What Is a Guilt Trip in Relationships

Relationships A-Z
27 Nov 2023
10 min read
Guilt Trip in Your Relationships: How to Stop It?

You care about your partner and think you are doing all you can to pull your weight in the relationship. Despite this, you feel stressed and inadequate. It’s like you’re always wrong. It’s worse when you do anything for yourself or just need a break. You feel guilty emotions but aren’t sure why. You do know that it’s impacting your quality of life. To put it simply, you are on a guilt trip.

What can you do? You don’t want to make another person responsible for your feelings, but you’re dealing with some emotional turmoil here. If this resonates with you, it’s possible that your partner has guilt-tripping tendencies. This can have detrimental effects on your relationship if both of you can’t communicate about this and get on the same page.

Guilt Trip: Why Do People Experience This?

A guilt trip is an unhealthy manipulation in which one person causes another to feel guilty, ashamed, or inadequate. This is often done to cause a change in behavior without directly asking for a change in behavior.

Why do people guilt trip? Well, when someone wants or needs a certain behavior or absence of behavior, they may feel guilt or shame over asking for it directly.

Sometimes, there’s a good reason for this. If your partner’s wants and needs are controlling or inappropriate, they might recognize this and decide not to ask you directly. They get plausible deniability and can avoid their own feelings of guilt.

In other instances, the other person may have very reasonable desires. However, they feel a sense of discomfort over expressing their own needs. So, they fall into the habit of guilt-tripping instead. Imagine a woman who was raised to believe that making a direct request of a man is nagging. She may communicate her needs through guilt-tripping behavior.

How a Guilt Trip Can Affect You

Guilt trips can have an impact on your relationships, self-esteem, and mental health. They can damage work, romantic, and family relationships. This has been shown in clinical research. If someone regularly uses guilt tripping to make you feel bad, this can chip away at your self worth. You struggle to set boundaries because you feel bad every time you do. At its most extreme this is a form of emotional abuse used to manipulate people into doing things they don’t want to do.

Eventually, guilt tripping can lead to resentment. Yes, you may do what your partner wants. However, you know it’s taking a toll on your mental health and you resent that. Nobody wants to be pressured into doing things they don’t want to do. Before long, those emotions may be replaced with anger and resentment.

Signs someone sent you on a guilt trip

7 Signs Someone Is Guilt Tripping You

How do you know you are being sent on a guilt trip? Be aware of these signs that a person is engaging in this toxic behavior to induce feelings of guilt within you.

1. Bringing Up Past Mistakes

One of the most effective ways to engage in guilt-tripping is by bringing up another person’s past mistakes and how those impacted you. If your friend, family member, or loved one always seems to bring up anything you’ve done wrong in the past, they are trying to make you feel guilty. If that always seems to coincide with them wanting something from you, that is a guilt trip.

2. Making You Responsible for Their Feelings and Mental Health

While you certainly shouldn’t do things to make people feel bad or deliberately damage their mental health, you are not responsible for the way that other people feel. When someone implies or even directly states that your failure to do what they want will damage their mental health, take a step back. Maybe they have something valid to say, but this is also where guilt trips often begin.

Related reading: Setting Healthy and Fair Expectations in a Relationship

3. Giving You the Silent Treatment

The silent treatment is a powerful guilt-tripping tool. All the other person has to do is stop communicating with you or limit their communication to terse one-word answers. Meanwhile, you twist yourself in knots, trying to figure out what is wrong.

Before you know it, you are giving them exactly what they want just to relieve your feelings of guilt. Worse, you end up being convinced that this is what you wanted to do all along somehow. Congratulations, you have just returned from a guilt trip.

4. Being Hostile But Denying They Are Angry

Hostility is often used as a guilt-tripping mechanism to get you to perform certain actions. The other person is huffy and irritable. Clearly, they are feeling some sort of resentment or anger. But, when you try direct communication, they deny that anything is wrong.

The goal here is to send you on a fishing expedition as you struggle with anxiety and stress, trying to figure out where this resentment is coming from. Clearly, you must have done something wrong, right? You certainly feel guilty. So, you do things to please the other person and improve their mood. Eventually, you either do what they want you to do, or they finally tell you what they want. At that point, you just crave peace, so you give in. This unfair emotional manipulation is another example of guilt-tripping.

Related reading: Gaslighting Phrases Everyone Should Know About

5. Randomly Mentioning Favors They’ve Done For You in The Past

“Do you remember when I ____________ for you? That took a lot of time and money!”

Have you ever had a past favor thrown back in your face? It’s another guilt-tripping tactic. They play on your sense of obligation to get you to do what they want. No, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reciprocate a favor. It’s just shady to use that in such an absolutely manipulative way.

6. Negatively Comparing Their Efforts to Yours

Some people will try to create a sense of guilt and shame by comparing their efforts in a situation to yours. They want you to feel inadequate and create a feeling of obligation. This kind of guilt trip is designed to get you to do something to make things up to them.

7. Making Passive-Aggressive or Sarcastic Comments

Wow! Thanks for doing soooo much! I guess I’ll just do it myself!

These are the kinds of snarky comments that are rarely delivered with sincerity. Instead, they are little digs designed to make you feel a sense of guilt, whether that is warranted or not. It’s also exhausting to deal with someone who is constantly hostile but refuses to be direct and explain why. This guilt trip can lead you on an emotional roller coaster until you give in and do what they want.

