People of all ages feel guilty when they fear that they are not measuring up to the expectations of someone who is important to them. They will often suppress their own enjoyment or comfort in something they want to do, just to avoid real or imagined disapproval. If they choose that path, they are allowing guilt to control their thoughts and actions.
In adulthood, guilt controlled-behaviors define a relationship as one of unequal power, very much the kind of relationship many people felt as a child. It effectively becomes a pseudo-parent/child partnership. The partner who has the right to judge or condemn often assumes the role of a pseudo-adult, while the partner, feeling that fear of judgement, becomes the pseudo-child.
Intimacy does not fare well when this transactional structure evolves. Love blossoms in the comfort of peer equality, and the ability for one partner to define and control the worth of another deeply challenges that connection.
How Do These Patterns Begin?
Infants are not born guilty. Their nurturers, whether innocent or intentional, use guilt to control their children’s behavior. A young child is fearful of rejection and disapproval and strives to behave as they are told to avoid punishment or abandonment.
“You better never do that again.”
“I’m so ashamed of you.”
“Why can’t you behave the way I asked you to?”
“You’ve really disappointed me.”
“If you don’t stop doing that, you don’t get bedtime hugs tonight.”
Those control-by-guilt statements communicate to children that the behavior in question had better comply with what that “supreme being” communicates, no matter what feelings of frustration, sadness, or anger they must suppress. They are not yet wise enough to counter with, “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t try to control me this way.”
Intimate partners who suppress their true desires in order to be gain approval, as they learned to do in childhood, often adapt a number of ways to get around their chosen suppressions. They make creative excuses, avoid being caught, tell outright lies, or keeping secrets. Anything that allows them to get some of what they need without having to pay the price.
I have seen people turn their lives inside out to avoid feeling guilty in their intimate relationships. They are hyper-focused on what the other partner needs, often trying provide it before even asked. I’ve seen as those behaviors slip into martyrdom or passive/aggressive patterns, and watch sexuality and humor die, as a precursor to the relationship ultimately failing.
These patients come to me asking for a way out of their entangled predicament, realizing that their childhood patterns have come to haunt them, and that they are feeling “less-than” and immobilized on the other end of the person they’ve recreated as a pseudo-parent.
“I want to change these patterns, but he likes it the way it is. How can I change it now?”
“Every time I do what I want, even if she doesn’t complain, I know it is upsetting her and I can’t even enjoy what I’m doing.”
“I bring up something I want to do that doesn’t include him and he give me that look. I know what it means, that I’m being selfish. I just tank and give in.”
“I know she is controlling me by making me feel guilty, but I just can’t risk her leaving the relationship if she doesn’t get what she wants.”
These patterns will eventually damage any relationship over time. There is a way to eliminate these behaviors.
No Longer Being Controlled by Guilt – Risking Living True to Self
When people make the decision to create guilt-free relationships, they change the way they believe and act. Instead of fearing disapproval or abandonment, they learn to define themselves authentically and proudly, what they need to thrive, and what they can give in a relationship. It’s not that they can’t bend or compromise, but they’re unwilling to be threatened by guilt into behaviors that threaten their personal integrity.
The term used to describe this emancipated state of being is self-actualization, the confidence to determine one’s own path in life, regardless of threat from another. Parent-child guilt is gone, replaced by one’s own definition of what is the right way to behave, even if one’s intimate partner wants, or demands, something else.
That doesn’t mean that person does whatever he or she wants without personal limitations. The state of self-actualization has its own personal alarm system; one that goes off when a person strays from his or her own self-defined path. It is the accurate and authentic reminder that reminds a person to reevaluate the behavior in question and whether or not it measures up to an internal code of ethics.
People who have achieved this liberation from guilt feel so much clearer about the kind of partners they seek. And, because many people are susceptible to guilt-driven behaviors, it may be harder to find others who respect those choices and feel the same way. Or to stay in the relationship they had created before.
When intimate partners have no fear of disapproval and no expectation of reward for their behaviors, they operate on a much more successful level. From the transactions of “I’ll do that if you’ll do this,” comes “This is what I can do for you from my heart and with no strings attached.” As much as possible, that kind of connection eliminates score-keeping and makes room for generous-to-generous interactions.
It is not possible for any relationship partner to live in this way at all times in every situation. Everyone chooses, at one time or another, to give up some part of personal integrity to maintain the relationship, especially in chaotic times. It is critical, at those times, for the partner who chooses to do that, not to blame the other partner for making that sacrifice, nor to feel guilty for making that compromise.