Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Impact of Guilt on Relationships

A week or so ago, I was about to pay for an egg sandwich and newspaper in the deli when the clerk—who knows what I do for a living—pointed to the picture of Tiger Woods on the cover. “So is he really feeling guilty or just trying to get his wife and everyone’s sympathy?”

“I don’t know,” I said, wondering if it was time to change to another deli. “It’s complicated—guilt, relationships. I don’t think it’s easy.”

Apparently, many people were asking that same question and even collecting data on it. Evaluating Tiger’s apology ratings, HCD Research found that men and women rated the sincerity of his apology in a similar way with 61% of women and 58% of men reporting that they felt he was sincere. Apart from whatever unfolds for Tiger Woods, this brings to the forefront a number of questions about guilt in relationships: What is it? Why do people feel it?  What does an apology mean?

Guilt is commonly defined as an emotional state that occurs when a person realizes or believes that he or she has violated a moral standard, and bears responsibility for the violation. Depending on the theory, there are different causes for feelings of guilt. Early Freudian theory, for example, associated guilt with sexual feelings or moral prohibition against sexual drives. From that perspective, guilt involves internal self-judgment.

An Interpersonal Approach

A different and valuable perspective for understanding guilt in relationships comes from Roy Braumeister , Arlene Stillwell and Todd Heatherton’s 1994 article “Guilt: An Interpersonal Approach,” which appeared in the journal Psychological Bulletin in 1994. They define guilt as the distress felt when we have done harm to another through a transgression or an inequity. They note that whereas guilt can be felt toward anyone, it is strongest in close personal relationships because such relationships are characterized by certain expectations of mutual concern, trust, and love. In a personal relationship, for example, lying, a refusal to help, a dismissal of the other’s wishes, or evidence of an affair is likely to cause more pain and more guilt because of the existing commitment expectations.

From an interpersonal perspective, the guilt is generated by two sources: empathy for the suffering we have caused in our partner and anxiety that the transgression will result in rejection or destruction of the relationship. The apology is often the attempted and expected dynamic of repair.

But given the unique and complex world of couples, guilt is experienced and expressed in many different ways and an apology can take different forms with different meanings.

Consider the following:

Self-Righting Guilt

It often happens in a relationship when partners become aware that something they are doing or not doing is negatively affecting their partner, and their awareness prompts some guilt as well as a change in pattern or behavior. Here are a couple examples:

Seeing the exhausted look on his wife, he realizes that she has been the one getting up with the baby nine out of ten times and suggests that maybe they alternate the night-shift.


Recognizing that he is clearly stressed going to visit his mom in the nursing home , she realizes that refusing to go with him withholds some support he really needs, so she volunteers to join him.

In such cases, more discussion and an expression of guilt is often not given and not needed.

Induced Guilt

Guilt can be induced in partners as a function of self-expression of a partner’s needs or as intended manipulation.


Part of viable communication between partners involves making needs known. It is important to communicate to a partner that he/she is creating pain (whether intentionally or not ), but the message is likely to induce some guilt. Because guilt is not a pleasant feeling, many partners respond with an initial knee-jerk defense. They get quiet, dismiss the other’s feelings, or respond defensively in some way. For example,

She says:

“I know you love socializing with our friends, but there is a way that you compliment other women in front of me that makes me feel embarrassed.”

He responds:

“So now I’m supposed to watch every word that comes out of my mouth?”

Staying Power

This is the juncture where you hope that partners have staying power to get past the initial two lines in this life scene so that they can continue a dialogue that may bring them to a better place. Hopefully, she hangs in long enough to be heard, and he cares enough to listen.

She says:

“I actually love how social you are. I don’t want you to watch every word — I’m trying to say that it is hard to feel special and desirable to you when you are often complimenting other women in front of me.”

He responds with silence and walks into another room. He walks back.

“I feel badly — I think I get it.”

Guilt that you feel from your partner’s expression of need can be difficult, but it can be a point of self-reflection that offers mutual exchange and furthers couple connection.

Manipulation — “To guilt him/her into it.”

Purposely inducing guilt in a partner in order to elicit certain behavior, maintain control, or punish a partner is a destructive couples’ dynamic. It often includes lines like these:

“You have to spend more time with the kids; they feel you don’t love them.”

“I do everything for you and you do nothing for me.”

“I’ll never get over what you did to us when you lost that money in the business.”

Some partners will resist the induced guilt with angry disagreement. Others will comply with resentment, although they do not feel guilty. Some will absorb the continued reminder of their transgression in a way that dismantles their self-esteem.

In any case, purposely inducing guilt is costly in a relationship. It robs a couple of the possibility of experiencing guilt authentically and using it as a signal of concern and a possibility for change.

Later this week, I’ll be continuing this conversation about guilt with a discussion of apologies. You can see my post on this subject here.