Are you staying in a relationship out of guilt? If so, you should know that you’re not alone. Many people in relationships feel guilty about the idea of leaving their partner and causing them pain, or they may feel like they made a commitment and are obligated to stick to it. While guilt is a complex emotion, having a broader understanding of what is generating these negative feelings and what you should do about it can help create a more healthy relationship - or terminate an unsalvageable one.
In this article, we’ll explore many reasons why people are staying in a relationship out of guilt and whether guilt is a good foundation for a relationship, as well as tips to recognize where these feelings are coming from.
Why People Are Staying in a Relationship Out of Guilt
People often stay in a relationship due to guilt for a variety of reasons. Let’s explore some of the most common reasons why guilt is a factor for staying in a relationship that you may not want to continue otherwise:
One reason you could be feeling guilty is about the invested time, energy, and resources in the relationship and thinking that leaving would mean those sacrifices were made in vain.
The sunk-cost fallacy in relationships refers to the tendency for individuals to persist in an unfulfilling or unsatisfying relationship because of the investments they have made in it, such as:
- Emotional commitment
The idea is that individuals believe that they must continue in the relationship because they have already put so much into it and that ending it would result in a waste of those investments.
The sunk-cost fallacy can lead individuals to ignore warning signs in their relationship and persist in it even if it is not healthy or fulfilling. This can result in individuals staying in relationships that are emotionally draining, causing them stress and unhappiness.
It's important to recognize that investments made in the past cannot be recovered and that continuing in an unsatisfying relationship will not make those investments any more valuable. Instead, individuals should consider their current level of happiness and satisfaction in the relationship, and make decisions based on their present and future well-being, rather than on past investments.
Impact on others outside the relationship
The relationship you have with a woman you’re romantically involved with obviously impacts each other’s emotional well-being, but what about the relationship's shared friends and family?
Many men feel guilty about the impact their decision to leave the relationship would have on the relationship's shared friends and family. For example, if there are children (biological and those outside of the immediate relationship), a man may feel that he is abandoning them and potentially causing distress. Similarly, the relatives of either partner may have looked forward to the relationship as a way of building a family or their financial contribution to a planned wedding, only to have it fail.
Sometimes guilt can be the result of manipulation. Some women understand that by using guilt, they can regulate their partner's behavior for their own ends - particularly targeting men who have low self-esteem or lack romantic options outside the relationship.
Bear in mind that this type of manipulation can be entirely subconscious by your partner, meaning that they may not even be aware (and in control) of what they’re doing.
In fact, guilt-inducing behaviors are a hallmark of bipolar disorder (BPD), where a partner may use tactics such as love-bombing if they sense you’re withdrawing from the relationship, reiterate obligations (real or imaginary), or threaten self-harm in order to steer your behavior towards remaining in the relationship.
Significant life event
Another common reason why people stay in relationships based on guilt is due to a significant life event, particularly in your partner’s life. For instance, if your partner is involved in a car wreck and is seriously injured, there may be societal expectations to not abandon their partner and “do the right thing.”
On the other hand, a man may feel guilty for abandoning a relationship if he’s moving on to better opportunities (such as relocating for a new job offer) and feels that a previous relationship is no longer compatible with this new event.
If a partner has been unfaithful, they may feel guilty about their actions and the pain they have caused their partner. This guilt can manifest in a number of ways, such as having to overcompensate by being overly affectionate or withdrawing due to disappointment in oneself.
Guilt due to infidelity may also be present simply by desiring another person. This type of guilt can be more of a “grass is always greener” mentality, but it can still cause distress that forces a partner to double down in a relationship (despite it potentially being a sign that the current relationship is, in fact, worse).
Breaking a promise
In a relationship, your word is golden. However, if you’ve broken a promise with your partner, you may feel guilty about not living up to your word.
Very often, there are levels to this type of guilt. For instance, there may be guilt over forgetting to make a reservation for an anniversary dinner that you said you would versus deeper betrayals of trust, such as changing your mind on a vacation at the last second.
It should be noted that these feelings of guilt can persist even after you’ve managed to “make things right” either by fulfilling the promise at a later date or by substituting another action(s) to compensate.
