Shame and the couple

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the sense of shame in our personal lives. I want to add a bit more to that by following through into considering shame in the relationship between partners. In the first post on shame, I described it as an indigestible and uncontainable emotion. Much like panic, deep shame is something which can flood us completely, causing us to behave in ways which don’t feel chosen but are more compelled. Shame is something which, because we find it so difficult to think about and talk about, we end up acting out, often in our most intimate relationships. In this post I want to think about how shame can manifest in relationships, paying attention to some of the difficulties it can cause for couples.

Just to refresh your memory, I spoke in the previous post about the difference between healthy shame and toxic shame. Healthy shame is the manageable one. It’s an ally in that it helps us keep ourselves on our personal ethical straight and narrow. It is the emotion of remorse or sorrow which can influence us in positive ways, like for example inspiring a feeling of empathy and care for the person or people whom we feel we’ve hurt. Toxic shame is the less manageable feeling. It causes such discomfort in us that we do our level best to hide from it, deny it, and fabricate a version of ourselves in which our personal shame does not exist. Whether or not the shame we experience relates to something we actually did, or perceive ourselves to have done, doesn’t really matter as far as toxic shame is concerned. It can exist in us whether or not we have actually done something wrong. It is, on the one hand, a deep and terrible internal condemnation of ourselves that is disproportionate to our actions. It is also a feeling which we have inside ourselves that is something like self-hatred, profound inadequacy, or a sense of badness which we don’t understand, and which feels like it’s been around for as long we have. Most often toxic shame is an unconscious experience, which breaks through to the surface in the form of extremely painful feelings, disruptive behaviours, or breakdowns in our relationships. This kind of surfacing of shame is often so confusing to us that we don’t even know that it’s actually all about shame. That’s just how complex the sense of shame can be. Even the strongest of relationships can come undone under the pressure of toxic shame, and it takes a lot of hard work, careful attention, and patient conversation to work through this.

Let’s think about what shame looks like in our primary relationship in adulthood. As a largely unconscious emotion, toxic shame is most often a sense of internal discomfort which has a confusing effect on thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Making unconscious shame conscious is a large part of the focus of some psychotherapy processes. But first to identify the shame. In our relationships shame surfaces through our strategies of defense. The ways in which we defend against shame internally will be lived out in a parallel way in our relationships. So, if I defend against shame by avoiding any hint of it, denying the possibility of the feeling, and banishing it from my mind, this kind of internal distance could surface as a distance in the relationship. In a sense, the less we are able to have an open, honest and intimate relationship with ourselves, the less likely it is that we could have such a relationship with our partners. When we defend in this way, by keeping our own minds closed off from the parts of us which evoke shame, we find that we don’t allow others to access us. We keep ourselves kind of unknowable, holding others at bay by being withdrawn, highly and sometimes selfishly involved in our own preoccupations, rejecting empathic embrace, and becoming coldly angry when we feel that our partner is trying to invade our privacy by being too curious about us.

One way in which we defend against shame, which affects our relationships, is through sticking rigidly to a particular self-perception. The function of this is to limit our own freedom to think about ourselves with curiosity, which serves us by ceiling us off from those thoughts which might evoke shame. This is called a manic defense. An example of this would be to over-identify with some or other activity or pastime, to the point of perfectionism that goes far beyond pleasure. We can become obsessively invested in work, sport, being a parent, and focus on this to the exclusion of other parts of ourselves which are perhaps more confusing or threatening to us. Our partnerships are often one of the spaces which suffer as a result of this, because it is in our closest partnerships that we are most likely to be seen inside and out, and this can be a very scary experience when we are suffering with intense conscious and unconscious shame. In this type of defensive strategy, we can become highly protective of our identities, maintaining an impression of ourselves which is highly resistant to input by others. We may respond furiously or in an enraged manner to criticisms actual or perceived, feeling that our striving towards excellence should be affirmed, rather than our omissions pointed out. I use the word ‘furiously’ and ‘enraged’ here, because the emotions which we feel when our shame is elicited are often powerful, given how catastrophic it is for us when we feel too exposed. In being highly protective of ourselves, we resist the thoughts which those closest to us might have about our behaviour, and about their interpretations of our feelings. We become defensively closed off in a way that is different to withdrawal, but amounts to the same thing in terms of distance in the relationship.

I believe that one of the most important and painful impacts which shame can have for us is the effects which it has on our capacity to receive and give care. In a state of shame, and most particularly in the case of toxic shame, we can be heavily resistant to offerings of care, contriving a variety of ways for rejecting the other who might be trying their best. This can be a highly confusing situation, because, given that toxic shame is most often unconscious, we don’t know why we are rejecting the care of the other, and we may not even know consciously that we are doing this. At a point down the line, after having unconsciously rejected the care of others due to our unconscious shame, we suddenly realize that we feel neglected, and blame our closest person for this. Messed up, no? But so common, and a process which each and every one of us is susceptible to in our efforts to manage our shame through defensive measures. The work of couples therapy often gets under way when couples find themselves feeling a mutual sense of neglect. I have met many couples who describe this experience in the beginning of their process. It is often with the uncovering of shame and its place in the couple that we come to understand that the problem actually has very little to be with either person being actively neglectful, but rather with the dynamic of rejection and feeling-rejected which unfolds in the course of a couple’s management of shame in one or both partners.

When I begin working with a couple I have a particular routine for the first three sessions. First, I meet the couple and hand the space over to them, to tell me in their own words what’s happening for each of them. After this session, during which I do very little but ask questions and listen, I schedule two more sessions. Each of these sessions is devoted to one member of the couple, and is focused in learning as much as I can about their personal history. During each of these sessions, the partner who isn’t telling me about their life is in the room, just sitting and listening. This provides an experience of witnessing, which some couples find quite useful. It also provides an opportunity in which both partners can experience the other’s story of personal development through the filtering provided by my questions. I aim in these sessions to learn, amongst other things, about each person’s history, paying careful attention to those points in history which have caused lifelong struggle. Shame can form a central part of this, as we seek out those aspects of a person’s life which made them feel good and bad, powerful and week, brave and frightened. The points of pain, which are associated with that person’s particular defensive structure, can surface, providing both with new insights about the individual telling me their story. This routine in the beginning sets the tone for deep self-reflection, which couples often take forward, and can provide initial insights which see the therapy through. I am walking you through this process because it is an important part of the structure of the therapy which helps to uncover sources of shame. The usefulness of this is largely in terms of its capacity to build empathy between the two people in the couple. Some couples actually know very little about one another’s points of pain associated with shame, as it is precisely this pain which we defend against most rigorously. If we can start to think about the other’s shame in a more sympathetic and empathic way, and trust that they will extend us the same grace, this can help us form a clearer and more realistic impression in our own minds of the reasons why the person we love relates to the world in the way that they do. Shame is a powerful motivator, and often an unconscious one, meaning that it can have a very confusing effect on how we behave in our intimate relationships.

The experience of addressing our shame in a conscious way, with our partners present, can have the effect of humanizing the shame. This for me is the ultimate aim of working with a person’s shame; to translate it from something inside us which we hate, to something which constitutes our humanity. When this takes place in a couples therapy it can have a powerful, in moving the couple away from mutual blaming, towards mutual care and sensitivity.

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