4 Types of Guilt Trips

Not all guilt-tripping is the same. There are different types and motivations behind them:

  1. Conflict avoidance: If you are being guilt-tripped by another person, they may not directly say what they feel because they don’t want to deal with your negative reaction. People like this often don’t know how to use healthy but assertive communication.
  2. Moral steering: This guilt trip gets you to engage in behavior that the other person believes is morally correct. For example, your religious mother may resort to guilt-tripping if she believes your choice to have many romantic partners is immoral.
  3. Manipulation: When you don’t want to do something, most people will respect that. But some of them will use guilt-tripping to get you to do things you would normally never do.
  4. Gaining sympathy: Some guilt trips are designed to attract the attention of an audience. This happens when the person giving the guilt trip wants to cast themselves in the role of the put-upon victim.
How to handle guilt trips

5 Strategies for Communicating With a Partner Who Makes You Feel Guilty

Some guilt trips are so manipulative that they can be described as emotional abuse. This was shown in a qualitative investigation of a guilt trip where a personal interview was conducted among each of si study participants. If that’s the case, you need to take action to keep yourself safe until the person you are dealing with gets help. They may need to see a licensed clinical psychologist to learn healthy communication methods if your relationship is going to have a chance. This isn’t just the case for romantic relationships. Guilt trips can damage any important personal or professional relationship.

What if the guilt trips are problematic but don’t rise to the level of being abusive or relationship red flags? Try these techniques.

1. Reframe Their Words

When someone tries to manipulate you with indirect statements, repeat their words back to them but rephrase things. Tell them what they are trying to say. This will force them to acknowledge what they want. Do this without anger or accusations. For example:

They say: I guess I’ll add cleaning the bathroom to everything else I do around here!
You answer: You feel overworked and want me to clean the bathroom.

The idea is that you acknowledge their request and emotions. Hopefully, they feel acknowledged. Then, you can meet their request or have a healthy discussion on the division of household chores. In the future, they may have less anxiety and distress about approaching you directly.

You can also ask them open-ended questions to get them to articulate their feelings. They may have been taught that expressing needs is a bad thing. Simply knowing that they won’t face negative consequences for being emotionally honest with you can be a powerful motivator to avoid using guilt in the future.

2. Explain How You Feel

You can have empathy for the person who is unable to express themselves directly or healthily. At the same time, you are allowed to be frustrated and disappointed that they are choosing a form of manipulation. Tell them how you feel when they communicate with you that way. It’s hurtful for someone to do that, and you should be able to say so. They should respect you enough to have a direct conversation with you.

Try saying something like this: “When you use guilt to manipulate my behaviors it makes me lose all motivation to make an effort in our relationship. I want to support you as a partner, but you need to recognize that I’m not always going to make the decisions you want me to make.

3. Work on Setting Boundaries

It’s your responsibility to establish boundaries regarding what you will and won’t accept in the form of communication from others. Let them know you will listen to them if they are direct and honest in their requests. However, you won’t respond to manipulation. You also need to stand firm when you tell them that they need to listen to you when you say no.

This may be challenging at first. You are asking someone to significantly change the way they express their feelings. Expect them to be resistant and resentful as you set limits within your relationship. They may resort to other forms of manipulation. Even if they want to change for the better they may struggle within those boundaries at first.

Related reading: Boundaries in Relationships – Keeping Them Healthy

4. Respect Their Boundaries Too

It’s unhealthy to use guilt to manipulate behaviors. This doesn’t mean that your partner is out of line in wanting things from you or expressing their feelings. As they move away from their own unhealthy behaviors, they will learn new ways to express their needs and expectations. While you certainly don’t need to comply with every request, you can support them in their efforts. This can lead to mutual understanding and respect.

5. Encourage Them to Get Help

A person’s well-being could be fragile if they feel the need to rely on guilt trips to relate to and communicate with others. Encourage them to confront their mental health conditions head-on and work with a therapist. You might even attend some sessions with them and their therapist to show you have their best interests at heart. Also, what you learn may help you set boundaries while being there as a person who cares for them. This will be a good time to be aware of other signs of stress, depression, or just difficult feelings.

“Guilt isn’t always a rational thing, Clio realized. Guilt is a weight that will crush you whether you deserve it or not.”

Maureen Johnson, Girl at Sea

Ideally, you would be immune to guilt trips, but they can cause mental health issues over time. Somehow it’s worse when a person cares about you, but is also the one who inflicts these feelings of guilt. You may be left dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety, resentment towards your partner, and feelings of shame.

If you’ve been experiencing distress over the amount of guilt you feel, give yourself time to heal. Talk to a therapist if you need to. They can help you achieve healthier relationships now and give you the tools to have better romantic partnerships in the future. You deserve to live without the kind of unhealthy guilt that often results from another person’s reality.

Break free from guilt-tripping and enjoy true love

Summing Up: Recognize a Guilt Trip, Break the Habit, and Enjoy Good Communication

“Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”

Audre Lorde, American writer

Before you are too quick to dismiss a person’s reality and write off their behavior as guilt-tripping, take a moment to think. Do they have a valid reason for wanting a change in your behavior? Also, feeling guilty is no fun, but sometimes that emotion exists for a reason. If you have been inconsiderate or selfish in your close relationships, it isn’t the other person’s fault that you experience guilty feelings. It may be time to start taking responsibility for your role to relieve your feelings of guilt. There have even been peer-reviewed studies that link guilt feelings with prosocial behavior.

Here’s something else to consider. Are you approachable? Do people in your life see you as a safe person when they need to express their needs or wants? If you make it difficult for people to be direct with you, then they may resort to guilt trips to express themselves.

Whether you need a therapist or can work things out yourself you deserve to enjoy healthy relationships. If you recognize the signs of this or any kind of emotional manipulation, do something about it now. You will enjoy happier and healthier interactions now and in the future.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.
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