Guilt tripping in relationships occurs when one person wants to make the other feel bad. While making someone feel guilty can be a strategy for getting your way, it is unlikely to lead to a happy relationship.
Here, learn all about guilt psychology, including what guilt tripping looks like, what causes this behavior, and how you can best respond to it.
Guilt trip manipulation typically occurs in our closest relationships, such as those with a spouse, romantic partner, parent, or close friend. Put simply, guilt tripping occurs when one person uses guilt as a tool to make the other feel bad so that the other person will change their behavior.
For example, if your partner has to work late instead of coming home and hanging out with you, you might guilt trip them by saying that you always make a point to come home on time for dinner, but they never do.
If your partner forgets to unload the dishwasher, you may make them guilty by listing all the chores that you’ve done around the house over the day.
Other guilt trip examples include one person telling their significant other they will be depressed and lonely if their partner goes out with friends one night, or a parent telling their busy adult child that they “never come to visit.”
Types of guilt trips
Several types of guilt can show up in a relationship, but all of them have the same goal: making a person feel ashamed so they will give in to what the other person wants.
Consider the following ways of using guilt to manipulate:
Let’s say that your partner doesn’t agree with your decision to go gambling at the casino with friends over the weekend, and would rather you stay home.
They may give you a lecture about gambling not being “right” to try to make you feel guilty and cancel the outing. Moral guilt occurs when someone tries to convince you that your decision or way of doing things is immoral and that their way is superior.
Acting as if they have been harmed is another way guilt trippers may make someone feel guilty. The guilt tripper will talk at length about how the other person’s behavior has hurt them, hoping that they will feel ashamed and change their behavior out of sympathy for their wrongdoing.
Guilt tripping in relationships can sometimes take the form of simple manipulation, in which one person strategizes to make the other person feel guilty, so that person will feel obligated to do something that they would not normally do. This allows the guilt tripper to ensure that they get their way.
This form of guilt tripping may show up as the guilt tripper appearing visibly upset, but insisting that nothing is wrong. The intention here is that the other person will pick up on the guilt tripper’s emotions, feel bad, and change their behavior.
10 signs of guilt tripping in relationships
If you think you might be a victim of guilt tripping, or perhaps you’re worried you’ve become a guilt tripper yourself, look out for the following signs:
1. Degrading comments
Instead of asking nicely for your help with the bills, a guilt tripper may try to get you to step in by listing how much money they’ve spent and making a snide comment about you paying nothing. This makes you feel guilty as if you have not done your fair share.
2. Sarcasm about your behavior
Guilt trip manipulation can also involve sarcastic statements disguised as a joke but are a ploy to get you to feel guilty.
3. Using the silent treatment
Perhaps you and your significant other have fought. Instead of having a mature discussion to resolve the issue, your partner may give you the silent treatment for the rest of the day, making you feel guilty for your role in the disagreement.
They hope that you will give in, apologize first, and give them their way.
A classic way of making someone feel guilty is telling them all that they have done wrong.
When you try to discuss a concern with a friend or loved one, they may come back at you by telling you every mistake you’ve made in the past. This makes you feel guilty and takes the focus off of their current mistake.
5. Making you feel guilty about favors
If someone approaches you and asks you to perform a favor, but you are legitimately unable to do so, they may make you feel guilty by listing every favor they’ve ever performed for you, hoping that the guilt will be enough to make you change your priorities for them.
Typically, healthy long term relationships involve partners doing things for each other without keeping tabs or attempting to level the playing field. This means that if your partner does a favor for you, there is no expectation that you must give them something equal in return.
With guilt tripping in relationships, on the other hand, your partner may keep track of all they have done for you and suggest that you owe them something in return.
7. Displaying passive-aggressive behaviors
Passive-aggressive guilt tripping typically takes the form of a person appearing visibly angry or upset but denying that anything is wrong.
8. Inducing guilt through body language
Guilt tripping in relationships may also look like a person sighing loudly or slamming objects down, hoping that you will recognize that you’ve upset them and then feel guilty.
Sometimes, a person who is using guilt may try to make you even guiltier by ignoring your efforts to solve a problem you’re having.
Maybe there has been a disagreement, and you’re legitimately trying to have a conversation to move past it. A guilt tripper may refuse to engage in the conversation to make you feel even worse.
10. Making direct comments
Finally, guilt tripping in relationships can sometimes be very direct. For example, a guilt tripping partner may say, “I do things for you all the time,” or, during casual conversation, they may ask, “Remember when I spent $1,000 on your birthday?”
How guilt tripping affects relationships
People who use guilt-tripping likely do so because of the effects of guilt on a person’s behavior. Guilt trippers have learned that guilt is a powerful motivator and that people in their lives will change their behaviors if they are made to feel guilty.
While guilt tripping may help people to get their way, at least in the short term, over the long term, it can cause serious damage to relationships. The guilt trip examples above can result in a person feeling resentment for their partner over time.
The victim of guilt tripping may feel as if their partner does nothing but try to make them feel bad, damaging a relationship.
A person who is repeatedly guilt tripped may also begin to feel as if their partner is intentionally manipulating them or playing the victim to get their way. This doesn’t by any means make for a healthy relationship.
3. Things may become further complicated
In some cases, excessive guilt can damage a relationship so severely that the guilt tripped partner does the opposite of what their significant other wants.
