separate call) At any rate the ex-narc called and said hr’d taken the pills for suicide and called to say goodbye to me. After awhile, he hung up,and wouldn’t answer when I called him back. It was 2am; so needless to say it was a sleepless four hours at the end of which I called all the hospitals etc etc. Didn’t say a word about it to the boys; they went to school etc then at about 6pm (16 hours later,) the phone rang and I couldn’t get there fast enough to answer it before my 7th grade son did. Then the ex pulled the same act on him, which totally incensed my mother sensibilities (how dare he.) So the ex hung up and the son wanted his dad. The older son went to visit friends and that felt safe I knew he was safe. So I really wanted to reassure and comfort my son (I feel really stupid remembering this. Ok I need to love myself and be compassionate with my used-to-be-self.) I called 911 for help,and realyed my situation to them. I told my son where I was going,and he was ok with it.his brother was home by then. So I had to drive to the other county, in order to get picked up by the other police from the neighboring county.I didn’t ask why; I just went, to help my son. Parked my car at a 24-hour gas station, and a policeman picked me up. Had to sit in the back which was weird I’d never been in a police car. The seat was plastic, uncomfortable, and it was one of those cars that had a separation between the front and back seats. So I didn’t know where toask the policeman to start looking; I’d heard by then about MO. The policeman said try starting where he lives. Well I had no clue, so I gave him directions. I was astonished when we arrived, to see the ex’s car parked there although it wasn’t parked in its own spot (I dropped off the boys sometimes.) Well the policeman told me to stay put. He had to get a hold of the landlady to open the apartment, which was dark. I heard him radio for ambulance, and discovered I was locked in that dam back seat area. It turned out he was dehydrated and was taken to the hospital. I was driven back to my car, extremely grateful to the cop. I drove home, assured my son his dad was fine, and my older son was back, also fine.
    At the next Al-anon meeting, after sharing my story, a lady shared, “ ex is always pulling that on me. I just hang up on him. ”
    From then on, (it’s 18 years later,) the kids and I have a personal joke, “what’s dad dying from this time. ”
    HOWEVER up until about 1 1/2 years ago when they both went no-contact with him, we had as necessary aJ’adore has a new scent. Can’t wait to try its a matter of course, called 911 to conduct “well-being” checks on him. Our county is small enough (we’d lived there almost 20 years,) and the cops knew the ex by name AND address. (The ex has a problem and the cops knew it)
    So, they would do a well-being check. Sometimes the ex would let the cops take him to the hospital (admitting he felt suicidal;) other times not.
    There’s a follow-on true story to this, which involves my younger son. It occurred when my younger son was 17, and my younger son is still bearing the consequences of that he did, and will continue to do so until September 2018. I am totally grateful my son acted out like he did at age 17 (and not at age for example 37.) The reason for my gratitude is, it’s well behind my son and my son has learned a difficult and necessary lesson. More importantly, my son has chosen to walk on a path that’s totally different from the path his dad walked. Me, personally, in following my purpose, will also give my son more experience (by being in my life,) that will hopefully encourage him to remain on the path he, myself, and other lightworkers walk.

    1. needed to omit from “J’adore.. . ” to “try.” from the reply I texted. To you.

      1. I once had a friend who I had gotten very close with and she began to do stuff like this on a smaller scale (eg hang out with other friends = her texting about cutting herself, how she hates herself, etc.) and I guess I didn’t realize it was escalating, or harmful, as I was young. Either way, eventually I found out she had feelings for me and I was so far in over my head. It got to the point that I would be there to 2-3weeks on end without leaving bc she would cut herself if I left. She constantly threatened suicide if I did anything wrong or “got an attitude” or didn’t enjoy something that we were doing. anything & everything I did, elicited a response bc she didn’t think I could do anything right. Self harm, punching walls, threatening suicide, tantrums, disappearing, holding razor blades to her arms/legs/neck, hurting her little sibling, breaking dishes & mirrors, lighting things on fire – all these things just to get what she wants. I was honestly so stressed out, my hair was falling out. I didn’t eat & lost 30 lbs and everything in my life suffered. It was bad. It all ended when I made her angry for not texting back quickly enough and she called to tell me that she took every pill in the house and she was dying. It ended up being a lie, clearly, and I finally left. Emotional manipulation is a real thing & can escalate very quickly. I recommend anyone who sees this and can relate to this, seek professional help right away.

  2. Ooh boy, where to begin! My dad is an addict and a possible sociopath (he had been diagnosed as such back in the day, but claimed he had been “messing with the psychiatrist”) or a narcissist (this is my opinion of what he is because he fits all the criteria). Anywho, he and my mom had separated on and off all throughout my life and each time we left, he would use whatever he had at his disposal. He threatened to kill himself, let our pet birds “free”, throw away my grandfather’s ashes, etc.

