Do You or Your Partner Use Guilt Trips to Get What You Want?

If you do, research shows that there may be a very high cost.

Posted Aug 06, 2016

Source: Phovoir/Shutterstock

Getting the love of your life to change is a potentially tall order. Your partner insists on leaving dirty dishes on the counter, but you’d prefer they be put in the sink. Or you wish your partner would say “I love you” more frequently or at least give you a tender hug from time to time.

When two people are together, they inevitably reach a point when one of them would like things from his or her partner that the other partner is unwilling to give. New research on how partners try to change each other through guilt shows who's most likely to use this tactic—and the effect it has on relationship quality.

Guilt trips are a common way to try to get someone else to change, not only in close relationships but in other areas of life. You might be in a guilt trip war with someone at work who you don’t think is putting in enough effort. This person’s emails take a little too long to arrive and phone calls don’t seem to get returned with much consistency. So you give them a guilt trip. It may take the form of passive aggressiveness, such as inserting in a request the phrase, “If you have time…” Or you might try to show how much more attuned you are to the needs of others: A group email comes around, and you do whatever you can to be the first to respond, even if you’re in the middle of something else. The clear message you’re trying to send: “If I can answer this email, why can’t you?”

A guilt trip can be fraught with risk. Other people may find you to be so negative that they stay away. In a relationship, your partner may start to associate you with unpleasant emotions, and that’s the last thing you want. However, no matter how hard you try not to, you still launch those guilt-laden accusations.

Guilt might be a manipulation tactic you learned from someone else in your past relationships. There are plenty of stereotypes about ethnic guilt (“Jewish guilt” or “Irish guilt” or “Indian guilt”) and if you’re part of one of these heritages, you could always try to blame your parents or grandparents. But you may have more likely become guilt-prone through other routes. According to University of Auckland psychologist Shanuki Jayamaha and colleagues (2016), long-held feelings of insecurity about your relationships may be the cause of your guilt-laden tactics.

Attachment insecurity is the belief that the central figures in your relationships won’t be there for you. Whether due to neglect or an inconsistent upbringing, if you’re high in attachment insecurity, you learned as a child that you must hold on to those you need or they’ll abandon you. You can also display attachment insecurity in a more paradoxical fashion by avoiding closeness with your romantic partner—to protect yourself from the inevitable disappointment you’ll feel when they leave you.

Jayamaha and her colleagues believe that attachment insecurity could play a role in leading people to use guilt to get partners to change—a process they call “partner regulation." Inducing guilt and sympathy, according to the team, is a tool that people high in attachment insecurity frequently use to get what they want out of partners. However, because these strategies create negative reactions in partners, it’s a losing proposition. To make matters worse, when you start a guilt trip with a partner who is high in attachment avoidance (i.e. they don’t feel comfortable with too much closeness), the relationship is bound to end badly. Your partner won't change; they may not even be your partner any more.

The New Zealand team identified two strategies that the anxiously insecure might use to try to get their partners to change:

  • In the negative-direct approach, as the term implies, you directly express your negative emotions, and use coercion, anger, blame, and criticism to get what you want. This strategy only guarantees that the change you get involves your partner walking out on you, so it’s not one that the anxiously attached are likely to use: They don’t want to drive their partner away.
  • The guilt trip, or what the researchers call the negative-indirect approach, can produce desired changes, although not in a pleasant way. These particular mechanisms involve the use of tears, pouty faces, sulking, and appealing to a partner’s love or sense of obligation. These methods tend to be more effective, at least with people who are committed to their relationship and want to help their partner. But the methods will backfire if you have an avoidantly attached partner.

In the first of a series of studies involving undergraduates, Jamayaha and her team asked participants to complete a set of questionnaires to assess relationship quality, attachment style, and self-esteem. Participants also indicated which three of their partner’s qualities they wanted to change; whether their strategies to change them had worked; and how they thought their partner responded to these efforts. In the second study, both members of a couple reported on each other’s efforts to create partner change. In the third study, the researchers videotaped participants trying to change each other.

The findings show that, as predicted, people high in attachment anxiety use more negative indirect methods of partner regulation than those with greater attachment security. With a partner high in attachment avoidance, the partner seeking change through indirect negative means (guilt-tripping) didn’t get their desired results.

This study shows why couples in which one partner is anxious and one is avoidant don’t work out very well in the long run. The anxious partner continues to need the avoidant partner to comply, which only makes the avoidant partner more likely to run away. This outcome makes the anxious partner even more anxious the next time, and a vicious cycle continues.

What should you do if you (or your partner) use guilt to manipulate your partner to change? First, look honestly at what you do when you want to get your way. Here’s what the researchers used to define negative indirect (i.e. guilt-inducing) behaviors:

  1. Using exaggerated emotional expressions to signify you’re hurt, such as sulking and pouting.
  2. Invoking obligations due to commitment, love, and concern.
  3. Showing how worse off you are than your partner and therefore why this you need this change to occur.
  4. Telling your partner how hurt you are by his or her unwillingness to change.
  5. Reminding your partner of how many times you’ve sacrificed for the relationship or ways you’ve been wronged in the past.

If you see yourself in any of these strategies, it’s time to take the next step toward getting off the “guilt trip express.” This means deciding whether you really need this change to happen. Are you just testing to see if you can get away with playing on your partner’s desire to be good to you? Do you actually care that much about whether your partner agrees to move the dirty plates? You could save your efforts to make changes in your partner for things you really care about.

Finally, even for those fights that do seem worthwhile to you, you should drop the negative approach. Guilt isn’t a particularly good motivator. People would rather do things because they want to, not because you’re directly or indirectly demanding it.

Once you understand where your need to test your partner comes from, you can work to effect the changes that both of you seek. Fulfilling your need to feel secure will become less important than fulfilling the desire that both of you feel good about your relationship and its future. By changing your own approach to seeking change in your partner, both of you will grow, as will the bonds between you.

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Jayamaha, S. D., Antonellis, C., & Overall, N. C. (2016). Attachment insecurity and inducing guilt to produce desired change in romantic partners. Personal Relationships, 23(2), 311-338. doi:10.1111/pere.12128

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016.