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Guilt Tripping in a Relationship: What It Is & How to Respond to It

Do you know how guilt tripping in a relationship works? Here’s what it is, the examples you need to understand it and the right ways to respond to it!

Guilt Tripping in a Relationship

Guilt tripping in a relationship can be extremely damaging. Not only is it underhanded, but it can erode away at your bond and confidence. 

In some cases, a relationship can be blighted by guilt tripping. It can get to the point where one partner constantly feels to blame for everything going wrong, and the other washes their hands of it. This is classic guilt tripping in a relationship. It’s important to spot it and stop it to avoid major problems. 

From time to time, we’re all to blame for saying and doing things we wish we hadn’t. Everyone has said something they didn’t mean to say to someone they love and felt bad about it afterwards. Anger and upset can cause us to act out of character occasionally. However, in those situations it’s important to apologize and put the situation right. But that is normal relationship stuff. Guilt tripping in a relationship is a different story.

[Read: The top 10 guilt free ways to handle guilt trippers in your life]

What is guilt tripping in a relationship?

Guilt tripping happens for several different reasons, but it can be when one person feels bad about something but pushes the blame onto the other person. This is because they can’t handle the blame or the guilt, or because they’re embarrassed. 

That’s just one example of guilt tripping in a relationship. In some cases, it can be used as a form of control or manipulation. Guilt causes people to feel bad about themselves and often to apologize for things they haven’t actually done. It can erode away at self-confidence and self-worth. And it creates a wholly negative atmosphere. Click here to understand how to make someone feel guilty and understand the pain they caused you if you want to know how guilt tripping works.

Narcissists and guilt trips go hand in hand. In this case, the narcissist will pour all the blame onto the other person, manipulating them into thinking that everything is their fault, that they’re somehow defective and can’t handle situations that life throws at them. This manipulation is enough to control them and keep them exactly where they want them. 

[Read: How to deal with a narcissist in the best way you possibly can]

Guilt tripping in a relationship can also be something less dark but still quite serious. In this case, a person may use guilt tripping because they just can’t communicate that well. Rather than explaining their situation to talk it out, they push the blame onto the other person because it’s just easier than the alternative. 

Whatever the reason, guilt tripping in a relationship doesn’t strengthen the bond. In fact, it isn’t a sign of healthy communication and puts the relationship in a very negative place. 

[Read: 18 critical signs of an unhealthy relationship]

Examples of guilt tripping in a relationship

Trying to describe what guilt tripping in a relationship actually is, can be difficult. So, let’s talk about the signs of guilt tripping and make the whole thing a little clearer. 

1. Giving examples of their own work to make you feel like you’ve failed

For example, a partner might say “I’ve been working overtime so that we can save enough money to go on vacation and you aren’t doing anything more than you normally do.” That’s just one random example, but you can see how it makes one person look better than the other. 

In this type of situation, the situation can actually be justified; if one partner is doing more than the other, of course, they should be told about it. However, guilt tripping in a relationship tends to be more of a negatively intentional thing, designed to make someone feel lacking in confidence or as though they’ve failed somehow. 

2. Using sarcastic comments about one particular issue

When a person is trying to make someone else feel guilty, they may use sarcasm to keep jabbing away at the wound. A comment with “but you wouldn’t know about that, would you?” on the end is a good way to explain this. If someone isn’t doing something the other person feel they should be, adding such a comment gives weight to the guilt and makes it seem stronger. Passive-aggression is another way of guilt tripping in a relationship. 

It’s far better to actually talk about the situation directly than keep making sarcastic remarks. Sarcasm rarely gets you anywhere. [Read: How to stand up to passive aggressive behavior calmly and with class]

3. Preferring an ongoing battle over actually talking things out

If a person is keen to resolve an issue, they’re likely to sit down and talk about it openly, to try and get to the bottom of it. However, when someone is deliberating using guilt as a negative tool, they know that talking isn’t going to give them what they want. They don’t actually want the situation to be resolved because then the control has gone. Instead, they want to keep using sarcasm and other tools to chip away at their partner’s confidence. 

In this case, guilt tripping in a relationship is a form of manipulation. 

4. Using the cold shoulder or continually saying “I’m fine”

Guilt tripping doesn’t have to be about remarks, sometimes it can be about just not talking at all. When you’re deliberately ignoring someone, you’re giving them the message that you don’t want to talk because they’ve done something wrong. To stop that type of treatment, the other person is likely to apologize for something they haven’t done, to try and bring some sense of normality to the situation.

