Does this sequence of events sound familiar?
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.
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:
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).
Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
Teaser image by freedigitalphotos.net