  3. I am in an emotionally hostage relationship presently and this article really hit home. I have been with him for almost 17 years. Everytime I tried to end it because I knew a long time ago that he was not the one for me he screams and breaks things. He threatens me and calls me names and tries to make me believe all these horrible things about myself. He threatens suicide. I tried to end it with him in August and he drove the car over 100mph. He acts insane but tries to insist I am the one who is insane. He has turned into an alcoholic and he throws temper tantrums to get me to do what he wants. It really makes me feel ill to be around him and I tried to kick him out last night when we were once again having an ugly arguement. He punched a couple of new holes in the wall. They are all over the place. Most I have covered with pictures. We have a child together. I just wish he would leave and I would never have to see his face again. I have prayed so hard for him to be removed from my life so that I can feel some peace. I do not know what to do but to wait and see what happens next. I will probably get sued if I move away because of all the damage he has caused. At this point I have 5 or 6 doors that need to be replaced and 6 holes in the walls that need to be patched. I feel so lost right now.

    1. Call around and find a woman’s abuse shelter. Get your child out of there. They will help you cut all contact with him. It has to be done because it will only get worse. And it will definitely get worse, so run don’t walk. Do your research. Call some hotline s in your area. They will point you in the right direction and help you GET OUT.

  4. Unfortunately my wife is one of those people who is insecure and has a lot of issues that she tries to push you onto other people. She basically tries to manipulate using fear using stubbornness and it’s all so backwards. This is one of the things that my wife when we were still dating used to say to me period that a couple should do everything together spend as much time together as a couple doing everything never being apart from each other. One of the things my wife likes to do is go collect cans at night or early morning and she always wants me to go with her however I don’t care to dig through people’s rubbish garbage or recycle bins that are full of bacteria and germs. she says it’s kinds it’s an adventure to her and she likes to find treasures. I don’t see it as a treasure hunt really. And she says it’s about money when she needs extra money but it’s also not about the money it’s about the adventure. So I always ask her which one is it? So most nights when she goes out she wants to ask me if I would like to go but then she’ll say that I know you don’t want to go but I want to ask anyway I know you don’t like it but I’ll ask anyway. And I don’t mind spending time with my wife but there has to be a better time that we can do this to where it works out for both of us because if I’m night blind I cannot protect her if something happens. Because she is so focused on this little treasure hunt she will leave me with bags and bags and bags and just take off to the next spot which could be across the street or down the block. another thing another thing is my wife is white and I am African-American 6ft to 215 lb. Sometimes the recycle Benz are in backyards along side of people’s houses. I choose not to go near people’s homes because I don’t want someone to think that I black man in this very nice neighborhood at 2 in the morning is up to something. also their most nights when she goes out I just don’t want to do it and I want her to stay home and not put herself In Harm’s Way being out that late by herself at 5 ft 3 in tall 140 pounds. if you can’t protect yourself if someone attacks her. She always says she doesn’t want to live her life in fear. A healthy fear he’s okay to put yourself In Harm’s Way because you want to make a statement. And I always say that she’s trying to hold me emotionally hostage because her attitude when I tell her no I don’t want to go. Her reactions after that are usually very upset very condescending smart mouth remarks and then come to the emotional blackmail or emotional hostage when she states that something could happen to her. I then asked her why would you go then without me and isn’t there a better time we can go? To where there’s more light where I don’t have the issue of being night blind in dark dark very dark neighborhoods in Portland Oregon if you know them. but my wife refuses to budge and she likes to stand her ground and make things tough by continually going out there that late at night when there are other people doing this canning thing that are known drug addicts alcoholics and just unsavory characters. I never want my wife to go out and be harmed. I don’t not want to go with my wife but if I do that then I’m giving up what I am and what my boundaries are. I really just want to. She still stick to this crazy time frame when it’s dark dark dark. And she says how she loves the night and it’s quiet. It’s also dangerous and I don’t see the point in walking into a higher percentage chance of something happening when you’re alone and a female at her height and weight. when I push the envelope? Why push the relationship to the point where it could split up because of your stubbornness? I’ve tried so many different scenarios in which to have her see that we can make more money I could see there’s a benefit if not we can even use the car she likes to walk I’ll drive therefore we are together and we can cover more ground and make more money. But she refuses to budge on this time that she likes to go when the bars in this neighborhood are letting out and there’s just a bunch of drunk people fighting arguing racing their cars. and my wifey is a very opinionated person who will speak up to say something to the wrong person and I wouldn’t want to know what it would happen to my wife alone like that. lately she has been going into buildings that are under construction. And in this neighborhood there are a lot of homeless people who would take the opportunity to use that has a place to sleep as a place to drink as a place or two drugs. And my always wants to go in to see if there cans by herself armed with only the fact that she has a mouth on her and she says she could protect herself. when she gets home she likes to tell me exactly what happened almost every step. I hear so much danger it as she’s describing it to me. And then comes emotional blackmailing and how she sometimes with says she wants someone else in her life that would be willing to do this with her on their own free will. But there is no such thing as free will if someone gives you an ultimatum and then hold you emotionally hostage and blackmail you with the things that they say that never happened I could have been hurt I could have been murdered I could have been raped or the things she says on the night she goes. And then she’ll ask for a divorce or separation just because of this. I would love any feedback tips comments or anything because I do not want to lose my marriage pick up for this small thing. That is just a hobby of my wife’s not of mine. Last thing I must mention, my wife is a germaphobe that digs through bacteria late and recycle bins dumpsters tear through garbage bags. what the hell? If anyone wants to give me some advice tips pointers or any or anything I can use to help save my marriage I’ll take it. Thank you for listening.

