Checklist Blackmail

The questionnaire

No list holds the power to change a person’s heart.

It finally arrives – the heartbreaking yet liberating moment when you simply cannot live the lie for one more minute.   The loneliness, shame and exhaustion can no longer be rationalized or minimized.  There is nothing left to sort out or piece together or hope for, and you finally break through the wall of dysfunction you had foolishly accepted as normal.  And you leave.

 As the first days pass, you find yourself moving tenuously through the haze of disillusionment and exhaustion and catching a glimpse of clear sky, relishing every breath of free air and then falling into bed at night in peace.  If you are lucky, in the abuser’s absence, the numbness of soul to which you have become accustomed gives way, and you find yourself savoring the joys of a few days, hours or minutes free of constant fear and confusion.

Unfortunately, it will not be long before your sweet respite is interrupted.  Your abuser is not done yet.  He shows up on your doorstep and leaves countless messages on your phone.  He might arrive at your workplace, send flowers, bring gifts and make every promise imaginable.  He insists he has been awakened to the truth and is intent on securing any opportunity to prove himself.  So he asks, “What can I do to assure you of my love, to earn your trust and prove my sincerity? Name it.” 

Those are dangerous words.  He wants your checklist.

It is tempting to offer one.  How many nights have you lain awake strategizing how you might reach his angry, calloused heart and get him to see you, to cherish you?

“Maybe this is it,” you say to yourself.  “Maybe he has finally reached a point where he can hear me.” 

 It feels like an open door, a precious opportunity to set the stage for real healing and change.  You feel confident, even eager presenting him with your checklist because he has evoked a genuine desire to make things right.  You put it out there, believing that you are giving him some helpful direction, maybe even inspiration.  You might insist on counseling, treatment for his addiction(s), corrections to his irresponsible spending, acknowledgement of and elimination of his abusive behavior.  You might also ask that he help more with household responsibilities or give you more freedom to pursue your interests.

Only these many years later can I see the absurdity of enduring however many years of abuse, and then handing the abuser a short list of concessions he must make to get things back to what he considers normal.  Step back for a moment, and you can see that his request of you at once infers that he is mystified as to what the issues are and how he has hurt you.  If he is counting on you to explain to him what he needs to change, then in his mind, he doesn’t need to change anything.  And your willingness to offer him a checklist is accepted as a promise that you are willing to reconcile with him as soon as those line items are checked off.

No problem.

As well-trained enablers, we almost always fail to realize that the checklist is a trap, a teaser in the abuser’s game, and many of us are drawn in.  We continue to act on the premise that relationship is the mutual goal.  Not so for the abuser.  Remember:  he wants control.

So what we see as a solemn opportunity to restore genuine relationship is to the abuser a trivial matter of a few small hurdles, temporary obligations, or just another opportunity to perfect his art of manipulation.  The checklist becomes the very mortar the abuser will use to rebuild the walls that held you captive.

Go to counseling?  Sure.  Several weeks later, the counselor has bought in to the abuser’s “sincere” efforts, and the victim has lost her voice.  In fact, she is probably under the gun now for being slow to forgive or accommodate him.  Nothing has changed, but he has fulfilled the mandate.


Get treatment for his addictions.  He goes to meetings and expresses confidence in his progress, but there will be occasional lapses.  What do you expect – perfection?  To be encouraging, you commend him for his progress believing his addictive tendencies will decline over time, but only time will tell.


At first, his commitment seems admirable, even believable.  And you may optimistically give him more credit than he is due.  Not only that, but many of your checklist demands are subjective and can be molded and twisted in a manner that can be accepted as a good effort.  Speaking cruelly to you or your children?  That’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it?  Perhaps you’re overreacting again or expecting too much in too short of a time period.  In no time, he will have found a way to document some measure of success in every area you asked.

Check.  Check.  Check.

If you’re a strong one, maybe you can resist the tearful pleas of your children who want daddy to come home, and remain a little skeptical when his friends and family members remind you of how hard he is trying.  You do not have the measure of peace you need to consider reconciling.  That is when the checklist becomes his tool and your enemy.

