Self-harm and suicide threats are amongst the most terrifying – and effective – manipulation tactics in an abuser’s toolkit. Here’s what happened when I called the bluff of an abusive blackmailer.
An extreme form of emotional blackmail is an abuser’s threat to kill themselves if we don’t do what they want. This is a low-blow, but often an effective move because it taps directly into our compassion for another human being, and our fear of being the cause of them ending their life.
Kim Saeed posted a very informative article on suicide threats as a manipulation tool. This post made made me think of all the times that my abusive ex did exactly this. I want to tell you about one of those incidents – and what happened when I called his bluff.
“Come back. I’ll kill myself if you don’t.”
We were in the middle of one of his hoovering campaigns. I’d left him, and he was trying to convince me to return. Stupidly, I hadn’t cut communications with him – mostly because I still wanted to believe that he would change. That day, we’d arranged to meet in the city for coffee. It would be a chance for him to spend time with our baby.
He arrived at our meeting point an hour and ten minutes late. Normal, for him. At the coffee shop, he largely ignored our son as he picked up his favourite topic: why I should go back to him. When I didn’t leap into his arms and weep with happiness, he stormed off, spewing curses. Thirty minutes later, he was back and he’d switched-on his nice persona.
The rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly. He didn’t drive, so I offered him a ride home. He used the drive to harangue me. I regretted letting him into my car. I had no clue how I’d get out of there, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. We sat outside his house for over an hour, as he refused to get out unless I agreed to come in for dinner. He’d cook something nice, he promised. He wouldn’t stop me from leaving whenever I wanted, he assured me. He just couldn’t face eating alone tonight, he pleaded.
A mother of a meltdown
I didn’t cave. It triggered a full-scale meltdown. Terrifying. Screaming insults, trying to drag me from the car, baby crying in the back seat. A passer-by stepped up. He told him,”Fuck off, before you die.” I used the distraction to lock the doors. He stood in front of the car, to prevent me from driving off. I reversed up a one way street to get clear.
Within seconds, my cellphone was ringing like crazy. It was him, of course. I didn’t answer: just kept driving until I reached a petrol station about 20 minutes from his place. I needed to pull myself together before I got home. I didn’t want my family to see me shaking from head to foot. Then, I made the mistake of answering his call.
He tried to persuade me to drive back. I refused. Then came the sobbed-out words that – even though I’d heard them maybe a dozen times before – still chilled me to the core.
“Come back. I’ll kill myself if you don’t. Come back. I can’t live if you don’t come back.”
I hung up, switched off my phone. Each and every time he’d said those words (or similar) to me before, I hated him for it. I hated him for such an obvious ploy, for such a callous move, for once again shoving the responsibility for his actions onto my shoulders.
A real, pain-filled scream
Outside my home, I switched on my phone once more. Within seconds, a call. He repeated his threat to kill himself, told me he had a knife in hand. I tried to reason with him. A real, pain-filled scream. The phone went dead. I sat in the car, frantically dialing his number. No answer. Oh God. Still no answer.
A big part of me knew that this was an act. But that nurturing part of me that still cared for him cried out that maybe it wasn’t. I dialled his phone for the next 10 minutes, hanging on the line, too shaken to move from the car. Then, a call from a number I didn’t know. The guy on the line explained he was a neighbour, he had seen my man bleeding in the street. He’d come to help. Called an ambulance. My man had asked him to phone me, to tell me to meet him at the hospital.
I had to ask, before the good Samaritan revealed what the injuries were. Turns out, he’d stabbed himself in the thumb. Deep and down to the bone, but he’d hardly slashed an artery. It wasn’t a suicide attempt, of course. He inflicted a superficial wound (though a painful one that would go on to seriously compromise a tendon in that hand) just to get my attention.
Though relieved he hadn’t done anything serious, I was frightened and furious at the lengths he’d go to get his way. I resolved to stand firm, so as to discourage a future repeat. Because I refused to go to the hospital, several hours later he turned up on my doorstep, brandishing his bandaged hand like some sort of war wound.
It was proof of how much he loved me, he said. Yeah, right.
You’re not responsible for their choices
The only way to beat emotional blackmail is to know that you are not responsible for the choices of another. Giving in to blackmail tactics – even terrifying, awful threats such as suicide – reinforces the blackmailing behaviour. You’ll be a hostage until you take back your power.
Some (but not all) people who threaten suicide do go on to take their own lives, but here’s the secret: whether he does or doesn’t DOES NOT depend on you. Let him take responsibility for his own actions. His welfare and wellbeing is his job – not yours.
Does your abusive partner threaten suicide if you leave? Their welfare is their responsibility, not yours.
Have you been on the receiving end of emotional blackmail? How did you respond, and what advice would you give to someone who is grappling with this form of manipulation?