4 Forms of Guilt and How They Can Affect Your Relationship

4 Forms of Guilt and How They Can Affect Your Relationship

The desire to help the individual you feel the closest to is a natural component of any loving relationship. However, what happens when your urge to help never seems to be enough? Where does this feeling come from, and how can you bring it down to manageable levels?

Perhaps you’ve been organizing a large family event for your partner’s relatives. You’ve enumerated all the tasks that lie ahead of you, and one by one, you tackle them. However, like the Hydra monster of Greek mythology, each new task spins off at least two more. You’ve ordered new napkins for the occasion to match the décor. Once they arrive, your partner points out that you should have gotten a new tablecloth as well and, for that matter, new candles. Your partner is working hard on this event as well, so you can’t complain that they’re expecting too much out of you.

The Nature of Interpersonal Guilt

Being plagued by guilt can set up a pattern of interpersonal dynamics that can eat away at you, if not erode, the quality of your relationship. As it turns out, a psychological concept termed “omnipotent responsibility guilt” could account for chronically feeling that you should be doing more for your partner.

According to a new study by the University of Rome’s Jessica Leonardi and colleagues (2022), this is just one of four different varieties of interpersonal guilt. More specifically, omnipotent responsibility guilt is “an expression of the belief that one has the duty and the power to make loved ones happy so that putting one’s needs in the foreground means being selfish” (p. 573). The other three forms of guilt include survivor guilt (believing you shouldn’t be doing better than someone else), separation/disloyalty guilt (believing you would hurt others by leaving them), and self-hate (the belief that you aren’t worthy of love).

According to the Italian authors, all of these forms of guilt can be traced to a concept central to “control mastery theory (CMT),” which proposes that early childhood experiences with caregivers can lead individuals to feel that by pursuing healthy goals, they will hurt those caregivers. With this early foundation, individuals assume that they are responsible for any of their actions that reflect negatively on someone they care about.

Testing the Theory of Interpersonal Guilt

Leonardi and her coauthors believed that interpersonal guilt could best be understood empirically by determining its relationship to the constellation of qualities revolving around attachment insecurity. Additionally, people high on interpersonal guilt should also be altruistic to a fault and should also experience broader levels of personality dysfunction.

To test their propositions, the U. Rome researchers recruited an international online sample of 393 adults averaging 34 years old (ranging from 18 to 75), of whom 70 percent identified as women. Using a 15-item measure of guilt derived from CMT, the authors began by determining whether they could identify the four proposed types outlined above. Their analysis yielded the following four factors, consistent with CMT, and exemplified with the following items (rated from 1 to 5):

Survivor Guilt: I feel uncomfortable feeling better off than other people.

Separation Guilt: I think I should not separate from loved ones because this would be hurtful, disloyal, or make them feel abandoned.

Omnipotent Responsibility Guilt: I feel it is my responsibility to fix other people’s problems.

Self-hate: I do not deserve to be happy.

Next, the research team examined the structure of the correlations among the four guilt scales with measures of adult attachment, altruism, and levels of personality function as defined in the psychiatric literature along the dimensions of impairment in self and interpersonal functioning.

Turning to these correlational findings, omnipotent responsibility guilt, as predicted, was associated with attachment anxiety which may be, in their words, due to: the feeling of having to take care of the caregiver in order to preserve a good enough relationship with them” (p. 577).

Of all forms of guilt, after applying statistical controls, only omnipotent responsibility guilt correlated with altruism. These statistical controls also produced significant correlations between self-hate and personality pathology, suggesting that traumatic or otherwise harmful experiences with caregivers could lead people to feel that they deserve whatever inadequate treatment from others that they receive.

Turning Guilt into Productive Emotions in Your Relationship

With the understanding that guilt has a potentially very long history, you can start to forge a more realistic path to providing help to your partner at levels appropriate to the situation. Yes, it’s possible that those napkins or even the tablecloth aren’t perfect but stop and take a beat before you rush into an online ordering frenzy. You can, as the expression goes, “just say no,” but do so in a way that communicates to your partner that you still want the event to go well. Some things may matter more than others, and the choice of tableware may be pretty low on that list of priorities compared to other concerns.

You can also use such situations to ask yourself where the beliefs originate from that drive you to seek perfection in satisfying your partner’s needs. Did the adults in your life constantly insist that it was up to you to make them happy? Was there a specific incident you can recall in which you felt you had done enough for them only to be criticized for being selfish and lazy?

It is easy, with a background of constant recriminations in childhood, to accept guilt as part of the emotional status quo. However, as the Leonardi et al. study points out, the belief that you need to put your needs second to those of others is just that—a belief. Start to look at ways the reality can be different if you make it clear that you can’t be all things to all people.

To sum up, by tracking this form of interpersonal guilt to its possible early roots, you may be able to stop that multi-headed Hydra monster from taking over your life and your relationship. Fulfilling the needs of others is a laudable goal, but just as important is giving yourself permission to enjoy the feeling of your own fulfillment.

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