I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’ve had a lot of experienced with emotional blackmail in my life. For the rare and lucky few not familiar with it, emotional blackmail is a form of manipulation where the blackmailer uses guilt, obligation, or fear to get you to do something you don’t want to do.
It used to be a much more prevalent experience in my life. When I was married to Miguel (first marriage), it was a standard part of our interaction. He’d want to do something, I wouldn’t, he’d say (at first) that if I loved him, I would do it. I loved him, so I did it. Those were the early months of our marriage. Over time this deteriorated into “if you don’t shape up, I’m going to have you locked up in the loony bin and you’ll never see your children again.” That was in the midst of my first severe depression and our separation. He thought that a few good ultimatums would restore balance in our marriage–balance being he decided everything about what I should do, say and think, while I made him look good to other people.
Miguel has done a lot of emotional damage, not just to me but, more tragically, to his sons. My oldest, Alejandro, has autism and probably some other developmental disorders. He finished high school but really hasn’t done much since. My youngest, without the challenges of a disability, has been much more successful–always did well in school, in sports, had a lot of friends, went to college. And their dad has blatantly favored the younger over the older. He’s often told my older son, “Well, if you get good grades like your brother, I’ll give you a laptop/cell phone/trip to Hawaii like I gave him.” (And I’m not kidding, the younger one got all of those things and more, while Alejandro did not.)
But this is not really a post about Miguel. It’s a post about how Alejandro has learned from his father and uses similar manipulative techniques on me. Sometimes he says things like, “well, you bought xyz for my brother,” even though the truth is I buy many more things for him, and I will for the rest of my life. Sometimes he just harangues me, the same thing, over and over. He’s been known to leave me 20 messages on my work voicemail and a dozen text messages while I’m in work meetings. Everything he needs is urgent, and if I truly valued my family above my job, I would respond to him.
Naturally, I’ve had more than one conversation about this with E. over the years. In fact, he was a regular topic of conversation until we shifted about a year and a half ago to start doing this much deeper healing work. We talked many times about boundaries, and sometimes I enforced them a bit. But honestly, without this deeper work, I didn’t really believe that I could set boundaries, or that I had the right to. That’s starting to change.
This past weekend, it started up again. Skipping all the details, Sandro texted me asking me for an unreasonable amount of money for something that didn’t make sense. I proposed a much less expensive alternative. He insisted it had to be what he’d asked for (because that is what his girlfriend wants, and Valerie definitely runs their relationship) and nothing else, and it was important and it was urgent and they really need it. And they hate to ask me for money but they have no other choice and I love you, Mom, and I know you’ll come through for us.
Deep breath. I pulled out a book that E. had suggested I buy a few years ago, Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward. I’d read it before, so I skipped straight to the final chapters about how to react. I won’t describe everything she suggests, but the pieces that spoke to me in this latest round were these (in my own words):
- Buy yourself time. Use phrases such as “I need to think about it” to give yourself a little space to figure out if it’s a demand you are actually willing to meet, once you are away from the annoying way it was made. Maybe it is something you can partly agree to. Or maybe you just don’t want to do it. Give yourself the time to think it through and know what you want.
- Tell yourself “I can stand it,” meaning you can tolerate whatever anger, guilt, tears, or threats they blackmailer is going to throw at you.
- Use clear, non-accusatory language in your response. If possible, acknowledge the blackmailer’s needs or desires as valid, even if you can’t or won’t fulfill them.
- Acknowledge how you feel and/or how the other person is likely to feel.
- Then, when you get a storm back in your face, you simply have to stick to some phrases: “I’m sorry you are upset” or “I can see how you might feel that way.” If you are told “then I won’t do such and such,” your response is, “That’s too bad, but it’s up to you.”
I used some version of all of these. #1 is very important for me because many past experiences combined make it hard for me to know, in the moment, what I want to do. This is especially true if I’m under pressure. So I told him I needed time to think (I used my surgical recovery as an excuse).
I decided not to tell my son that I thought his request didn’t make sense (#3). Obviously to him and Valerie, it did make sense. So I responded to my son saying, “I see that you and Valerie really want x and no other option will do. Unfortunately, I’m not able to provide the money for you to do that. I hope you can find the money elsewhere…” In retrospect, I probably should have said “I’m not willing to provide the money.” That would have been more honest.
Susan Forward suggests it’s okay to say that you feel angry or resentful or whatever you feel (#4). You can also say what worries you about the other person’s possible reaction. That’s why I also said, “I’m sorry, because I know you won’t like this decision.”
It wasn’t a big surprise that I got back a sarcastic reply about what a good mom I was, always willing to help, and how they would have to beg on the streets to get the money they needed. He also said they no longer wanted to come to a family event planned for this summer.
So my answer was, “I’m sorry you feel that way. And I’d love to have you come to [the event] but that’s up to you and Valerie.” Sandro went on to say how much I’d let him down, and how he’d told Valerie’s family that, contrary to what they expected, I would help out. What a disappointment that they were right and he was wrong. And I shouldn’t contact him for a while; he was too hurt to communicate with me.
You might think, then, that this interaction went badly. But that’s not how I feel at all. I feel relieved, no, more than that: I feel happy. I also feel sad.
I’m relieved because I acted in line with my own beliefs and values. I am completely willing to give my son money, and I often do, but it doesn’t feel right to indulge every whim, particularly the ones that really don’t seem to make sense to me. I’ve seen in the past that it just makes him demand more.
I feel happy because this is something that has been enormously difficult for me. And I did it, without being consumed by guilt. I am happy and feel almost proud that I was able to figure out how I felt and then hold that boundary. It can be hard to say no to your struggling child, and even more when he has a disability. But saying yes all the time isn’t good for either of us.
And I feel sad because my son doesn’t take his medications, is ruled by impulse and his fear of displeasing Valerie, and has no goals for his life. I feel sad that we are likely to replicate this interaction a number of times in the future because he tends not to learn from experience. But that’s not new. That’s just a sadness that exists in my life. We all have those, in one form or another.
I attribute my ability to set this boundary and stick to out without feeling guilty to all the healing work I’ve done in therapy. I wouldn’t have been able to do this unless I had started to believe that I deserved to have my own opinion, and that it was worth as much as others’ needs. I have started to listen to my intuition enough to know what I feel is okay and not okay. And I did it in the context of one of my great relationship challenges: the lying and manipulation of a son with a disability, a son I love more dearly than he knows.