7 Seemingly Innocent Things That Can Actually Be Emotional Blackmail In A Relationship

by Kristine Fellizar

When you're dating someone you're really into, it can be hard to differentiate healthy behaviors from toxic ones. Unfortunately, it's common to romanticize things like jealousy and other unhealthy behaviors. According to experts, it's easy to mistake seemingly innocent things for love, and it can be hard to tell when something is emotional blackmail.

"Emotional blackmail is one of the primary ways that one partner controls another partner," Dr. Connie Omari, clinician and owner of Tech Talk Therapy, tells Bustle. "It's done in such a way that the controlling partner manipulates the other person‘s emotions in an attempt to get their way."

It can be done in so many different ways. For instance, sarcasm is a common way people emotionally blackmail others. If you tell your partner that they're being too critical and they respond with an, "I'm sorry that I'm such a bad person," this can be emotional blackmail. Instead of taking the constructive criticism for the way it was meant, Dr. Omai says, the manipulative response (i.e. sarcasm) invalidates the partner's emotions, while protecting their own. An emotional blackmailer will always find a way to play the victim.

According to Kelsey M. Latimer, PhD, founder of Hello Goodlife, emotional blackmail should be directly seen as emotional abuse. "It should be taken very seriously and you should immediately tell the person how you feel if that is safe to do and/or to get others involved if you feel a sense of danger," she says.

Similar to emotional abuse, emotional blackmail can be hard to spot. So here are some seemingly innocent things that are actually signs of emotional blackmail, according to experts.


They Want To Know Everything About You Right Away

Ashley Batz/Bustle

"I’m very cautious of people who want to know too much too soon," Latimer says. While it's great to have someone want to know about you, it's not so great if they're pushing you to the point that it's uncomfortable. For instance, it's a red flag if they're asking you personal things about finances way too early on in the relationship. While someone may assume they care about money and stability, they may not be asking you for the right reasons. If they make you feel bad for not sharing, that's likely emotional blackmail, and if you're in this situation, it's important to set your boundaries. "If it doesn’t feel right then don’t do it," Latimer says. "If the person loves you then they will respect your boundaries."


They Point Out Your Flaws

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

Being honest is good, but it should never be hurtful. "One of the first signs of emotional blackmail is when someone constantly brings up your flaws," Samantha Morrison, wellness expert for Glacier Wellness, tells Bustle. "Although they may do this in ways which seem harmless, it's a common tactic to trigger fear and doubt."

Talking to your partner can be helpful, but if they don't stop, that's not a good sign. When someone is constantly criticized, they can start to believe it. Because of that, a victim of emotional blackmail might feel stuck in their current relationship because they're scared that no one else will love them. When it gets to this point, it is emotional abuse, and there's nothing wrong with seeking help to end the relationship.


They Try To Punish You After A Fight

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

"If after an argument, your partner goes out for hours without telling you where they are, this indicates that they are punishing you for the disagreement by intentionally causing you to worry or feel anxious," relationship expert, Kryss Shane, MS, MSW, LSW, LMSW, tells Bustle.

Asking for space is totally fine. But if someone does it with the intention of "punishing" their partner, this is emotional blackmail. "The first time this happens, approach the situation calmly and explain that you felt kicked out of their life after the recent disagreement," Shane says. If you're in a healthy relationship, your partner will at least check in even when you're in the middle of a fight.


They'll "Test" You

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

When you're in a healthy relationship, there should be balance. You shouldn't have to jump through hoops in order to please your partner so your relationship can progress. For instance, if you've been wanting to meet your partner's family, but they'll only make it happen after you've made some changes to yourself, that's emotional blackmail. According to Shane, this shows you that you are not welcome into their world unless you meet their demands. It's also controlling behavior, which is toxic for a relationship.


They Keep Score

Ashley Batz/Bustle

When you're with someone who likes keeping score, there's likely emotional blackmail going on in your relationship. "The emotional blackmailer may go out of their way to do things for you, even if it goes against their self-interest," Amica Graber, relationship expert with TruthFinder, tells Bustle. But nothing they do is selfless. "Instead, they’ll bring it up over-and-over again, frequently reminding you what they’ve sacrificed to make you happy," Graber says. If you're ever in a fight, they may use their good deeds as a tool to make you feel guilty.


They Turn To You For Everything

Ashley Batz/Bustle

It can feel nice to be needed but watch out if someone starts dropping hints that you’re the only person in their lives. "'I couldn’t live without you' or 'you’re the only one I can depend on' are statements that should raise a red flag," Graber says. "No one should make you responsible for their happiness or use you as a tool to keep their own problems at bay."


They Want To Be Your Everything

Ashley Batz/Bustle

On the flip side, an emotional blackmailer may suddenly claim that they’re your everything. According to Graber, they will do what they can to make sure you turn to them for anything you need. This may be their subtle way of isolating you from friends and family. When you have nobody else to turn to but them, they can easily control you.

"If you find yourself in an emotionally blackmailing situation, you could should confront your partner with how this makes you feel," Dr. Omari says. Use "I" statements in order to get your point across without placing any blame on your partner. It's also important to recognize that emotional blackmail may be a sign of emotional immaturity in a person. "Relationships that are dominated by emotional blackmail are usually unhealthy and unfulfilling, so if you find yourself in the situation, and you’re unable to resolve it with your partner, you might want to consider terminating the relationship," she says.

The biggest thing to remember here is to stay aware. When you're really into someone, it's easy to ignore red flags and romanticize toxic behavior. But if you feel like something is off, it's definitely worth exploring. You may be right.

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit