How Shame Affects Relationship Part 4

How does shame affect relationships? It affects it so much that we typically talk with every person who walks in our door about shame. It not only affects married couple's relationships but our relationships with our children, our friends, our co-workers, and even ourselves. Hopefully this week is giving you a good look at how it is affecting you. The most common thing I see as a therapist is how it couples get defensive and start blaming.  

Defensiveness: 

Think about this- Our need to be loved and accepted is strong. We were born with it. Our shame makes us feel we are unacceptable and unlovable (or parts of us are). So if our partner or friend points out something that might make us look "bad" in our eyes, what is our natural tendency? To defend ourselves. This causes people to say things in a way that isn't healthy or helpful and usual winds up in a big argument. Consider the following example of something you might relate to: 

Mary: Honey, do you mind picking your socks up off the floor today? (She says this in a kind tone even though she might be frustrated.)

Henry: (Because of his shame, he heard this as criticism.) Why do you always have to pick out everything I do wrong? 

Mary: I wasn't. I was just asking you to pick your socks up! Why do you always start yelling at me when I ask you to do something? 

Henry: Because you clearly think I'm incapable of doing anything right! I suppose you're saying that because I forgot to pay the electric bill!

Mary: Seriously, Henry? Again? Now we are going to be in even more debt than we were before! I can't pay the kid's tuition and the fees from the bank when the check bounced. I am so sick of us being broke. We should never have moved here in the first place. Your job doesn't pay enough. 

Let me interrupt this fight to say.......now they aren't fighting about the socks anymore. They are fighting about money and a move they made 5 years ago. 

You get the picture. This argument winds up about 45 minutes later with Mary bolting out the front door, telling Henry she's staying at her mothers for the night. Neither of them remember how the fight started. It wouldn't matter anyway. It's not about the socks. It's about someone feeling shame, getting defensive, and creating unhealthy conflict. 

Blaming: 

Now let's shift to blame. Typically when someone feels shame, they will get defensive by blaming someone. When someone is shame ridden, someone has to be to blame. Did you notice how they both started blaming each other......which made everything worse? 

Blaming is just a way to deflect from how we feel about ourselves. It's a way to wipe the stink of shame off of ourselves and put it on to another person. 

So what is a healthy example of this conversation where two people can talk about socks without shame and keep it about the socks? 

Mary: Honey, do you mind picking your socks up off the floor today? (She says this in a kind tone even though she might be frustrated.) 

Henry: Yes, I can do that. (After a small pause). Mary, I've noticed lately you've been pointing out a lot of things I'm NOT doing. Sometimes I feel frustrated because I wonder if you see the things I actually DO. I know I have a hard time remembering to clean my socks up. But I actually do a lot of other things. I think my mind has just been distracted with work lately. 

Mary: Henry, I am so glad you told me that. I don't mean to sound like I'm picking every little thing out. I know I can be such a perfectionist sometimes. I do appreciate the things you do. I will try to point those out as well. Do you think you could TRY to work on picking up your socks though? 

Henry: I will definitely try. 

I know you probably think this is unrealistic but I'm telling you, I've seen it happen! Couples literally have these conversations with each other. It stays on the socks, potentially other things come up too, and they have a healthy conversation about it. But it all starts with getting an awareness of shame, what it is, and how it effects you personally. Then you can check yourself when it pops up. 

Tomorrow Joleen will talk more about shame and also give some great resources. Thank you for tuning in. 

Natalie Chandler, MA, LMHC LCAC is a therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. Natalie enjoys doing marriage counseling, individual counseling, and couples counseling.  Her areas of expertise include infidelity recovery, faith-based counseling, anxiety and depression, as well as addictions counseling. We also specialize in family counseling, child counseling, and adolescent counseling. Imagine Hope serves the Indianapolis area including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Westfield, and Zionsville