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Emotional Self-Blackmail

When compromising is self-destructive.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

It is natural for people to want to control their lives and meet their personal needs, and most develop a variety of strategies to achieve those goals.

Though the majority of people try to maintain their personal integrity by staying within the bounds of their ethics and values, it is easy to let those guardrails down when facing people or situations that may not significantly affect our lives. But, if core values are compromised within an intimate relationship, it can have dire consequences.

Negotiations that feel fair and equitable to both partners enhance a relationship. Couples who utilize those skills become adept at doing just that. When they have a disagreement, they openly debate, exchange and welcome each other’s views, and commit to mutually agreeable solutions. And, as they learn and improve, they have fewer re-hashes and less scarring.

Unfortunately, having observed hundreds of couples over the last four decades, I have often seen the opposite. As they continue to use faulty negotiating skills, they too often disintegrate into a winner/loser interaction, where one partner most often gains his or her goals at the disadvantage of the other.

These one-sided compromises often begin innocently. The partners disagree on something and begin to bargain for resolution. They may initially try to take the other’s desires into account, but if a mutual accord is not reached, their interaction often rapidly deteriorates.

Sometimes, I observe the partners having power over the other in different areas, achieving a kind of quid pro quo equality balance. But, unfortunately, that is not usually the case. Most routinely compromising partners quickly feel that they have no options but to give in once a conflict begins. They feel that they have no choice but to give in and live in a state of quiet cumulative defeat.

As a result, they can, sadly, slip into a self-destructive martyrdom that closes down authenticity, openness, and emotional availability. The oft-winning partner may triumph in the short run, but loses the option of intimate connection over time.

There are two areas of concern that must be addressed for couples to leave these relationship-destructive patterns behind and to regain their trust in mutual fairness.

The first is for them to identify and watch for how these unhealthy, one-sided compromises happen and what drives them. Partners who still love and respect each other must become aware of these intimacy-destructive patterns as early as possible in order to reverse that course and hold onto their connection.

The second is for both partners to explore any personality characteristics or past experiences that make them more prone to participating in whichever roles they play.

Signs of Unhealthy Compromise

Silent Signals

People who give in too often and too much, may not want to upset their partners further by being direct in asking for what they want. Instead of being honest about their growing feelings of unfair treatment, they give silent signals, hoping that their partners will take notice.

Typical examples of silent signals are deep sighs, looking exhausted, emotional reactivity, martyred expressions, slowness to respond, or intentionally focusing elsewhere to avoid the next dispute.

The partners who are intent on winning the battle, whether innocently or purposefully, ignore those signals. It is not to their advantage to pay attention to them.

Spontaneous Unexpected Outbursts

Pressures, illness, stress, and crises can cause cumulative stress to one or both partners, upping the ante when disputes happen. Even someone who is typically the one to compromise can break and emotionally explode. If the other partner gets angry or doubles down, that typically give-in partner will often quickly apologize.

Their partners usually describe these outbursts as expressions of moodiness, and to not tie them into the suppressed distress.

Measured Speech and Actions

If one partner consistently compromises in disagreements and lets the other have his or her way, carefully measured, robotic words and actions emerge.

These give-in people believe that their communications “should” be recognized as a false performance, designed to communicate that there is trouble brewing underneath. If the other partners don’t notice, they will be silently blamed for their lack of consideration.

Unfortunately, it is more likely that the other partner will take advantage by ignoring these “sacrifices,” and not feel obligated to return the un-asked-for supplication. When spontaneity in a willing negotiation is replaced by feigned deadness, there will be heartaches ahead.


Partners who have compromised too much feel a sense of pre-defeat when any dispute begins. They give in quickly just to avoid what they know is the predictable outcome.

That behavior is often followed by becoming noticeably unavailable. That can drive their partners to try to reconnect even if it means they will have to endure some negative reaction to do so. Or, they may just let them stay separate until there is motivation on the other side to reconnect.

Advance Giving

Some partners, unable to stop their over-compromising, attempt to get ahead of the game by anticipating what their partners want and giving it to them in advance. It is as if they are buying the freedom from anxiety by making sure that all potential requests are met before they are asked for.

It may become obvious to the winning partner that the frequency of disputes has sharply lessened. The tip-off is the compromising partner’s apparent self-destructive silence and withdrawal.

Strategic Multiple-Choice Answers

When partners cannot, don’t want to, or don’t know how, to fight for what they want, they may try to control the outcome of a dispute in an alternative, subtle way.

As an argument starts, instead of advocating directly for their needs, these give-in people quickly offer a multitude of options, hoping their partners will fall prey to the strategy and choose one of them. The underlying goal for them is to control the outcome by offering alternatives that might satisfy their partner.

If the stronger, more dominant arguer doesn’t bite, the partner using this strategy can fall back on how hard he or she tried to compromise.

This strategy can backfire if the typically winning partner doesn’t accept any of the options and still pushes for what he or she wants. The failed strategy leaves the compromising partner with no other options but to give in again.

Causes of Win/Defeat Patterns

Childhood Modeling

Children have antennas to their caretakers. They watch and internalize the relationships they observe. If they see one of their parents giving in to the other on a regular basis for whatever reason, they see that as a normal way to deal with disputes. If there are only two roles, the hierarchical winner and the compromising prey, they may feel they have to be one or the other.


Physical or emotional abuse without hope of salvation most always results in submissive behavior in all animals, humans included. If a person is victimized at any time in life without the ability to escape, he or she will give in to try to expedite the punishment expected or hope for more leniency.

Anxiety and Depression

Psychological disorder, no matter what is their cause, can weaken any person’s capacity to fight oppression. When people suffer from anxiety, their alarm signals may go off too soon and last for too long. The life-stealing symptoms of depression can take away the motivation needed to change any situation, often leading to downward spirals that feed its own destruction.

Lovers Not Fighters

There are people who just cannot bear disharmony of any kind. They would do or give up almost anything to keep the peace, even if it means a critically imbalanced give-and-take relationship. Their feelings have existed since they were small children, even then becoming severely distressed when anyone around them became upset or angry.

Habitual Givers

Habitual givers are much more likely to become give-in people if they are in relationships with partners who are willing to take advantage of those natural tendencies.

These too-quick-to-give people have many different reasons for doing what they do; some healthy and some not so much so.

For example, habitual givers may just feel good about themselves when they do give what others need or want. Or, they enjoy seeing people they care about, satisfied and sated. Perhaps, they are afraid of the consequences if they don’t give. Some people give because they like having that reputation, or because of religious teachings. Most givers feel some or all of these motives at different times and with different people.

Relationship partners who consistently give too often and too much often attract eager takers who are happy to be in relationships where they don’t have to equally reciprocate. The relationship, oddly, can still work, if the givers feel appreciated and supported. But, more often than not, they are not, and they disintegrate into resentful appeasers.

Disagreements are part of all relationships, and should be. When they are participated in with mutual respect, clarity, authenticity, and fairness, they expand a couple’s ability to understand each other more deeply and to resolve issues successfully.

In order for that to happen, both partners must be willing to give in when appropriate and hold their boundaries when their integrity is at stake. If one or both partners, instead, repeatedly compromise those values, they will eventually destroy the fairness that is crucial to trust and intimacy.

Intimate partners can help each other give up their earlier patterns of give-in defeats, and mutually watch carefully for imbalanced control interactions. As they catch them earlier and opt for healthy negotiations, they can turn them around and know that each will watch out for the other.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love.

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