Feeling demoralized by the constant feelings of guilt, the partner will try to gain back their freedom and self-esteem by doing whatever it is they want to do, instead of what the partner wants.
Research has taken a look at the toll that guilt takes on relationships. One study conducted at Carleton University found that people feel guilt is not healthy in their relationships. People who are victims of guilt tripping in relationships also report feeling annoyed, uncomfortable, and powerless.
Making someone feel guilty may motivate them to change their behavior so that the guilt goes away. Still, ultimately, they are likely to feel manipulated, which damages the relationship and can even lead to its downfall if guilt tripping becomes a pattern.
Causes of guilt tripping
Guilt tripping can be seen as a form of manipulation, or a tool that people use to get others to give in or see things their way. Here are some causes of guilt tripping:
Anger over someone not getting their way
Difficulty expressing emotions
Desire to control the partner
Feeling unequal in the relationship
Having grown up in a family where guilt-tripping was common.
When a partner repeatedly guilt trips you, it can lead you to feel angry and resentful, which ultimately damages the relationship. If guilt tripping has become an ongoing problem, there are some ways to respond.
Try out the following tips:
When someone is guilt tripping you, there is typically an underlying motive. For instance, they may be hurt but unsure of how to communicate that. Listen to what they are trying to say, and ask some additional questions to get to the root of the problem.
For instance, you may ask, “What is bothering you here?” If you can get to the root of the guilt trip, you will be better able to arrive at a solution that doesn’t involve your partner manipulating you or shaming you into changing your behavior.
Communicate how you feel
If you want to figure out how to stop someone from guilt tripping you, you’re going to have to communicate your feelings. Once guilt tripping has become a pattern in your relationship, it’s time to express to your partner how guilt tripping makes you feel.
You may have to directly state, “When you try to make me feel guilty by listing all the things you’ve done for me, it makes me feel resentful.
I wish you’d try a different strategy for communicating.” It’s possible that your partner isn’t aware that they’re guilt tripping, but clearly stating your feelings can alert them to the issue.
You may have to set firm boundaries with your partner if guilt tripping continues to be an ongoing concern.
For instance, if you’ve communicated your feelings to your partner and tried to get to the root of guilt tripping, but it continues to crop up in the relationship, it’s probably time to tell them that you’re not going to engage in a conversation if they’re merely going to make you feel guilty.
This is especially necessary if guilt tripping is done as a calculated form of manipulation.
So long as you tolerate the behavior, it will continue, so it might become necessary for you to walk away from a guilt trip manipulation and tell your partner you’ll be happy to discuss the matter when they stop using guilt tripping tactics.
If the above strategies for dealing with guilt trippers have not proven effective, you may have to consider therapy, or in some cases, walking away from the relationship.
To understand more about coping with guilt, watch this video.
FAQs about guilt tripping in relationships
People who are interested in how to respond to guilt trips may also benefit from some of the following questions and answers about guilt psychology.
Do guilt trips make you mentally ill?
While it would be a stretch to say that guilt in and of itself causes mental illness, it is fair to say that guilt can be linked to mental health conditions like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
If you’re especially prone to feeling bad when someone guilt trips you, there may be an underlying mental health issue at play as well.
What is a self-inflicted guilt trip, and why does it happen?
A self-inflicted guilt trip can occur when someone engages in negative self-talk and makes themselves feel guilty about something they haven’t done or have failed to do properly.
For instance, you may tell yourself that you should have spent more time with your children over the weekend. This type of guilt trip can happen when you are feeling especially stressed, and it is also common among people who have incredibly high standards or who are perfectionists by nature.
Sometimes, it can go along with a mental health condition like depression.
What should you do when someone wants you to feel guilty?
If someone is engaging you in a guilt trip, it is helpful to listen to them and ask questions about why they are feeling upset. This can help you to get to the root of the problem and hopefully arrive at a compromise that doesn’t involve one person laying on the guilt.
If this is ineffective, you may need to tell the person that you do not appreciate the guilt trip manipulation.
Should you leave someone who is constantly trying to make you feel guilty?
Whether or not you can stay in a relationship that has involved guilt tripping will depend on your personality as well as the status of the relationship. In many cases, it can be helpful to work through the guilt tripping to see if it improves.
Perhaps your partner has difficulty communicating or grew up in a family where they were not permitted to express emotions. If this was the case, they might need time to learn healthier relationship tactics.
On the other hand, if you’ve made an effort to resolve guilt tripping and your partner continues to be overtly manipulative, it may be time to walk away.
How can a therapist help you with guilt?
If you’re struggling with guilt tripping in relationships, a therapist can help you and your partner learn healthier communication strategies. Therapy can also be a safe space for discussing and overcoming issues from childhood that have led to guilt tripping behavior.
If you’ve been a victim of guilt tripping, talking with a therapist can help you overcome guilt and shame. If you struggle with guilt alongside a mental health condition like depression, a therapist can help you devise new coping methods.
Guilt tripping in relationships can allow one person to get what they want from the other, but it is not a healthy way of managing conflict and communication in relationships. If you’ve been a victim of guilt tripping, you may even become quite resentful of your partner.
The best way to deal with guilt trippers is to listen to them and stand up for yourself and your feelings. Ask them what may be bothering them, but at the same time, communicate that the guilt trip manipulation makes you feel lousy.
Suppose guilt tripping has become an ongoing problem. In that case, a therapist may get to the root of the issue and help the guilt tripper develop healthier ways of communicating and managing relationships.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.