Have you ever dated or lived with someone, and when they were in a bad mood, the whole world knew about it? You probably found yourself walking on eggshells around them, biting your tongue, generally keeping your head down to avoid accidentally annoying them, and going above and beyond to pacify them as they stewed in their anger.
“Weaponised emotion is when a person uses their emotional reactions to try to manipulate or control someone else’s behaviours and emotions,” Dr Chris Pepping, Associate Professor of Psychology at Griffith University tells Refinery29 Australia. “It can be a deliberate thing that people do, but people can also be somewhat unaware that they are using their emotional responses to manipulate their environment.”
These weaponised emotions are not limited to inadvertently silencing people around you when you're in a bad mood. Dr Pepping shares that weaponised moodiness can also look like:
- Crying to avoid accountability for your actions, or to avoid being punished or facing a consequence.
- Getting angry to influence someone to do or give us what we want, or to induce feelings of guilt in the other person.
- Using emotional reactions or behaviours to punish someone, for instance, by becoming moody and withdrawn, or giving the silent treatment.
It’s similar to the concept of “instrumental emotions” where emotions are used primarily to invoke a response in others, with the aim of manipulating them or coercing them into doing something. Instrumental emotions are more predominantly seen in children, who are prone to performative emotions to get their way because their mind simply sees the correlation: If I act like x, I will get y — and acts accordingly.
Interestingly, although emotive responses are stereotypically linked to women in adulthood, the discourse that has risen around weaponised emotions has pointed to its use by men within family dynamics and relationships. In particular, journalist Mel Hamlett (@melhamlett) has spoken at length on the impact that weaponised moods had on her growing up.
“Whoever says that men are told to never express their emotions has clearly never lived with a male family member that thinks it’s acceptable to punish his family with his bad mood,” she articulated in one TikTok.
“My dad weaponised his moods — his moods set the tone for the whole family. If Daddy’s in a bad mood, everyone suffers […] Men have weaponised their moods to keep us walking on eggshells around them.”
While women have been socialised not to express their anger because it’s off-putting/aggressive/“unfeminine”/hysterical etc., the same can’t be said for men, who are often fed the line that the loud emotions (anger, happiness, excitement) are good emotions. As a result, men often haven’t been taught to consider the comfort of others when expressing their emotions. It’s the quieter emotions (hurt, sadness, crying) that men are often taught to repress — and all this can feed into an inability to regulate negative emotions.
We know that toxic masculinity hurts us all, and it's important to note that sometimes weaponised moodiness might not necessarily be deliberate, or something that comes from malice or ill intent.
“I don’t think it fits the narrative that most people think it does," creator and compassion coach Vin Kiva (@vinkiva) saysin a TikTok. "Usually manipulations are people trying to get the things they want and need and not having a healthy way of approaching them. I think weaponising emotions falls into that category,”
Of course, weaponised moodiness isn’t limited to men — all genders can engage in this sort of behaviour, whether or not it's intentional. In fact, it’s not even limited to relationships. Have you ever had a co-worker or, worse, a boss who made sure that the office knew when they were angry, and left the remaining workforce tiptoeing around them, fearful of upsetting them?
We know that this behaviour, intentional or not, can be toxic. But is it indicative of anything more sinister?
“Instrumental emotion can be seen in many relationships and, although it tends to be unhelpful for relationships long-term, it doesn’t automatically signify something more dangerous,” Dr Pepping says. “However, it certainly can be a feature of abusive relationships as well.”
Emotional abuse and coercive control are often overlooked and criminally underreported factors in domestic violence. So while your partner's bad mood leaving you walking on eggshells isn't always a signifier of something more sinister, it’s worth noting these red flags, particularly if you start to believe it might be done on purpose.
Yes, everyone has bad moods. Yes, we are allowed to have (and express) negative emotions. But it's when these emotions cease to be our private battlegrounds and instead become weapons wielded against those in our orbit that a line is crossed.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Services.