Partner Picking Up the Chores Because of Your Chronic Pain What to Do If You Feel Guilty

When you’re living with a chronic disease, you only have so many spoons of energy per day — and they may feel particularly limited on days ridden with pain. In a relationship, that may translate to you not being able to pick up as many chores as your partner around the house. 

Needless to say, the mechanisms around guilt are complex. However, if you’re feeling it in your relationship because you’re listening to your body’s signals about how much you can do, here are a few key steps you can take.  

The Science Behind Guilt

Let’s talk about guilt: There’s a psychological concept known as “omnipotent responsibility guilt.” This is the belief that you have the duty and power to make loved ones happy, so putting your needs in the foreground means being selfish, per a 2022 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 

Three other forms of guilt include survivor guilt (believing you shouldn’t do better than others), separation/disloyalty guilt (believing you would hurt others by leaving them), and self-hate (the belief you aren’t worthy of love).  

According to researchers, all of these forms of guilt can be traced back to a major component of “control mastery theory (CMT),” which proposes that early childhood experiences with caregivers can lead you to believe that you will hurt those caregivers by pursuing healthy goals. 

Guilt can make you feel as though listening to your body and stepping back from chores is a bad thing (because you mistakenly think it’s your responsibility to make others happy).  

What to Do If You’re Feeling Guilty

First, consider if you’re truly taking on less than your partner, or if you’re simply taking on less than you feel like you should 

Guilt is often associated with perception, not with the amount of time you spend on chores. 

“When you ask people to log how much time they’re actually spending on household chores, they’re actually spending much more time than they imagined in their mind,” says Kim Gorgens, PhD, Clinical Professor and Director of Continuing Education at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. “Interestingly, people having a pain flare actually spend more hours but feel like they’re accomplishing less.”  

Plus, societal norms around responsibilities and gender may be impacting you (however subtly), as well.  

“Women tend to absorb more of the household or unpaid labor, relative to their male peers,” says Dr. Gorgens. “In studies, women consistently are less satisfied with the equity of the division of household maintenance, chores, and responsibilities.” 

Sometimes, people (women, in particular) can internalize messaging around productivity and collaboration in the home and weaponize it against themselves.  

“If you have to wonder, it’s probably your perception,” says Dr. Gorgens. “If you feel guilty or that you’ve fallen short of what you think of as your responsibilities, do a quick gut check about if that is true by having a conversation with your partner.” 

And remember: Just because your partner is helping you right now, it certainly doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong (and there’s no need to feel guilty about it). Conflict doesn’t appear when chores aren’t split perfectly in half, but rather when someone feels like they’re doing more than their share — which is something you can get ahead of.  

“While guilt itself is a normal and healthy reaction demonstrating concern and care for loved ones despite your own physical challenges, it can evolve into a self-sabotaging complex of excessive self-blame and self-judgment when left unmanaged,” says John Dolores, PhD, Clinical Psychologist and Chief Operating Officer at Bespoke Treatment, an online mental health platform. “There is a clear need to address and manage guilt proactively.”  

The two strategies Dr. Dolores recommends to help alleviate guilt and promote a healthier mindset while dealing with arthritis pain-related physical disability include:  

Focus on what you can control 

When you start feeling inadequate and burdensome to your partner, it can become easy to spiral into a sense of worthlessness, which intensifies feelings of guilt and can lead to depression. Instead, try to concentrate on taking action and making improvements within your abilities.  

For example, if your partner takes on all the house chores, brew them a cup of tea or draw them a bath to help them relax afterward. This helps you tackle guilt by redirecting your energy toward areas where you have influence, rather than dwelling on things that are beyond your control. 

Communicate with your partner

Suppressing feelings of guilt and shame can prevent you from exploring your thoughts and emotions, ultimately hindering your ability to effectively cope. By being open about your feelings, you allow yourself to address and acknowledge your guilt, providing relief from its mental and emotional burden.  

Bringing your guilt to the surface by discussing it can help create space for more positive emotions, such as self-compassion and forgiveness.  

If you find it difficult to manage your guilt, get support from a mental health professional and try therapy. This provides you with an opportunity to discuss and process your emotions, which can reduce guilt-related negative impacts on your mental well-being.  

It can also help you develop strategies to effectively navigate your life in light of your physical condition, allowing you to find a balance that works best for you, your partner, and your relationship, says Dr. Dolores.  

Your own internalized beliefs around ableism — beliefs, practices, and attitudes that favor able-bodied people — could also be playing a role in your guilt. 

“When ableism is internalized, a person will likely experience guilt or self-loathing around their perceived short-comings or lack of ability,” says Ashera DeRosa, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Owner of Whole Stories Therapy. “A person experiencing internalized ableism will likely feel that they aren’t ‘pulling their weight’ and may project this onto their partner, believing their partner is angry with them for this, regardless if it is true or not.”  

