As we have learned this week, shame issues take many forms in relationships and can have very damaging effects on a relationship. Many couples who come in our office initially think they are struggling with communication issues surrounding a particular area of their life (e.g., domestic support, finances, parenting, intimacy), but once we dive into the way they are communicating, we find that it has less to do with the content of their conflict and more to do with the way they communicate, if the communication is filled with shame.
Attacking the person vs. the behavior: Criticism
Shame has an extremely negative impact on a relationship when it comes out in the form of criticism. Let's say that my spouse repeatedly forgets to do something I am asking him to do. How I bring up this issue with him is as important as the content of the issue itself. When we tell our significant other what is bothering us, we have two options:
1. Attack their character or tell them what is wrong with them as a person, which is SHAMING them (not recommended!). Using the above example, this would sound like "Oh my gosh, do you ever think of anyone but yourself? You can remember to do everything for everyone else but me! I don't know how you can be such an ungrateful and uncaring person!". How did it feel when you read this statement? It's hurtful! Criticism of a person is damaging to their very core. And it doesn't truly get you heard. Unless your goal isn't to be heard, but to beat down your significant other and make them feel ashamed of who they are.
2. Present our struggle as a complaint about their behavior, and owning our own feelings. Using the above example, a complaint would sound like "When I ask you to do something and you repeatedly forget, I feel unimportant, alone and hurt. I need you to please find a way to start remembering the things I ask you to do, because I'm finding myself distancing from you and I don't like how that feels". A complaint is about the BEHAVIOR and how we feel about the behavior. Not about the other person's character, or our own interpretation about their character based on what they did (or didn't) do. You don't have to shame another person in order to be heard.
The first one will almost always (yes, always!) result in the other person feeling beaten down, defensive and cornered. It will also result in the message NOT getting across, because they will not focus on the real issue, but rather the need to defend their character. Attacking a person's character or "person" is hurtful, and it prevents intimacy and trust from growing in a relationship. After all, why would your significant other ever want to open their heart up to someone who repeatedly tells them how awful they are?
The second option of presenting our struggle as a complaint about the behavior is part of learning how to be direct and transparent in how we feel in our closest relationships.
Are you shaming your significant other? A good thing to do, in opening up dialogue about your relationship, might be to ask them if they feel as though you bring things to them in the form of a complaint, or a criticism of them as a person. Sometimes we think we are sharing how we feel, but the reality is that we are telling them how they are bad and wrong.
For further reading on shame and it's impact on relationships, we highly recommend Brenee Brown's books. All of them are amazing, but especially "Daring Greatly" and "The Gift of Imperfection".
Joleen Watson, MS, LMFTA, NCC, is a therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. She enjoys doing marriage counseling, relationship counseling,couples counseling, and individual counseling. Imagine Hope also specializes in family, child and adolescent counseling and serves Indianapolis area including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Westfield, and Fishers.