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…Is emotional blackmail really the answer to getting what you want?
by Denis “Woodja” Flanigan, PhD
We like to think that our partners know us. It feels good to think that they are thoughtful enough to know what we like or what is important to us. And that’s why we believe our partner “should” know to do or not do something we want or expect. I think there is also some cultural notion that romantic partners develop a special intuition about each other. Face it! Many of our cultural notions about relationships are not founded in reality.
“Emotional blackmail” is one of the devices we may use in an attempt to get what we want in our relationships. I consider something “emotional blackmail” if it is presented in the form of, “If you want me to act lovingly toward you, then you must do this thing that I desire.”
Some of the most common forms of blackmail are claims that begin with “you should know” and some version of “if you really loved me.” Both of these claims are traps and power plays. They are unfair. Another tactic often employed is withholding pleasure within the relationship—often to the detriment of both parties.
“Should” is a poor basis for setting expectations. In an ideal world, that would be a reasonable approach. However, relationships between people are inherently less than ideal—sometimes terribly flawed, in fact. We all get caught up in our own worlds, our own worries and desires, which too often results in being less attentive to our partner’s desires—sometimes even when those desires are explicitly stated.
If you are determined to not ask for what you want because you shouldn’t have to, the end result will be that you still don’t get what you want. Plus you develop resentment for not getting what you want out of the relationship—bonus! You will probably additionally make your relationship less enjoyable for your partner as well, so it ends in a win-win situation. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic.)
Having to repeatedly tell your partner the same thing over and over becomes annoying, so why not take the path of least resistance: simply accept that your partner doesn’t know—regardless of whether they should. “Should” acts as a form of wishful thinking. We all know how well that works out.
The idea that one’s love is predicated upon doing a particular act implies that there is only one right way to love someone or reduces love to a set of acceptable acts. Neither is true. Love is an organic phenomenon, not restricted to a defined set of behaviors. Acts of love most often emanate naturally, not from attempts to meet another’s expectations. If the expression of love is circumscribed by one’s partner, those acts are probably not actually acts of love, but rather are attempts to amelio-rate one’s partner—driven more out of fear than love.
The other major problem with the “if you loved me” approach is that it can very easily escalate into a battle. Each partner can equally make such a claim: “If you loved me, then you wouldn’t leave your clothes all over” or “If you loved me, you would pick them up for me.” Neither of these claims can argue inherent legitimacy over the other.
Doing things that you know your partner wants or enjoys—but are not presented as requisites of one’s love—do not qualify as emotional blackmail, because they aren’t done as fulfillment of a condition in order to receive love. I frequently do things for my partner that I know he enjoys, appreciates, or are important to him, because I want to make him feel good, not so that I will in turn receive expressions of love. I do them because it feels good to me to do things that I think will make him feel good.
Intentionally refraining from doing things that you believe your partner would enjoy in order to get your partner to do
something is a form of emotional blackmail as well. It is a form of hostage-holding: “If you ever want to see sex again, then you’d better…” This approach to getting what you want changes your “love” into “conditional love.” Conditional love is not the rewarding experience—for either party—that genuine love is.
A classic “cut off your nose to spite your face” approach is when partners deny themselves affection, sex, or activities they enjoy doing with their partner—watching certain TV shows, playing certain games—in order to punish their partner. They make both their own and their partner’s enjoyment of the relationship conditional upon some other action.
This is not the same thing as not engaging in something that is normally enjoyable to do with your partner, that you do not currently feel like doing with them because you are angry at them—that is a natural part of relationships. But withholding an activity primarily as a punishment is emotional blackmail. This falls into the category of passive-aggressive—and rarely is helpful. It certainly does not qualify as “loving.”
If you engage in a behavior only because you want your partner to meet some condition, I would encourage you to ask yourself why you are engaging in that behavior that you don’t really want in the first place. Making compromises regarding behaviors that are less desirable is part of being in a relationship. However, compromises that lead to resentment are more likely some form of power play and are not part of a healthy relationship.
When you don’t receive what you want in a relationship, ask directly for it—without demanding it—and you are less likely to develop resentment within your relationship. You just might have to accept that you will have to continue to ask.
If you can’t get some specific thing that you want from your relationship, you need to decide if that thing you want is worth more to you than the overall relationship. Is it a deal breaker? If you continue to fiercely hold on to wanting something that you are not getting, your relationship eventually won’t be worth holding on to.
Denis “Woodja” Flanigan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice. For appointments or more information on his practice, visit houston-psychologist.com, or call 713.589.9804.