“I’ve done everything you’ve asked,” he reminds you.  “What more can you possibly expect from me? You are being unfair to me.  Don’t you want to save our marriage?  Why are you doing this to our children?”  And the pressure is on.

Has he really changed?  No.  But you have set yourself up for Checklist Blackmail.  The abuser will use the checklist you gave him to contain and define and limit the scope of necessity in the relationship.  Your checklist leaves the intangible, immeasurable substance of his character immutable.

Even though the abuser has met the obligations, you still feel unsafe.  To his way of thinking, that’s your problem.  Should you refuse to receive him, he will emotionally pummel you with the checklist you gave him and angrily affirm your response as proof that you are absolutely unreasonable, overly demanding and even cruel.  You have put yourself between a rock and a hard place – and your abuser knows it.

Just say ‘no’ to the checklist.  No list holds the power to change a person’s heart.  If you leave your abuser, and he tells you he wants to change, to make things right; let him.  He’s a grown-up.  Let him go get counseling on his own and figure out what needs to do to get healthy without harassing you or promising you the moon or extracting agreements or timelines from you.

While he does his share of the work (I write with great skepticism), you can take some time to educate yourself about the abuse dynamic and focus on your healing – not on his.  If one day he shows up on your doorstep, accepts full responsibility for all of his cruelties, humbly seeks your forgiveness, seeks help of his own volition and agrees to leave you alone and honor your need for time and space and room to heal without limits…then there might be a basis for entertaining the remote possibility of reconciliation.

From what I have witnessed in my dealings with abusers, they prefer the game of Checklist Blackmail.  Don’t play.  It is just one more game you simply cannot win.

 Though you pound a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his foolishness will not depart from him. Proverbs 27:22

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved

36 thoughts on “Checklist Blackmail”

  1. Cindy…this is so very, very true! Almost 4 yrs after my husbands emotional affair, and he is still asking me what I want him to do to “change”, so I would write out a list like a good wife!
    And he’d do one or two of the requests on the list, and then stop! And then blame me because no matter what he did it would never be enough anyway!
    I’m reposting this article on my blog because others need to know about Checklist Blackmail!
    I do have a question Cindy….My husband wants to try counseling again…for the third time…he quit after 3-4 sessions the last 2 times.
    We are still together, through we don’t have a romantic marriage at all…we are like roommates….I am looking at separation down the road, he says he doesn’t want that…Anyway, the counselor I found seems very forthright…He said he doesn’t believe in labels (my H is Passive Aggressive) he believes in a sinful heart and that is what needs to be addressed!
    The counselor would like me to attend the counseling sessions as a couple….but I’m really not interested.
    I feel my H needs to work on himself, he has issues from his dysfunctional family that are impacting him today, he claims to be a Christian but I see no evidence in his life, other than church attendance…what would you suggest?

    1. Dear Lonely. Already I am not a fan of your counselor. He doesn’t believe in labels? Why not? If the shoe fits… Is it acceptable to refer to someone as an enabler or an abuser? At what point is the man willing to call a spade a spade. I know, that’s one too many metaphors, but really. Your husband’s behaviors are typical of an abuser. He will feign repentance, offer a small measure of compliance (which is not change) and then say you expect too much of him. Those are all simply abuser games – and the tip of the iceberg.

      Secondly, I used to support couples counseling but do not any longer. Couples counseling with an abuser does not work. Just say ‘no.’ Like you said, if your husband wants to sincerely address his issues (and I don’t believe that at this point), then let him get counsel on his own. For an abuser, counseling is simply an aid toward “proving” that he is making an effort and gaining an ally in his counselor, which then puts the pressure on you, his victim, to accommodate his so-called imperfections. No, I don’t think you are under any obligation to go to counseling with him. In fact, doing so would probably cause more harm in your life than good. It also tells me that the counselor doesn’t understand a dang thing about abuse. Any counsel you seek should be for the benefit of your personal recovery, not to attempt to save your marriage.

