“Hands Off That Guilt!”
Last week, we posted “Distressed by Another’s Jealousy: How to Deal with Guilt from Hurting a Partner” in response to a reader who wrote in asking for help.
The piece drew a lot of interest. Most of it was positive and thanked us for tackling a common issue that isn’t often addressed by existing poly how-to.
But some readers were quite distressed by the deal I made with the writer of the original letter: “Let’s make a deal right now: If you follow this process, you have nothing to feel guilty about. You have my permission to feel okay about things.”
“How can you possibly say that?” they wanted to know. “That’s irresponsible. If they do something bad, trying to make it better doesn’t automatically undo the hurt. If they’ve done something bad, they should continue to feel bad for what they’ve done.”
But there’s a problem with that line of thinking. For how long? Do they feel guilty forever?
And for heaven’s sake, why? It’s not like the stress from bad feelings helps us solve problems better. In fact, it’s the opposite. Yerkes-Dodson famously found that a little stress is fine but that too much stress makes us terribly unproductive and ineffective. It’s difficult to do anything well if you’re too keyed up.
Emotional Loan Sharks
As I wrote in last week’s piece, guilt’s functional purpose is to make us pay attention to the person we slighted so that we can make it up to them.
In fair and healthy relationships, you can work with your partner and settle that debt appropriately and honestly.
But in unhealthy relationships? The offended partner may very well charge outrageous “emotional interest.” And some may never allow you to pay it off.
I know this from all-too-painful experience. Watching others suffer through these situations. And yes, by going through it myself.
And as I read through the backlash to the original article, I couldn’t help but be reminded me of the emotional loan sharks I’ve known.
The partners who complain bitterly about mistakes you’ve made at every opportunity but are flummoxed and quickly change the subject when you ask them, earnestly, how you can make it up to them.
The ones who continually bring up ancient history like it only just happened. Connecting every incident to convey an unending pattern of your thoughtless wrongdoing.
And they’ll never tell you this, but there’s a simple reason you can’t make it up to them: They don’t want you to. Because guilting others is a very popular tool to control people. Your guilt is your puppet strings.
If you find yourself advocating for sustained guilt over earnest attempts at reparative change, it should give you pause. What kind of interest rates are you charging those you love? Are they fair? Are they conducive to long-term healthy relationships?
Sadly, we do a much better job of making people feel guilty than we do of delivering them from the guilt we create. We need to confess this and change our ways.