A Peaceful Life’s Blog

Why Couples Fight About Money — and How You Can Learn to Stop Arguing

why couples fight about money

Why couples fight about money often has deep roots in each person’s core beliefs that extend far beneath the dollars and cents of  finances and budgets.

The problem, however, is pervasive: Studies have shown that one-third of couples report money is a major source of conflict — and that arguments over money tend to be more intense and less likely to be resolved.

We’re going to help you understand those deeper beliefs of which you or your partner might not be aware. As we bring those to the surface, you’ll gain new insight into your money arguments. Then, we’ll offer suggestions on how to use that greater understanding to reduce or end conflicts about finances.

It’s Not Just About the Money!

John Gottman, Ph.D., the well-known author and developer of the Gottman counseling method, points out: “Arguments about money aren’t about money. They are about our dreams, our fears and our inadequacies.”

We said we were going deeper, right? Money in many ways defines who we are: how we dress, the social groups we join, the careers we choose, where we live, what we eat.

“Out of all the forces that determine our relationship with money, the most influential is our personal history — the melting pot of our childhood, teenage and adult experiences that have sculpted and re-sculpted our likes and dislikes about money throughout our lives,” Dr. Gottman explains.

Things to consider include:

  • As a child, was money challenging for your family? Did your parents struggle to pay bills, rent and to buy food?
  • On the other hand, was money plentiful in your family, but for your partner, the picture was far different?
  • How did you look upon other kids who had more than you when you were young?
  • Did your parents argue about money? Did a parent have a problem with gambling, spending too much or spending to keep up with their social group?

Research shows we do “inherit” or learn attitudes, values and beliefs about money from our parents and other family members.

Yet — and here’s the tricky part — we may not even be aware of our beliefs about spending and saving and why couples fight about money.

A Save vs. Spend Scenario

Bruce and Jerry found themselves frequently arguing about Jerry’s spending. Since combining their households, every part of their relationship was great — except the issues surrounding money. And, that “great” relationship was being negatively impacted because of increasingly frequent arguments.

Bruce was fearful of spending money. Jerry much less so. Bruce feared debt; Jerry felt some debt was just fine. As with many couples, they’d never discussed finances to any degree earlier in their relationship. After all, they both had good jobs and, now in their late 30s, enjoyed promising careers.

Yet, the tensions grew.

Jack and Jillian, on the other hand, had no longer argued about money — because they had become so frustrated because their attempts at discussions never ended in  any resolution. Yet the tension between them was eroding trust and confidence. Jillian had been labeled the “spender” by Jack, and he became accused of being the “cheapskate.”

Their negative cycle of arguing had been emotionally charged, indeed. Nothing was ever resolved, understood or changed. They felt stuck.

We’ll return to these couples, but first let’s focus on the true, deeper meanings that lie beneath why couples fight about money and finances.

The Meaning of Money — and How Differences Can Help You Understand Why Couples Fight About Money

Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their book, “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies,” cite four different ways partners in a relationship may look at money:

  • Security. We feel secure in our lives when we have stable finances.
  • Pleasure. Money is a source of the good life — we can buy nice things, be generous in giving to others and, it seems, buy some level of happiness.
  • Control. When we’re financially secure, we may feel we have more options and choices in life — where we live, work, send our kids to school.
  • Status. Money shows we’re successful.

But at the root of these differences and beliefs, can lie a major gap in how partners feel and the deepest root is often fear. These deeper fears that can contribute to why couples fight about money include  worry about becoming more disconnected from each other when both partners don’t share the same values related to money. Trust concerns can emerge when financial decision-making isn’t shared before expenditures are made.

Let’s Return to Our Two Couples

Bruce began to explore his fears related to money. He realized his concerns were heightened following the 2008 financial crisis when he’d lost his job in a major downsizing. He vividly remembers, like so many of his peers, when he was told his job was ending and then carrying out his box of personal belongings.

Jillian admits she likes to spend money. She grew up never feeling secure because of times when her parents struggled with housing and even having enough food. When she began her career, she enjoyed the new freedom of being able to buy things she both needed and wanted. Jack had a similar background but felt differently: He adamantly felt having a nest egg of savings was tantamount.

As couples explore the deeper meanings of money and learn more about why couples fight about money, they can bring to the surface those seemingly hidden emotions. This new understanding of self and partner can help them bridge the gaps in their differing beliefs.

“Oh, now I understand!” “So, that’s why you didn’t want to help me plan our vacations!” “I can now see why the bill for the new air conditioner really sparked a lot of fear.”

Why Couples Fight About Money: Learning to Defeat the Conflict

Healthy conversations about money are critical to learning how to handle finances together.

Financial experts suggest that before couples move in together, they ask each other:

  • Who will pay for which expenses in the household?
  • How will we handle unexpected bills, such as major house repairs?
  • How much debt do you have? How are you managing that debt?
  • What’s your credit score?
  • What will happen if one of us loses our income (job loss, illness., etc.)?
  • What are your beliefs about kids and money — allowances, school tuition, helping adult children?

Yes, these can be difficult questions to ask, and many couples will shy away from being this direct. However, learning to talk about money openly, frankly and calmly in the earlier stages can make reaching resolution to differences easier later on.

If a couple has been arguing about money, beginning the conversations about finances can be much more difficult. The chance to be emotionally triggered can be greater because of the negative cycles of arguing that developed in the past.

Moving Toward a New Understanding

We suggest setting aside time for these conversations that are without distractions and when children are not present. Plan on a series of conversations so you don’t become over-tired or too stressed. For guidance on having these discussions, read [link to Emotional Communication blog].