  5. Take care of yourself and I pray you will be free if you are not already free. X

  6. My live in partner for 3 years was held hostage by his ex-girlfriend using their son. He wont let him barrow the son unless he asked me to move out. I never had issues or problems with my live in partner for the past 3 years until recently. The son was diagnosed of autism and my bf wants to get him the best treatment by having him stay with him for a week or a month. He made his own decision for me to move out, he did not consult me or discussed options with me. One day he just decided because he said he is confused and just wants to be with his son and that all he cares about is his son. I did move out and did not blink an eye. He said we can still be together despite the situation, but he doesn’t plan to see me or visit me beacuse his excuse is he doesn’t have a car. I can’t go to his place because the mother of his son will not let him barrow his son. My question is, should I stick around because he is in a difficult situation and has no family around him, his family are all in the US. Or should I let go because obviously I realized that after 3 years of kindness, I’m worth nothing to him?

  7. Hi this is a bit shocking but in this case I am actually I guess you’d say the emotional blackmailer I have been with this guy for 2 years and at first he was the only one emotionally involved I cared about him but I wasn’t in love with him but he was in love with me finally I fell in love back and things were great except he was overly jealous and controlling and I had zero privacy at all I wasn’t aloud to do anything go anywhere lost what friends I had until I became socially isolated from the world I know for months I hadn’t even went to the store well eventually it started taking its toll on me from being locked up all the time I still stayed home on few occasions a friend of his stop by the house I asked for a ride to store and let me tell you I always told him and he has surveillance around the entire house he would come in from work and just watch every single footage from the time he left and come ho,e from work every single night I never did anything I love this man I literally gave my life up for him and he accuses me of cheating because I got a ride from his friend to the store and from then on out he suddenly he started being abusive and wouldn’t let me leave and so him he emotionally abused me and physically and I still love him and then one day he tells me he doesn’t want me to get out and I’m hurt so bad I’m emotionally depressed I’m angry and just lost I have no one I have no job no where to go and he just wants to kick me out so the only thing I know to do is tell him if he kicks me out I’ll call his work and tell them to drug test him so he can’t just kick. Me out but I’ve also asked him to help me if he wanted me gone that bad he could help me find a place to go or take me to the domestic abuse shelter he just gets angry and tells me no he’s not giving me shit and I’m not leaving because he can’t trust me he’s all the time threatening to kill me says none will even notice I’m gone that I’m trash and I deserve to be alone calls me retarded and stupid and fuckin bitch or cunt I legit hear voices his voice to be exact in my head whispering all those hurtful things over and over in my head I feel like I’m going crazy and it’s wrong I still love him and it’s killing me because I’m so alone physically and emotionally and he’s so mean until he wants some sex then he butters me up til I do it then as soon as he’s done it’s back to him not wanting me here and I don’t know what to do I have no money no family nothing so all I know to do that way he doesn’t just put me out in cold is tell him I’ll call his job and get him drug tested he is a very abusive meth user

  8. My partner struggled with alcoholism and had ended our relationship by breaking things of mine and repeating that he was done with me as he was escorted out of our home by police in March. He had asked to come home multiple times but refused to stop drinking or get help, so I told him to stay out. After a month of him drinking at his sisters place, he was kicked out and came back home while still drinking. I couldn’t stop him because both of our names are on the mortgage. We have kids together as well.

    I had started seeing someone else while he was off drinking for that month. At that point I decided I seriously needed to start moving on because it had been almost a 6 year struggle. When he came back to the house I decided to move out once our daughter was finishised school for the summer. My partner had started to dabble in sobriety but would relapse whenever he saw that his efforts to make me stay and be certain things could work between us were ineffective. His relapses would also confirm his instability and actually fed my doubt and desire to finally be free from our turbulent relationship, especially since the fighting was negatively effecting our kids. He wanted me to stop seeing the other man, and would ask personal questions about our relationship – he displayed a great amount of intitlement to know details of my now forming personal life.