If a partner has neglected to communicate effectively, they may feel guilty about causing misunderstandings or creating distance in the relationship. This type of guilt may be intentional or unintentional. For example, some men have a hard time expressing their feelings, whereas those who are neurodivergent (ie. Asperger’s) may consistently miss social cues.
If a partner has caused financial stress or difficulties, they may feel guilty about putting their partner in a difficult situation. This can be especially true if there’s a huge financial disparity between the person you’re dating and where a shared standard of living may be affected in the long term.
Worse, these financial troubles can lead to serious feelings of guilt if you’re financially entangled. One of the most common situations of guilt in these scenarios is when you feel that the relationship is over, but live together with a lease or mortgage. Obviously, a partner will feel abandoned financially and may lose their living situation, potentially put not only the partner in financial jeopardy but anyone else who is living there (ie. children, family members, friends, roommates, etc.).
Differences in values
If a partner has different values or priorities than their partner, they may feel guilty about not being able to reconcile those differences or not meeting the expectations of the other.
Some examples of differences in values that can lead to guilt include:
One partner may value financial stability and saving, while the other may prioritize spending, and living in the moment. This difference in values can lead to guilt if one partner feels like they are not living up to the expectations of the other.
One partner may value spending time with family and building close relationships with them, while the other may prioritize their career or other interests. This difference in values can lead to guilt if one partner feels like they are neglecting their family responsibilities.
The seriousness of the relationship: If you’re only interested in pursuing a casual relationship while your partner is already making plans to get married, this can cause feelings of guilt - particularly if it’s impossible to imagine living together long-term.
One partner may have strong religious beliefs, while the other may not. This difference in values can lead to guilt if one partner feels like they are not fulfilling their religious obligations or are not respecting the beliefs of their partner.
One partner may value pursuing their career, while the other may prioritize starting a family or pursuing other interests. This difference in values can lead to guilt if one partner feels like they are neglecting their responsibilities to the relationship or are not living up to their partner's expectations.
It's important to remember that differences in values are normal in any relationship and can be an opportunity for growth and understanding. However, when one partner feels guilty about not living up to the expectations of the other, it can be harmful to the relationship and create a negative dynamic. In such cases, open communication and a willingness to understand each other's perspectives can help to reduce guilt and strengthen the relationship.
Neglecting their responsibilities
If a partner has neglected their responsibilities in the relationship, they may feel guilty about letting their partner down.
This works both ways, as your partner may be acting withdrawn and cold if you’ve failed to live up to your end of the bargain. For example, if stress is affecting your ability to perform in the bedroom, your partner may begin to feel that you don’t desire her, unintentionally affecting her self-esteem.
Is Guilt a Good Foundation for a Relationship?
In short, excessive guilt is never a good foundation for any type of relationship, romantic or otherwise. Relationships should be based on mutual respect, trust, and love, not on guilt. When a relationship is built on guilt, it can lead to negative emotions such as resentment, anxiety, and stress - all of which can lead to a dysfunctional relationship.
Guilt as a vehicle for growth?
It's important to remember that feeling guilty is a normal part of being in a relationship and can be a sign of a strong commitment to making things work. No one is perfect, and it can be argued that guilt is a positive emotion geared toward helping rectify personal failings.
For example, if one partner feels guilty about something they have done and takes steps to make amends, they may be able to deepen the relationship and show their commitment. This can include taking time off work to devote towards a neglected partner, entering couple’s therapy to determine the root of the behavior, or being more communicative to each other’s intentions and needs.
Excessive guilt as a sign of negative relationship
There are limitations to making amends in a guilt-ridden relationship.
For serious transgressions such as cheating or discovering that your partner is consciously manipulating you, the relationship will most likely become an unresolvable source of negative emotions. Even in the best of cases, guilt derived from this behavior more often than not leads to an emotionally-draining and unbalanced relationship. This is especially true if the affected partner uses this guilt to continually lash out. In this case, it’s best to end the relationship and learn where you may have gone wrong so that your future relationships are more healthy.
As you can see, staying in a relationship out of guilt is generally a sign of an unhealthy relationship. While feelings of guilt are a natural part of interpersonal dynamics in romantic relationships, understanding the origins of these feelings and working through them can actually bring you closer to your partner. Nevertheless, it’s up to your own assessment of the relationship and its inner dynamics to determine whether you should stay in a relationship.