Shame Wreaks Havoc on Marital Communications
By: Javan
February 21, 2014

This week’s  blog addresses how shame causes misunderstandings and communication issues between people.  It’s easy to explain how this happens in marriages. Bob and Louise are looking forward to a nice evening out together, but suddenly feel uncomfortable and irritated with one another. What happened? Someone said something that didn’t sit well with their spouse. Now the upset spouse is pulling away and feeling hurt. Louise said something but didn’t intend for Bob to feel hurt, but that’s how he feels. He is feeling shamed.

So what is going on with our couple? Bob and Louise are experiencing many things but I’ll focus on the shame portion for this example. Bob felt taken aback by Louise’s snap comment, “Excuse me, were you listening???” Bob suddenly feels defensive and shocked. “I don’t appreciate that,” he says. “Why are you being so rude??”

Bob felt like he had done something wrong, could no longer invest in the experience, and this weighed on him for the rest of the weekend. Although he didn’t bring it up and tried to enjoy himself the rest of the weekend, this incident, like many others, got put back on the shelf of resentment towards his wife. Meanwhile, Louise has no idea what is going on, but feels like she’s not connecting with Bob. She has no idea why or what. She remains lost, not bringing up the issue, just moving along with her weekend just like Bob.

Eventually, they come to discuss this with their therapist. Bob shared his hurt. His spouse was surprised, so she explained her position. The explanation didn’t make Bob feel any better, because he still believed Louise had acted inappropriately and disrespectfully. No matter what Louise said, Bob stuck to his interpretation of his wife’s behavior. What Bob didn’t know or wasn’t connected to, was his internal experience about her comment. There was more going in inside Bob than just the idea that he felt disrespected.

He later shared that he felt he had done something wrong, like he was in trouble. He also shared he felt defensive. This is what shame looks like from the inside out. Focusing on Louise’s behavior is secondary to Bob’s reaction. How Bob felt comes from Bob, not from Louise. Bob is having the shaming experience of “being in trouble”, “doing something wrong”, “feeling defensive”, so Louise wouldn’t be able to stop that process in Bob. Why not? Because that’s not what she meant!

Louise shared that she suddenly noticed Bob turning around to talk to someone else while she and Bob were in the middle of a conversation. Louise felt frustrated and out of frustration said, “Excuse me, were you listening?”  She clearly knew she had a tone, but had no intention of disrespecting Bob or telling him he was in trouble. She had a need. A healthy need to remain connected intimately in the conversation they had started together. Now, she may have handled her request with a more Imago approach, so that Bob might have been able to hear her need. But that doesn’t diminish the exercise Bob needs to go through to understand that he has shame issues. When Bob focuses on his shame issues, he loses the ability to meet Louise’s needs, which are important to him because he loves her. The conversation that began is now incomplete and both are lost as to what happened and why.

Shame issues start in childhood. How you experienced critical parenting, critical modeling of a marriage, or critical parenting of a sibling, influences what you think about “being in trouble”, “not being good enough”, “that’s not ok”….any version of one person in the family being shaming of another or even of themselves. In my professional experience, growing up with a parent who has image issues and low self-esteem is passed onto their children and shame can also develop. Bob grew up with an extremely critical father. His past experiences with his father influenced how he interprets certain physical gestures and words that come from Louise when she is upset. As an adult he can learn that Louise is not like his father, but just felt a bit of irritation, but still loved Bob in that moment.

Shame played an important role in my fictitious couple’s interaction. They both became defensive and revealed their inner processes that explained why they were blocked. Once shame could be identified and Bob could work through the childhood and life experiences that lead him to feel this way, he could see how Louise was actually asking for something healthy. He could then become less defensive and reactive, not pull away, and ask some clarifying questions to help him understand what she needed or meant. Most importantly, they both learned a new way to trust one another even when they could trigger each other’s pain. That’s a real relationship!