9 warning signs you’re in a relationship with a subtle guilt-tripper

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For some people, relationships are all about control.

That’s not a healthy way to look at it. In fact, someone trying to control you in a relationship is almost universally a sign of a relationship you shouldn’t be in. Any healthy relationship requires people giving each other the freedom to be who they are and who they can become without trying to control or manipulate them.

And control doesn’t have to be screaming, shouting, or physical abuse to be manipulative. Another lever a controlling partner commonly uses is guilt.

Feelings of guilt are natural to any humans who don’t have a major psychological disorder. At its best, guilt can prompt us to be better, more thoughtful, more compassionate people.

But at its worst, guilt can make us feel inadequate, selfish, and unworthy.

And that’s exactly how some people use guilt to control the behavior of those around them.

Of course, when someone is trying to manipulate you, they don’t want you to know that. So they will often be quite subtle in the ways they use guilt to influence your behavior.

But watch out for these signs of a subtle guilt tripper. If you recognize them in your relationships, consider the possibility you’re being manipulated.

1) They keep reminding you of past mistakes

Making mistakes is part of being human. But for a practiced guilt tripper, the mistakes of other people are just more ammunition they can use to control them.

“Guilt-tripping is a natural form of passive-aggression that people resort to when they don’t have the skills or language to assertively communicate their needs or feelings,” says social worker and therapist Liza Gold.

And there are few better ways to make a person feel guilty than by reminding them of mistakes they’ve made in the past.

If you’re in a relationship with the guilt tripper, they will constantly remind you of anything you may have done wrong in the past. The goal here is to make you focus on your mistakes so that you feel like a less competent, less capable, less thoughtful person than you really are.

Over time, this can make you feel as though you can never do anything right for the guilt tripper. They will never forget any mistake you make, and will constantly bring it up, especially during arguments, with the goal of making you feel bad and doing what they want.

2) They are passive-aggressive

Passive-aggressive communication is a way of trying to get what you want from the person without coming right out and saying it.

“A passive-aggressive person might repeatedly claim that they are not mad or that they are fine—even when they are apparently furious and obviously not okay,” writes psychologist Kendra Cherry.

“In denying what they are feeling and refusing to be emotionally open, they shut down further communication and refuse to discuss the issue.”

Passive-aggressive behavior includes:

  • saying they will do something, but procrastinating and dragging their feet over it
  • giving you the silent treatment
  • pouting
  • complaining about things other people do when really, it’s you they are complaining about
  • keeping score of what they do for others versus what they get back

Dealing with a passive-aggressive person can be extremely aggravating, because they don’t have – or don’t want to use – the communication skills required to tell you what they need in a healthy way. Instead, they rely on guilt trips to do the hard work for them.

3) They play the victim

A guilt tripper is a constant victim. In fact, playing the victim is more than just another manipulation tactic. It may be central to their view of themselves and the world.

People who use guilt trips like to center themselves and their feelings in any situation. So if things go wrong, it’s a personal attack on them. If people can’t give them what they want, they take it as a sign of disrespect or hostility.

This is a trait you can notice in the way they talk about themselves and the things that happened to them. Do they ever accept responsibility? Or is everything bad always somebody else’s fault?

Guilt trippers want you to see them as the helpless victim of a cruel world. By gaining your sympathy, they make you more suggestible to their manipulation.

4) They make things conditional

Someone who is trying to manipulate you may often do nice things for you. But as with everything a manipulator does, they are not doing it for your benefit. They are doing it for themselves.

They may shower you with gifts. They may take you on expensive trips. They may do favors for you, performing tasks around the house, driving you places, or whatever else you want from them.

But they are only doing these things to use against you later.

You see, for a manipulative person, helping others is just another way to control them.

And next time they ask you to do something you don’t want to do, they will quickly bring up all the times they’ve done something for you to try and guilt you into doing what they want.

5) They use emotional blackmail

A guilt trip is itself a form of emotional blackmail. So it probably shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that people who use guilt will often use other forms of emotional blackmail, too.

Emotional blackmail may include:

  • punishment for not doing what the other person wants, including the silent treatment
  • sulking and moping when they don’t get their way
  • offering rewards to encourage the behavior they want from you
  • threats
  • self-harm

No matter how it shows itself, emotional blackmail is an extremely destructive thing in any relationship.

6) They compare you to others

Another way to make you feel guilty is to compare you with other people.

Of course, you’re always worse than everybody else in the mind of a guilt tripper.

So they may point out how their friends are kinder to them, or how an ex used to treat them better than you do.

They may also practice what psychologists call triangulation. This involves getting someone else to agree with them about your supposedly bad behaviors, such as a mutual friend or member of your family.

The goal is to make you feel inadequate and as if you haven’t lived up to their expectations in relationship.

7) They lie

If someone is willing to use guilt to control you, don’t be surprised if they are also more than willing to lie.

Sometimes, their lies involve twisting the truth. They may exaggerate your bad behavior in the past or change the details of something that happened to make it seem as though you behaved worse than you really did.

Other times, they may tell straight lies. They will lie about their own behavior, their intentions, or things that happened in the past, all with the aim of making you feel bad and giving in to their demands.

In its extreme form, this can become gaslighting, an attempt to make the victim doubt their memory and even sanity. When that happens, make no mistake: you are the victim of emotional abuse.

8) They sulk

Sulking is a very popular way for a guilt tripper to get what they want.

After all, presumably you’re in a relationship with someone because you love them. And if you love them, you want them to be happy.

When the people we care about are suffering, we feel bad. And often, we feel as if we would do just about anything to make them happy again.

Guilt trippers weaponize this positive trait to control you.

Sometimes, they will be upset with you, but they will exaggerate their actions to make sure you noticed. Other times, they may not even actually be upset at all, but will act as if they are.

They will sulk like children. They may pout, slam doors, or give you the silent treatment until you give in and do what they want. 

9) They keep reminding you of everything they do for you

This is something guilt trippers love to do.

They will draw attention to everything nice they have done for you in the past, or every sacrifice they’ve made. Again, the goal is to make you feel bad and give in to what they want.

In a healthy relationship, you should want the best for each other. That ought to motivate you to do things for each other with no strings attached.

To a guilt tripper, everything is transactional. And the nice things they have done for you are just another way to make you feel bad and control your behavior.

Dealing with a guilt tripper 

Guilt can be powerful. Guilt trippers know this, and that’s why they use it to try and get people to do what they want.

The first step to dealing with someone who guilt trips you is to recognize their behavior for what it is. Because when you know someone is trying to control you through feelings of guilt, it’s much easier to stay strong and resist their manipulations.

Clifton Kopp

Welcome to my writings on Hack Spirit! I'm a bit of a "polymath" in that I like writing about many different things. Often I'm learning from the process of writing. I hope you enjoy, and please leave a comment on one of my articles.

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