    In May, there was a wind storm that knocked a tree over in our backyard, which took out the fence between our lot and our neighbours. We had a good positive day chopping down the tree with friends and family, but he had been drinking all day. By the time the kids were asleep, he started to fight with me about the guy I was seeing. I had called the police at one point because he was getting biligerent and would not let me sleep. The police never showed up. Around 6am I found him hanging from a belt in his room. His ears were blue and he was unconscious. Luckily I found him on time and our eldest did not wake up to see her dad on the floor with EMS all around him. The last thing he said to me was “remember why you’ve lost so many friends to suicide or overdose” – he was referring to 3 male friends who had relationship issues and kids were involved before they met their untimely, personally prescribed fate.

    He came back to the house afterwards. CAS became involved after that, and approved of him staying in the house with the kids as long as he remains sober. After a summer of him remaining sober for the majority of the time, I decided to keep our daughter in the same school so that the kids could still stay with their dad more often than not, because they seemed to help keep him grounded and happy. I had moved the majority of my belongings to my home town in the summer, because that’s where my job security was and where my supports live, and I was still seeing the same guy, but felt the need to keep as much information related to my personal dating life to myself because it triggered the kids dads drinking, as well as a great deal of hostility towards me. If I kept things to myself, things were peaceful. He allowed me to stay at the house when I worked in town. I had worked my schedule out so that I could travel back and fourth to work and see our kids and also give him time alone with them. It was really difficult because I wasn’t seeing my daughter as much, and I felt like I was catering to the kids father way more than I should… but I was so afraid that he would try to kill himself again because the kids and I had left him.

    He had the password to my phone because openness was needed for him to remain civil with me. Fights would start up when he saw that I was still talking to the other man. Things were to the point where the kids father would tell me to take the kids because he couldn’t watch them on his own and needed me there. Recently, after the Christmas break, he attempted suicide again. We had been fighting a lot and he was wanting a relationship still. I had told him that I was still spending time with the same man I had been seeing. The kids and I had spent new years with the other man, his child, and a friend. It was my choice to do New Years without the kids dad to avoid any possible fights, since Christmas was slightly disastrous and I wanted to be certain I would enjoy New Years Eve. I brought the kids back to him the Sunday evening before school, and I had to work at 7am. He had said he would let me stay there. After we got the kids to bed he had been saying he wanted to fix our relationship, yet he had been drinking all day (I was not aware of that until we arrived at the house) and wasn’t letting me sleep. By 1am it I had resorted to calling the police because he was telling me to wake up the kids and leave. I had to call in to work… and the police suggested I just take the kids and leave. The police officer had said that he won’t be seeing his kids for a while, and one of the last things my daughters father said to her before we left was that he will never see her again. I told him that’s not true but he just cried and told me to leave. After I left to get gas, I came back to check on him before leaving town for my parents. He had taken a bunch of pills. By the time he got into the ambulance he fell into a heavily sedated sleep. He had intended to take more before I had arrived.

    I stayed with him at the hospital and I have been staying at the house with him since. He said he can stay sober and remain stable if I stop talking to the other guy. At this point I’m willing to have that other guy judge me for dropping everything to stay with the kids father so that he stays alive for them. I wish I came to that choice for another reason other than fearing he will take his own life… because that could have been possible if he wasn’t so unstable. I do love him and care about him. It’s just really hard to give up a healthier relationship with someone for a very unhealthy one that I feel almost hostage to, because I care so much despite how much I’ve constantly been hurt and let down in the past. I’m just hoping the cycle ends if I just forgive and forget and focus on making him and the kids happy. I do enjoy my life when they are all happy. And I think it’s important that the kids have a healthy happy father. I’m living my life for them now…

  9. I didn’t see it. My father was Miserable and blamed all 3 of his daughters for his misery. We didn’t understand we were being taken hostage- we were just kids, little girls. My sister’s have issues of their own, I was the youngest and this treatment, my father’s brutal beatings with a belt, and his rages tramitzed and terrorized me. Followed into childhood and confusion and desperation. My mother was physically, mentally, and emotionally unavailable even though she was a present figure in the house. Devastating. Wound up on alcohol at 11 and all kinds of drugs when I was 12.

  10. 15yrs married partner isn’t affectionate over nine months does not want to participate in any outside activities.rather just stay home. We have had many discussions to no avail. I am more than willing to socialize have new clothes with tags. Feel very unhappy like he has emotional hostage on me. He is Aware how l feel. He appears happy go lucky,everything is fine.l am his wife yet like a roommate I feel unfulfilled, lonely, depressed.Thinking divorce. Both are late 50s. Any helpful suggestions appreciated


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