Does this sequence of events sound familiar?

  1. Your partner tells you they’re upset with you (or angry, disappointed, annoyed, irritated) for one reason or another.
  2. Their criticism, justified or not, hurts your feelings.
  3. You want them to know they really upset you, so you communicate your distress clearly.
  4. They feel guilty when they see your distress and offer you reassurance.
  5. You feel relieved, vindicated, or perhaps even victorious, and go back to playing Candy Crush.

If you’re familiar with this dynamic, there’s something important you need to consider: Guilt tripping your romantic partner can backfire in a major way. You might get satisfaction in the short term (in that your partner backs down from their criticism and offers you reassurance) but it's damaging to the relationship in the long term.

New Findings

A new series of studies by researchers from the University of Auckland and the University of New Hampshire found that people who experienced greater hurt feelings when receiving criticism from partners were more likely to respond in exaggerated ways in order to make the partner feel guilty. They were also often successful in doing so. Indeed, the more intense their expressions of hurt, the more guilt their partners experienced and the more likely the partners were to offer reassurance.

However, the studies also found that the "benefits" of guilt-tripping partners into ceasing criticism and offering reassurance came with a serious drawback: The guilt-ridden partners experienced significant declines in relationship satisfaction. In other words, the partners might have felt guilty and even offered emotional support, but having to do so made them feel significantly worse about the relationship in general.

Guilt trips involve efforts to control another person’s behavior by inducing guilt and other negative emotions in them. As such, they are clear attempts at manipulation and coercion (see The Psychology and Management of Guilt Trips). Most guilt trippers rarely consider the long-term impact of their actions. But even in non-romantic relationships (friendships or parents and children), guilt trips have been shown to create resentment in the guilt-induced person and drops in their overall relationship satisfaction as a result.

How to Curb Your Guilt Tripping

Let’s assume steps 1 and 2, above, unfold in your own relationship. The place to change the script is at step 3. Yes, your feelings were hurt by your partner's criticism. Maybe it even made you anxious about his or her commitment to the relationship. But how you express those feelings is hugely important. If you turn the focus onto yourself and your own hurt feelings, your partner will feel both guilty and frustrated, because he or she needs to be able to feel that they can bring up their relationship dissatisfactions without you turning the tables on them and making it all about you. At the same time, though, you cannot, and should not, ignore how you feel if you're hurt and upset by your partner's complaint.

Try to do the following:

  1. Let your partner know that you tend to be emotionally reactive to criticism and often experience it as hurtful—even when the criticism is valid.
  2. Let your partner know that despite these automatic emotional reactions, you hear their complaint and want to address it.
  3. Let your partner know you want them to understand that your (emotional) reaction is not meant to take the focus off their complaint.
  4. Ask for a short break so you can calm down and organize your thoughts.
  5. Return to the conversation when you can calmly express: A clear understanding of what their complaint was about; your thoughts and responses to their concerns; and why their criticism hurt your feelings.

 View my short and personal TED Talk about Psychological Health here:

For much more about how guilt impacts our emotional health and our relationships check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch


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