Shame and Couples

Feelings of shame, or the attempts to avoid such feelings, are at the root of all relationship discord. Furthermore, the painful experience of shame is so unbearable that it is often bypassed or repressed. This results in one or both members of the couple withdrawing, blaming, criticizing, rejecting or being dismissive towards the other

Shame is often an important component of struggles for control. To let go of control is to feel that the shame and blame of the relationship belongs to one person, and that one’s feelings or point of view will never be acknowledged. The final result may be chronic isolation or a constant struggle for control.

Blaming is a common way that partners protect themselves from the pain of shame. When partners blame each other, neither person feels heard or understood, both are too busy defending themselves instead of listening to what his or her partner is saying. Mutual blaming leads to an escalation of shame and more blame, increasing the tension and distance between partners, thus making communication and intimacy more and more difficult.

Escalating shame most frequently occurs when partners end up in the roles of pursuer and distancer. When the distancer withdraws, the pursuer wants more contact and reassurance. The more the pursuer pursues, the more the distancer distances, leading to a seemingly endless conflict or impasse. An important element of this cycle is the fact that both partners often feel shame for their respective feelings or needs. The pursuer may feel rejected and shamed for “wanting too much,” while the distancer may feel shame for either being uncomfortable with closeness, or for wanting more space. Each person feels criticized (shamed) by the other, each not realizing that both are having the same experience of shame.

Couples counseling is a place where such problems as escalating blame can be looked at in a safe, hopefully less shaming, environment. The first step in couples counseling is for each of the partners to be heard, if not initially by the partner, then by the therapist. Once each partner’s point of view is heard without being interrupted, the feeling in the room shifts dramatically. No longer feeling the need to argue one’s own point of view, each partner is better able to listen to the other, as well as more effectively talk about what is really bothering him or her. In the safe environment of the therapy, it becomes easier to reveal the vulnerable feelings which can go underground when each partner is filled with shame and rage. That is, a conversation can take place where each partner's feelings, complaints, and needs are expressed, allowing the couples therapist to put the conflict into a new and deeper context, shedding light on what is actually going on in the relationship beneath the surface. As a result, one or both partners may get to a place where he or she can (1) admit vulnerable feelings (“I really miss you when you go out with friends”) (2) acknowledge his or her role in the current fight (“I know I can be unreasonable or difficult at times”) and/or (3) attempt, even briefly, to see the other's point of view (“I can see why you're angry at me, I really screwed up”). When a conversation includes the elements listed above, each partner is not only better able to actually hear what the other is saying, but to consider his or her own role in the argument as well.

As Dan Wile3 points out in several of his books, arguments or impasses, are actually opportunities for greater intimacy. Wile contends that embedded in these conflicts are attempts, albeit unsuccessful ones, by each partner, to express what he or she wants from the other. Couples counseling can create a language in which the relationship can “adapt non-accusing ways of thinking, and how to use ....arguments to work out typically unsolvable problems, such as loss of affection, selfishness, and jealousy.”4

Although this is just a brief overview of the interplay between shame and relationships, I hope it may elucidate the role shame plays in relational difficulties. At my home page, I also discuss another uncomfortable situation rife with shame: psychotherapy.

1. Scheff, Thomas, Bloody Revenge, Boulder, Co. Westview, 1994.

2. Wile, Dan. 1988. After the Honeymoon. New York, John Wiley & Sons.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

Please feel free to call me at (510) 528-4441 or e-mail me at Marc Miller, PhD to discus if I can be of help to you. I look forward to hearing from you.