Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Guilt Protects Relationships

September 14, 2009

Is guilt good or bad? Is guilt a private emotion that wells up when we violate a personal standard of conduct? Or does guilt also serve a purpose in maintaining important social bonds?

The answer is surprising. According to psychologist Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, guilt is primarily a social emotion that helps to maintain strong, close relationships.

Guilt connects actions with consequences. Baumeister believes that we feel guilt when we sense that we have caused distress and suffering to someone who is close to us. It is our ability to empathize with others in our lives that alerts us to their pain and distress and our connection with that suffering.

In fact, people make changes in their lives when they truly perceive the pain they cause. One pathway to rehabilitation for criminal offenders is for them to meet with the victims, listen to them and fully appreciate the harm that has been done.

Loss of relationship. A second cause of guilt stems from anxiety over a possible loss of a relationship. The main cause of guilt is the awareness that the offender has done something that has hurt someone close to them. If the offending actions are repeated too often or are too severe, they may eventually cause their relationship partner to break off the relationship.

The threat of losing the relationship triggers a fear of rejection or abandonment. Guilt is an early warning signal, that if continued, offending actions are likely to destroy a valued relationship. Guilt serves a useful purpose to protect, preserve and enhance good relationships.

Three ways guilt helps. Baumeister identifies three ways that guilt helps correct relationships and keeps them on a positive course.

1. Guilt is an unpleasant emotion. People avoid doing things to avoid feeling guilty. Guilt induces needed changes that benefit and strengthen the relationship. Guilty parties give time and attention to a relationship that they previously neglected or damaged. The guilty party can get back into good graces with the offended partner by being more loving and helpful.

Other actions to restore the relationship might include apologizing, confessing the transgression, making amends where possible, making commitments for change and following through on their promises. If important lessons are learned and behavior is changed for the better, then guilt has served a useful purpose.

2. Guilt helps people create change without using power or coercion. If the offended partner in a relationship induces guilt through the obvious hurt and suffering, the other party may change their behavior.

The less powerful partner in a relationship can influence the more powerful partner and correct the imbalance of power by saying, "Look how you are hurting me." The offender understands what he or she is doing and shows compassion for their partner.

3. The transgressor in a relationship has benefitted in some way. Guilt is caused by neglect, unfulfilled obligations or selfish actions. Guilt helps transfer the bad feeling from the victim to the transgressor. Guilt transfers sorrow.

When the transgressor feels sorrow and guilt, the victim feels better. This brings the two parties into closer harmony because they are reacting emotionally in similar ways. When the offender exhibits emotions of sorrow and anguish, the victim feels a connection again.

A violation of standards. What about the traditional definition of guilt, the one where guilt is defined as an emotion that alerts us to when our actions have fallen short of our moral standards of conduct?

Guilt can also involves a different kind of relationship - this time between an individual and a group. The feeling of belonging or being in harmony to a valued group such as a culture, religion or organization is part of personal identity and well-being.

When an individual violates standards of performance related to the group, guilty feelings may trigger corrective actions so that one's position with the group isn’t at stake. Guilt is an early warning signal that personal behavior has to be brought in line with group standards.

Guilt trips are costly. Inducing guilt as a strategy for correcting a relationship can be costly. The other party may not feel he or she is responsible for hurt feelings. Attempts to induce guilt can come across as manipulation or control.

There are other ways of equalizing power in a relationship besides using guilt. When the offense is obvious, guilt and the desire to change or make amends should occur naturally without inducement. When a relationship partner isn't clear about the offense, inducing guilt could backfire. Resentment is possible either way - whether the guilt is deserved or undeserved.

The issue might be better handled through direct requests for change, negotiations and communications. With requests or negotiations, a change becomes the part of a normal relationship of give-and-take. Having success with this kind of process for repairing the relationship usually is better for the relationship.

Some people feel guilty about inducing guilt. It doesn't feel good. For them, there are better ways to correct the relationship.

Is guilt good? Guilt is unpleasant but quite useful. The negative emotions are painful but doing something about guilty feelings can change a negative to a positive. On a personal level, I'm glad my early warning system works as well as it does. Late warnings or no warnings that the relationship is in jeopardy would be much more painful.