It’s important for you and your partner to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” quite often, says DeRosa. Both halves of the interaction are important for both of you to recognize the contributions that are being made.  

How One Arthritis Patient Navigated It

For Jenn Browne, an educator and community member from Diversability (a community that aims to elevate disability pride), relieving guilt meant getting creative about how she contributed to her family — both as a child and as an adult in a romantic relationship.  

Jenn Browne, an educator from Diversability, a community that aims to elevate disability pride, has learned to manage guilt over her contributions to household chores due to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which she’s had since she was 6.

Browne says, “I have always been stubborn and pushed myself. When I’m unable to do ‘my share,’ I feel frustration and guilt, like I’m letting my family and partner down.” As a child, she opted out of some duties but did others like keeping her room neat. “I felt guilt seeing my brother do more around the house, but he understood why I couldn’t do more,” she shares.

In adulthood, Browne has creatively adjusted her approach to chores. “I’ve had to grow and adjust my expectations for partnership and help my partner do so too,” she says. They divide chores or split them into manageable tasks. For example, Browne vacuums over two days, leaves the living room rug to her husband, and gets laundry started but leaves the reaching to him.

Browne handles most cooking but adjusts when standing is too taxing, preparing food at the table while her husband works at the counter. For yardwork, she tends to the raised beds, weeding and planting, while her husband takes on tasks at ground level. “In these ways, we look at each chore as tasks that can be split up. It allows me to help out, and we feel like a team,” Browne explains.

Her advice: Assess what needs to be done and talk about what each person can do, even if it’s part of a task. She emphasizes, “Communicating about how each person is feeling is important. Expressing if one person feels overwhelmed and appreciating what each other is doing helps us share the load.”

The Role Your Partner Plays

Often, your partner may say something like “I’m tired” or “There are so many dishes to do,” without any intention of making you feel guilty. 

If your partner is feeling overwhelmed by picking up more physical chores and uses small comments like these to share a message about their feelings, a therapist may be able to help them find more effective ways of communicating. 

Wherever possible, they should externalize the pain into something separate from you, the person experiencing it, says DeRosa. For instance: “I’m frustrated that the pain keeps us from working together on projects” is a more productive statement than “I’m frustrated that you can’t help me.”  

Both people can be frustrated in the former statement, whereas the latter can make a person feel they are under functioning and spark feelings of shame.  

If your partner is saying or doing something to make you intentionally feel guilty, it could very well strain your relationship over time. 

Those who give into guilt trips can feel manipulated and more negative about the relationship, per a 2014 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And when guilt-tripping occurs often, it can lead to resentment and the decline of closeness and intimacy, per a 2013 study from Carleton University 

If guilt-tripping is occurring in your relationship, know that it can sometimes be a form of passive-aggressive banter due to a lack of communication skills. In these cases, you can listen, state your boundaries around being guilt-tripped, and offer a compromise.  

That said, it may be best to speak to a therapist if guilt-tripping is occurring in your relationship. Therapy can help you pinpoint the root of the behavior, find ways to change it, or help you determine how to leave a toxic relationship if your partner is being persistently emotionally abusive.  

A Note on Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse includes non-physical behaviors meant to control, isolate, or scare you, per the National Domestic Violence Hotline 

Red flags can include:  

  • Your partner name calls you or demeans you. 
  • Your partner often makes you feel silly or dumb. 
  • Your partner is jealous of time spent with your friends or family. 
  • Your partner punishes you by withholding attention or affection. 
  • Your partner wants you to ask for permission before doing something or spending time with other people. 
  • Your partner blames you for their unhealthy/abusive behaviors. 
  • Your partner overloads you with compliments and gifts, and then uses that to manipulate you later (love bombing). 

If you believe you’re a victim of emotional abuse, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and you can contact it via a phone call, text, or online.  

Be a More Proactive Patient with ArthritisPower

ArthritisPower is a patient-led, patient-centered research registry for joint, bone, and inflammatory skin conditions. You can participate in voluntary research studies about your health conditions and use the app to track your symptoms, disease activity, and medications — and share with your doctor. Learn more and sign up here.

Leonardi J, et al. Understanding interpersonal guilt: Associations with attachment, altruism, and personality pathology. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. July 1, 2022. doi:   

Interview with Ashera DeRosa, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Owner of Whole Stories Therapy 

Interview with John Dolores, PhD, Clinical Psychologist and Chief Operating Officer at Bespoke Treatment, an online mental health platform 

Interview with Kim Gorgens, PhD, Clinical Professor and Director of Continuing Education at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver 

Overall NC, et al. Attachment anxiety and reactions to relationship threat: the benefits and costs of inducing guilt in romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. February 2014. doi: 

A Qualitative Investigation of a Guilt Trip. Institute of Cognitive Science Spring Proceedings. January 2013. 

What Is Emotional Abuse. National Domestic Violence Hotline. Accessed June 27, 2023. 


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