Relationship Help: Is Shame Hurting Your Relationship?

In every loving, intimate marriage or relationship, the potential for damaging shame is close at hand. Let’s find out why this is the case.

We all hide from others (and ourselves) at times—hiding in this case means walling off the memories and emotional parts of yourself you wish didn’t exist or cause you conflict in some way. This process of self-segregation starts early in life and arises within our primary relationships.

Often when the child’s emerging needs meet with indifference or some form of rejection, the child is faced with an enormous dilemma:

Do I continue to express my needs only to upset others and the relationship balance that I so desperately need? Or do I start to ignore or reject my own emotional needs until they atrophy and no longer disrupt the connection to my caregivers?

Often children do not consciously ask and answer these questions; instead our automatic, innate adaptive capacities take over and lend us a helping hand by molding how we relate to ourselves and others—with the primary goal of maintaining our primary relationships even at the expense of our emerging self.

Shame and the Hidden Self

“I remember my father’s face when I started crying after I struck out during my first at-bat at a little league baseball game. He looked horrified and embarrassed by me, like a dirty little family secret had been revealed to the entire neighborhood—his son was a sissy… On the drive home I felt his cold silence. The silence was punishing. I knew in that moment that not only did I do something wrong, I learned that I was somehow wrong.” ~(Jonathan, a 47-year-old husband discussing how feelings of shame shaped his negative self-image).

Psychologist Robert Karen in his book, Becoming Attached, describes how the emergence of shame is connected to the child receiving parental messages that his or her needs are somehow wrong. Shame always arises within the context of a relationship where the child internalizes a shame-based experience that s/he is somehow broken or defective. Such toxic interpersonal events drive children to hide certain experiences (usually experiences of emotional vulnerability) from others as a way to avoid further rejection and humiliation.

Think of shame as the duck-and-hide emotion—it propels us to emotionally turn and move away from others rather than open ourselves up emotionally (which is required for intimacy).

But to be most effective, we must hide these unwelcome experiences from ourselves in order to avoid our own self-directed loathing for what we now perceive as our own inherent weaknesses. This is accomplished by turning away from and denying the parts of ourselves that once led our caregivers to react so negatively. We ultimately turn against ourselves, betraying the very needs we so desperately wanted met by our loved ones. But these needs never vanish. They exist unattended to, locked away in the crawl spaces of our psyche where they hunger for the recognition and validation that was never realized.

The Re-emergence of Shame In Your Relationship

Often, within the context of a loving and emotionally secure marriage or relationship, the long-dormant parts of our personalities that have been sequestered by shame slowly awaken and become willing to risk expression and contact with another. Love and intimacy stir our deepest longings to be seen and made emotionally whole through loving contact with another.

The awakening of our deepest self is complicated, however (and inadvertently leads to greater relationship upheaval) since all of our fears and defensive habits (such as keeping others away through anger, or engaging in numbing behaviors) may also awaken—this often leads to great confusion (for yourself and your spouse/partner) as you struggle with a renewed desire to openly share your deepest self alongside the presence of protective impulses-behaviors designed to be kept hidden and to keep others at bay.

It’s as if your mind and body are simultaneously expressing the need for emotional connection with the unrelenting expectation that further rejection and humiliation are inevitable.

This leaves you, your partner and the relationship stuck. For many couples, an emotionally distant status quo sets in, becoming the norm of the relationship (sadly, many couples simply accept this and adjust their lives and relationship around this distance). This norm involves no emotional risk-taking. This norm leads to an uneasy peace between you that centers around the following unspoken agreement:

“This is the level of emotional intimacy and intensity that I’m able to tolerate (even if this feels like no intimacy at all to you), so please do not rock the relationship boat by requiring or demanding more of me.”

Mutual Understanding Weakens Shame’s Grip

Couples must work to understand that behind each defensive-protective behavior there is a part of oneself that yearns for greater emotional contact. Feelings of shame and behaviors designed to push others away often go hand-in-hand. The first step in communicating about this important issue is to discuss the ways in which you each learned to protect these vulnerable, easily shamed parts of yourself: “I’m likely to get angry and strike out verbally”; “I tend to drink a little too much”; “I’ll find things to do around the house to distract myself”; and so on.

While these defensive-protective behaviors may be hurtful and upsetting to your partner (and to yourself), this discussion highlights the important function of your defensive-protective actions (and the varied and sometimes subtle ways this defensiveness may manifest itself). A mutual understanding of how you each protect yourself highlights that we are all emotionally vulnerable to varying degrees and that this intensifies and must be discussed in a loving-supportive relationship (stoicism is not good for intimacy!).

Sharing this can also give you other options of protection that may be less damaging to the relationship yet still allow you the safety and emotional distance required (for instance, communicating that a particular topic is feeling too overwhelming, and rather than verbally striking out to shut down the discussion the way you typically do, you are going to go for a walk in order to become more emotionally grounded).

Finally, it’s important to remember that many of our most profound shame-based experiences (experiences that profoundly shaped our sense of self) occurred when we were very young and unable to protect ourselves emotionally. Sometimes these developmentally stuck, shame-based parts of us anticipate the same level of danger and humiliation that existed in our childhood. This can prevent us from accurately assessing the current conditions of our relationship and accurately seeing our partner (e.g., we may automatically believe that our partner intentionally hurt usjust like one’s parent may have—rather than mistakenly hurt us). As a result, we react to our partner/spouse with great intensity and force, as if they wronged us in the most profound ways possible. So instead of allowing shame to negatively shape your relationship, unmask this powerful emotion by discussing it openly with your spouse/partner.

All best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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