The Art of Emotional Blackmail

Words by Inzali

Most people who have grown up in a Burmese household will agree that emotional blackmail is a staple in our social discourse. I can bet that you have either seen, heard of, or even experienced emotional blackmail yourself. How do you know? Let’s identify what emotional blackmail is. 

According to Out of the FOG, an emotional and physiological support group focusing on personality disorders. Emotional blackmail is “a system of  threats and punishments used in an attempt to control someone’s behaviors.” Essentially it is a ransom note that people (mostly parents in this case) use to tell their children to behave a certain way. It includes the use of fear, obligation, and guilt to coerce someone into doing what they naturally would not.

Emotional blackmail is an extremely destructive and emotionally violent act, that has been normalized in Burmese society as a parenting tactic. Ask most Burmese parents and they will say that they have the right to withhold their parental love and care at ransom if the child does not adhere to their beliefs. It is also a fair and common belief that if children do not abide by social and familial beliefs and expectations, then they are inherently undeserving of this love. One would even go as far as to saying these children are inherently “bad” because they have made their parents unhappy, and therefore in a religious (Buddhist) sense have committed a cardinal sin. 

Though it is completely valid that parents can withhold their love: because they have all the rights and ownership over their emotions and how they feel about a person. But so does everyone else, everyone in society has the right to rule over their emotions and feelings. No one individual has the right to use that familial and social connection to coerce an individual into doing what they want.

Here is an example which I have personally seen in my social circle. To give fairness to both sides of the party, I will analyze this situation in the fairest sense possible.

A Burmese woman has fallen in love with a man who is not Buddhist nor Burmese. She has no problem with his race or religious beliefs. Although her parents and family, on the other hand, do. They are engaged and plan to get married in the next year or so. The family is upset, and they sit down with the daughter to talk it out.

So what happens next?

A. The family confronts her, they tell her they do not agree with her choices. The parents explain that marrying a man who is not Buddhist nor Burmese is outside the social norm, and they fear the repercussions of that action. The daughter explains that she is happy with her life and her fiancé fulfills her as a person. She explains to them that she does not care about social norms that enforce racial and religious divides. They come to a conclusion that their daughter’s happiness and they value her presence in the family. Feeling that it is more important than to have a daughter than doing what society sees as right or wrong. The parents are willing to work towards having a functioning relationship with their daughter and her fiancé.

B. The family confronts her, they tell her they do not agree with their choices. They explain that they can not and will not accept her fiancé as a member of the family. The parents explain to her that this is totally against thier heritage and beliefs also mentioning how hurt they feel by her choices. They would prefer her to marry a Burmese, Buddhist boy of a similar economic class bracket. She has given her the ultimatum of choosing between him or her family. The daughter tries to explain that it is not a matter of her loving her family less and her fiancé more. She tries to explain that she has an individual has the right to choose to love whomever she chooses. The daughter is distraught, the family is in shambles but they will not consider any other options.

Here we can see the destructive repercussions of emotional blackmail after the ultimatum is given.

A. The daughter decides that her family is more important to her than her fiancé. She leaves him and continues to live in the familiar social circle. The parents are happy that she has made this decision, they praise her for being a “good daughter”. They tell her that she will never be unhappy because she has made a sacrifice for her parent’s happiness. She feels resentful towards her parents, there are unsaid words. Ultimately leading to distrust and resent in the family, she brings up this situation whenever there is an argument. She then uses this as leverage as her parents get older and are unable to care for themselves. There is no way she finds solace or reconciles her feelings with her parents.

B. The daughter decides that she will not be swayed by her family’s emotional blackmail though it is difficult for her to be disowned. She is hurt after losing her family and the people she has known all of her life. She fears not being able to show her face in social circles and being seen as selfish. There is guilt, shame, and pain of causing the family such distress. Ultimately she is able to marry the man she loves but is unhappy that a huge part of her life had to be taken away. The parents are unhappy that they have lost their daughter and are resentful towards her for choosing the fiancé. There is no way she finds solace or reconciles her feelings with her parents.

This example has been made up of different accounts and situations but the end always sounds the same. Both parties go through emotional distress and pain. Both parties are unable to live with the consequences of emotional blackmail. Both parties suffer.

Personally, I have had friends who have decided to not return to Myanmar from abroad because they know their parents would not approve of their lifestyle. I have LGBTQ friends and family who have been given an ultimatum of closeting themselves for life or leaving the family. I have several aunts and uncles who have been estranged from the family. I myself have been given an ultimatum several times in my life and have had to compromise my personal beliefs for the sake of being in the family.

It is not a surprise that most independent and individualist-minded millennials have decided not to come back after their schooling aboard. Who would want to be subject to emotional blackmail just because they are dating someone their parents do not like? Who would want to be called a disappointment for being gay? Who wants to be called a whore by their own mother because they are not a virgin?

No one.

This is why the use and normalization of emotional blackmail is toxic in our society. It is used to teach children not only how to behave, but also how to love. It tells them that they can blackmail others into conforming. It tells them that love and acceptance can be revoked with a blink of an eye and next thing you know you don’t have a family. The incredulous amount of coercion that goes on in Burmese society is so vast that it has been normalized into daily conversation.

Most Burmese children have grown up in a tightly knit community of family and friends. There are social and familial obligation put upon us the moment we arrive as babies. The obligation that we will conform to social norms and values, and have the same ethics and ethos. The expectation that we will marry and have children of our own and that we will raise our children as we have been. The idea that an individual can not exist in his or her own right unless larger society allows them to exist. It is as if we are allowed to exist within the boundaries of what it means to be “Burmese” and any outlier is inherently corrupt. Burmese society cares too much of what other people think, we care too much about shame and guilt that we would rather disown our own children than be embarrassed by them.

Just imagine the amount of pain and guilt that comes with this. The two people who have brought you into this world, telling you that they are embarrassed to have created you. How do we continue as fulfilled human beings knowing this? And for parents, how can you live with yourself knowing you have willingly cast a part of yourself aside?

Having have gone through this kind of mental and emotional pain, I can say that it is unfair, unnecessary and simply a heavy-handed threat. Especially when the people who are being threatened do not have anywhere else to go, economically, socially and emotionally.  Many will justify this is an act of kindness saying that “We are doing this to better you, not to hurt you.”  But it is not an act of love or kindness when you cause such deep human pain, distrust and insecurity to a person, especially your child. It is a mere act of defense out of fear of being hurt. Saying “You have failed to live up to my expectations as well as societies expectations of you, therefore I will cut you out of my life.” In all honestly, this is never the fault of the receiver but almost always the giver.

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