Shame: The Silent Relationship Killer
Is shame at the root of your relationship problems?
In most discussions of the common relationship killers, the usual suspects are named: infidelity, finances, addiction, abuse, changes in external demands, or a growing distance between the partners. Yet, there is a silent relationship killer that often lurks underneath those commonly listed reasons and is a contributing factors to many reasons cited for a relationship’s demise. A condition that affects many, yet is rarely recognized and even more infrequently discussed.
Shame is poorly understood; it is often seen as interchangeable with embarrassment. Yet they’re not the same. You’re embarrassed when your zipper fails and you have to resort to staples to get through the day without an inadvertent indecent exposure charge. You’re ashamed when you live and work alongside financially secure people and you’re wearing pilled and tired attire because you cannot afford new clothes. In the first case, the problem is with the item of clothing. In the second scenario, the clothes are only the surface. The real issue is deeper, perhaps a feeling of being unworthy and inferior.
Shame tells you that you are not enough.
Shame is a hidden condition. It hides behind happy faces and lives inside enviable homes. It’s often ignored. Frequently misdiagnosed. And almost always malignant, spreading its blight throughout.
The causes of shame are variable and are often embedded in childhood where the message was either explicitly received or inadvertently assumed. The child that feels unwanted can become an adult burdened by shame. Children who are raised around addiction often assume the blame for the disease. Those that face unending criticism or unachievable goals may continue to feel “less than.”
Shame strips you of your power. It makes you feel small and vulnerable.
Shame is toxic to relationships. It encourages secret-keeping by insinuating that if revealed, the person will no longer be loved or even accepted. Shame creates distance between the partners as one feels unseen and the other feels excluded. Shame becomes the elephant in the room, unspoken of yet so big that it has its own gravitational pull. Shame says, “You’re not okay. And if people discover that truth, you’ll be discarded.”
Shame wants to be hidden because exposure removes its leverage.
Holding on to hidden shame is ultimately a losing battle. It grows like dough set out to rise, stubbornly overflowing its barriers. It manifests in unhealthy behaviors, everything from overeating to toxic masculinity.
And many of those unhealthy behaviors are potentially relationship-destroying.
Shame and Infidelity
The causes of infidelity are myriad and complex. And shame is a companion to many of those justifications. When someone is feeling shamed, they may be tempted to exert their power wherever they can. It’s a childlike, “I’ll show you,” reaction that can have disastrous consequences. When feeling less than, any attention from somebody who is “forbidden” will be especially attractive, especially if the shame is anchored in ideas around sex (think about the common Madonna/whore complex).
Shame and Money
When a child first realizes that their family does not have the same means as the others, it becomes a shameful secret to keep hidden. No matter how much material success is found in adulthood, that early lesson may remain tucked away. For others, this shame begins when a job is lost or when illness steals away the ability to earn. Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on earning power (especially for men), leaving those on the lower end of the spectrum feeling as though they are inferior.
Shame and Addiction
This is such a complicated relationship. If addiction is in the family of origin, shame was a constant companion from the beginning. many people try to silence their shame through the use of substances and then the addiction in turn feeds the feelings of shame. Notice that the first step in any twelve step program is braving the influence of the shame and being willing to admit to having a problem.
Shame and Abuse
In the typical abuse cycle, the frustration and discontent builds until there is an eruption of fists or angry words. Then, a feeling of shame and regret prompts the abuser to attempt to make amends. Until the energy builds again and the cycle is repeated. The abused also may feel ashamed, believing that they deserved the mistreatment (hint: they don’t).
Shame and Distance
It’s impossible to be truly close to someone who is secretly battling shame. They have walled off a huge part of their history and their psyche. They are afraid of letting you in, of letting you see. So instead, they play a role and pretend to be the person they wish they were. And the most unfortunate and unfair part? You will likely be accused of not understanding them even though you have repeatedly tried.
Shame does not have to be a permanent condition.
In fact, the remedy for shame is actually pretty simple (although far from easy) – talk about it.
Shame tells you that you’re the only one. Talking about it provides the opportunity for you to hear, “Me too.”
Shame tells you that you will be rejected. Supportive comments and reactions allow for you to be seen and accepted.
Shame tells you that you have to carry the burden alone. Sharing it means that the load is dispersed.
Shame tells you that you’re broken.
Revealing the cracks lets the healing light in.
Are you struggling with moving on? Life at the Intersection of Yesterday and Tomorrow is for you.