This isn’t really a post about how to write emotional blackmail or even what it is. This is more my attempt to point some lines that have become common in the writing of relationships that are so insidious in the ways that they present unhealthy relationships as okay and even desirable/romantic. I’ll be honest and say that emotional violence is among the most difficult forms of violence to recognize because it hits and hurts so deeply but leaves no physical signs of abuse. A character that is experiencing a dysfunctional relationship may be blown off by their friends, family, and others who aren’t receiving the same treatment by the person who is abusing them.
Emotional blackmail is all about guilt and controlling the subject’s behavior by making them feel badly about themselves. They attempt to keep them with them by threatening them, not just with exposure, but through harm to themselves. “It’s your fault I did this. I love you so much.” is common. Emotional blackmailers are commonly jealous and controlling, they want the object of their affections to be with them only and are often insecure when they are with anyone else or behaving in a manner that they do not want them to.
It’s the undercurrent of blame in the discussion and the shifting of responsibility to the object of the blackmail that makes it blackmail. It sounds like they’re talking about you, but the reality is that what they’re saying is “me, me, me, me, me”. (Also, “your fault, your fault, your fault”.) It’s often an obsessive love and it’s worth noting that it can happen between family members and friends, beyond just romantic relationships.
Some common phrases:
“I don’t need anyone but you.”
This might sound really romantic on the surface, but the truth is that it’s actually very insidious because the expectation is the co-dependant response of “I also don’t need anyone but you” with the expectation that the object of their affections will throw their entire life away to put the person they love first. They aren’t taking the other person’s feelings into account, all that matters is theirs.
“I told you, you have the ability to hurt me more than anyone else in the world.”
This phrase is insidious because it means that if the object of their affections steps out of line and hurts them, then they can blame them and play the victim. The person on the receiving end of that statement will feel that they are the cause of the person’s hurt and will be less likely to leave them.
“Look I am taking a huge chance trusting you and if you screw me over, I’ll probably never try anything like this ever again.”
This places the blame for the relationship failing directly on the shoulders of the object. If they leave or want to call it quits then the suggestion is that they’ll have screwed up the blackmailer’s whole life. They love them so much that they’ll never be all right again and must sacrifice their feelings (and whatever future feelings they may have) so that the blackmailer can feel safe and secure. A statement like this doesn’t take the other person into account at all. It’s about one person and ensures that the object knows that they will be the villain if they leave.
It comes in many different flavors and these are just a few of the possible ways it can assert itself. It’s always worth looking into what makes a relationship dysfunctional when trying to write them.
(Edit: Also the true killer: “I did X for you, why haven’t you given me Y?”)
Starke Edit: “If you really loved me…”