      You asked what I would suggest. I would suggest that you separate in order to give you the time and space to see clearly what it is you have been living in. We can’t really see it until we get out, and we don’t get out because we can’t see it. You have already been through a lot with this man. At what point, dear woman, will you have had enough? I want you to know that God does not condone marital abuse or neglect. The Scriptures call it treachery, which it is. Furthermore, in spite of what have probably been taught, God does not hate divorce or the divorcee, but provided divorce to protect one from the hard-heartedness of another. I say that, not to urge you to divorce, but to share with you God’s heart in the matter. Too often we remain believing that we will be condemned or abandoned by God if we leave our abuser. It is not so. But, I urge you to seek the heart of God, to listen to what He is saying to you, and act on what you know to be true.

      I hope you will keep me informed and will be praying for you, as I do for many who visit me here.

      In His grace,


      1. Hi Lonely,
        I agree with Cindy! I have been in exactly the same situation as you. As Christians, we seek godly counsel. We fervently hope that a counselor is going to be able to help us to make sense of our impossible relationship. I went to my church pastor and was told that our problem was “communication breakdown”. This after years of on again off again unproductive counseling sessions. Even when there was clearly a pattern of deceit and betrayal, the responsibility for preserving the marriage, for forgiving and forgetting was laid on my shoulders. My husband was delighted. A counselor or clergyman who insists on couples counseling with an abuser, is not aware of the dynamics of power and control involved. Your husband bides his time, making no real change, and the situation remains the same while you and he are busy working on your “relationship issues”. This will only result in you being further wounded. An emotional abuser will refuse to go for counseling on his own, because he doesn’t believe he needs to change. It took me decades to realize that my husband would never agree to address his own issues. I finally had to resolve that I would never consider reconciling unless he did. The one thing the counselor did get right is that it is a sin issue. Absolutely.

        1. I so appreciate your input and validation, Shelly. You are clearly growing with regard to your depth of knowledge in this arena.

          Bravo! And thank you for your contributions.


      2. I agree. I went to counseling with my husband 12 years ago and he still uses it against me. If I had only done what the counselor said and was more affectionate and communicated better. I will never go to counseling with him again. I’ve been trying to get him out of my house for 6 months. 18 years of this shit. My daughter has suffered the most. Thank God I found this site. He has been wearing me down and I thought I might cave about the divorce.

  2. This is such a well written article on this critical topic.

    Many abusive men seem to read from a script book when it comes to behaving as though they have normal human emotions and ethics. One of the costly lessons I’ve learned is not to supply him with a script or to fill in the blank pages. It seems to be a lesson in progress for me, because it’s easy to slip here.

  3. Cindy, thank you.
    Divorce was final 2 months ago.
    He told me he would date me, and when he got a new girlfriend before we were divorced I asked what happened that I was off his radar….
    He said, “I was looking for you to treat me differently, believing I had changed. Because you never did, I didn’t go to level 2 to ask you for a date.”

    I have truly felt this was all my fault until your article above – any many on your site. This wasn’t my fault. He didn’t ever really change and expected I would. My gut told me to not go back, it was right. But you clarified why it was right – thank you for your work here.

    1. I am glad you are finding the affirmation you need here, Vikki, but I know how very painful it is to come to that conclusion. Let me just say that you are correct. There was no change there, only the frustration on his part that you did not respond the way he wanted. Know that you did the right thing under the circumstances. Our tendency is to doubt ourselves – whether we did enough or did it right… I’m sure you did.

      I pray you find the kind of life and love you long for.

      Thank you for writing to share your experience.


  4. Just an update…has it REALLY been 2 1/2 yrs?? Nothing changed in our relationship AT ALL…we have been in home separated for months and will be divorcing soon…and it’s ALL my fault….so he says.
    He’s found himself a new woman…he denies it, but I have the deleted texts and phone calls to prove it, but I really don’t care anymore. He’s put me and my kids through hell…and I will throw a party once we sign the divorce papers.
    These men NEVER change…they just get more hard hearted and blame everyone but themselves.
    I have the full support of our four sons, so I am walking away with the grand prize!! Jesus and my children…what more could I want?? 🙂

    1. Hello, Lonely. Two and a half years? Wow. It’s hard to believe how quickly time passes.

      I’m so very sorry to read of the continuing abuse and betrayal, but I pray that you find the peace you deserve. I have to believe that a new and happy life is not too far off for you.

      Thank you for returning to share your update. I wish you well.


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