Another closely linked sign of guilt tripping in a relationship is acting in an annoyed way but continually saying “I’m fine” and claiming that nothing is wrong. However, the person’s actions very clearly tell you that something is wrong. [Read: How to handle silent treatment without falling apart with guilt]

5. Reminding them of things they did for you at some point in the past

Another way to guilt trip is to bring up something they did for their partner in the past, e.g. lending money, helping them out of a sticky situation, or being there emotionally, in order to make them feel bad for not doing something, or for doing something wrong. In this case, rather than just making them feel guilty, they’re trying to exacerbate the guilt even more. [Read: Emotional manipulation and 14 ways people try to mess with your mind]

These are just five examples of what guilt tripping in a relationship can look like. The most important thing after recognizing it, is to know how to respond to a person who is giving you this treatment directly. 

[Read: 10 steps to take to tell your partner you’re unhappy]

How to respond to someone guilt tripping you

Now that you know all the ways someone can try to guilt trip you, it’s time to learn to take a stand. Stop allowing someone to manipulate you and make you feel weak, with each day that passes in their company.

1. Acknowledge the guilt tripping

The first step to responding to someone who is guilt tripping you, is to acknowledge that the behavior is indeed that. It’s easy to assume that perhaps you are to blame. In reality, it’s a form of manipulation, whether meant that way or not.

This step doesn’t mean telling them that you know it’s a guilt trip, but that you know in your own mind what it is. That internal acknowledgment gives you power to respond to it in a positive way, rather than acting out of true guilt or even anger. 

[Read: How to tell if someone wants to hurt you because they don’t care about you]

2. Call it out in the right way

Once you know what it is, you need to tell them that you know. This is a tricky one because you need to use the right language and avoid a confrontation. Someone who uses guilt tripping as a defense mechanism can easily become defensive to you, too. However, if you’re dealing with a narcissist, you’ll probably find yourself on the receiving end of even more passive aggressive behavior and an even bigger guilt trip. 

A good example is to say, “I understand that you feel …. *insert what they feel*, but I feel like you’re putting the guilt onto me unfairly”. That will open lines of communication and help you to steer the conversation in the right direction. [Read: 18 emotions you should never feel in a healthy relationship

3. Listen to their response

Once they start talking, you must listen and that means actively listening. Nod along, make agreeable noises, and basically let them know that you’re paying attention and that you want to actually communicate to get to the bottom of the issue. It might be difficult for them to speak at first, but by listening, you’ll encourage them to continue. [Read: How to show respect tin a relationship and learn to love each other better]

4. Let them know that you understand

Do your best to understand the other person and really let them know that you’re doing your best to use empathy and see things through their eyes. It could be that their use of guilt tripping in a relationship actually has nothing to do with you, and has everything to do with prior experiences. 

5. Explore the issue with questions

If they seem a little unsure or they’re finding it hard to talk, ask questions in a careful way, using the right type of language. This will encourage them to open up and will help you to understand what is driving this guilt tripping behavior. [Read: How to get someone to open up to you so you can really connect]

6. Don’t always see it as someone attacking you

Understand that this might not be personal. It might not be an attack on you. If it is, then you need to address that separately, but it’s important to first look beyond that first impression and find out whether something is underlying.

7. Stay calm, but don’t accept blame unnecessarily

Don’t feel like you should apologize or accept blame if you really haven’t done anything wrong. It’s easy to feel angry and start defending yourself, but you probably don’t have anything to defend yourself against. Rather than saying “sorry”, try to get to the bottom of what is causing it. 

8. Communicate how you feel using non-blaming language

Communication is a difficult subject and something which many people find hard. When you’re telling your partner how you feel and how their guilt tripping is causing you to feel, make sure that you choose your words carefully. Avoid using blame-like language that could be inflammatory. [Read: How to tell someone they hurt you without hurting them in return]

9. Ask them to tell you what they want or need

To help your partner to open up and work out this guilt tripping in a relationship problem, ask your partner what they need from you or what they want from you. This shows them that you want to work at things with them and not against them. Sometimes that can be half of the problem. [Read: How to feel more secure if there is insecurity in a relationship

10. Identify patterns

Guilt tripping in a relationship can sometimes be a long-term problem. In that case, you need to identify these patterns to look for reasons why this is happening. Does your partner go on a guilt trip when a certain emotion flares or after a certain trigger? This information will help you to address the problem more clearly. 

[Read: Relationship facts: The real facts of love no one talks about]

Guilt tripping in a relationship can be damaging over the long-term. It’s important to figure out what the issue really is. If it’s something which your partner is doing as a form of manipulation, you must address it directly. Nobody should be forced to feel guilty for something they haven’t done.

Want to know more? Try these life-changing features:

Psychological manipulation: 16 signs and tactics real manipulators you to guilt you

The worrying signs you’re being taken advantage of because you’re too nice

How to deal with guilt and drop the baggage that’s weighing you down

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Nicky Curtis
Nicky Curtis
Having stumbled from one relationship drama to another throughout her 20s, Nicky is now somewhat of a guru in the crazy world of life and love. Telling it how i...
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