If the conversation becomes heated, slow down; take a short break if necessary.

And, we suggest starting off with the possibly easier questions of gaining a greater understanding of each other’s beliefs about money, such as:

  • What did you learn about money growing up in your family?
  • Were there times of financial difficulties? Was there great abundance of money?
  • How were these experiences different from those of your partner?
  • Were there any events growing up that were challenging around money — or other events, such as an illness, job loss, financial losses?

Then, you can try to get to some “present day” issues, which could include:

  • What deeper meaning does money have for you? Look at the information above: How do you each see money in terms of security, pleasure, control and status? Keep in mind there is no “right” or “wrong.” Try to avoid judging each other; rather, seek to understand what shapes your beliefs.
  • What makes each of you uncomfortable about money? What are your fears?
  • What are your values concerning teaching kids about money?

Your conversations may wander a bit and lead to tangents. However, good information may lie in the various stories you each recall about your “money history.”

Going Forward

Areas of difficulty for couples can include when one partner makes a financial decision without consulting the other; not developing a shared understanding of a budget; lack of clarity about who will handle the tasks of paying bills and financial decisions; and how to manage debt.

Consulting a qualified financial planner may also be helpful. That way, you’re getting professional advice that can help pave the way toward a healthier financial life.

Turning to Each Other

The arguments over money may have become a very dividing force between you. However, couples can learn to rely on each other when finances get tough.

If you’ve been able to bring to the surface your deeper (and possibly hidden from your awareness) beliefs and concerns related to money, you can use this new knowledge to actually strengthen your connection, such as:

  • Providing comfort and reassurance when your partner is distressed about finances
  • Problem-solve together to thoughtfully work out solutions. You were “islands” in the past; you can now work as a team.

Repairing Broken Trust

When couples fight about money, issues of trust may have occurred, including when:

  • One partner made a purchase decision without consulting the other
  • The amount of debt incurred was hidden or not disclosed
  • Bills didn’t get paid or paid on time
  • Finances were always kept separate when one partner preferred them combined and the other partner was hesitant

As noted earlier, issues about why couples fight about money often involve varied emotions. And, when couples fight about money, there often is an erosion of trust and confidence in the security of the relationship.

Therefore, some healing may be needed. You can read about how to gain some understanding about the impact of shame and find some general guidelines on communication.

How to Apologize in Relationships

How to Apologize in Relationships

Couples often are struggling with how to apologize in relationships. Because of our very nature has human beings, we are all imperfect. We can be forgetful, insensitive, distracted, tired or cranky.

It is impossible (yes, impossible!) to not occasionally hurt our partner’s feelings. Something we said, didn’t say, did or didn’t do. . . missteps that, even without intent, can be hurtful and cause emotional distress.

However, when it comes to apologizing, we hear quite often that couples are challenged by how to apologize in relationships, how to be genuine and how to effectively address their partner’s needs.

In this post, we’re exploring why apologies often fail to hit the mark and then, of course, how to apologize in relationships with meaning and empathy. We’ll discuss how apologies can strengthen your bond and reconnection by maintaining and enhancing trust. And, we’ll help you deepen your understanding and appreciation of each other’s emotional needs to feel securely loved.

When Apologies Fail

Apologies rarely are helpful — and can even at times be more hurtful — when:

  • An apology is given only to appease the other partner’s anger and disappointment
  • The apology is an attempt to move on and put the issue behind you without acknowledging the pain the hurt partner is feeling
  • Automatic and almost rote when a more serious issue needs to be addressed

To be successful, an apology must recognize and not minimize the hurt feelings the partner is experiencing.

A major stumbling block in how to apologize in relationships can occur when the offending partner does not see the hurt partner’s painful feelings as justified or valid.

A natural (but not helpful!) reaction by the offending partner to the situation can include:

  • “I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal!”
  • “You’re too emotional about this.”
  • “You know I didn’t mean it.”

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Apologies matter most between spouses and partners — and to a far greater degree than with others in our lives. The emotional and physical bond we share with our beloved is a powerful force. So, when something hurtful or forgotten occurs, the hurt feelings are far more significant than with anyone else.

It’s not unusual for the offending partner to feel at a loss about how to apologize and this, in turn, can lead to unintentionally minimizing or dismissing the partner’s feelings.

With our partner, we have a basic need to be heard and understood. We desire to be appreciated for our uniqueness and for our span of normal human emotions. We have a strong need to preserve that bond and know that we are secure in our partner’s hearts.

Therefore, we need to know that our feelings matter. We need our partner to validate our needs for connection, trust and acceptance.

We very much need to know that our partner is on our side. So, when something hurtful occurs, we need to know that our partner will seek to repair the situation. An apology takes on a much greater meaning because of that strong bond.

How to Apologize in Relationships: The Key Elements

In Emotionally Focused Therapy, the most-successful and most-researched approach to helping couples in distress, there are clear guidelines for healing hurtful events. These steps have been proven, through studies and research, to be effective in how to apologize to a partner.

1. The hurt partner is able to discuss the impact of the event and his or her deeper feelings. This can be challenging because it can be difficult to be calm and to avoid anger. There can be a fear that the other person won’t understand or that the hurtful event will never be healed.

2. The offending partner works hard to decrease defensiveness and to avoid interrupting — which is often a sign of being defensive. As both partners are able to calmly discuss the event, the offending partner can begin to understand the significance of the event in his or her partner’s mind (even if the action did not feel so big or important to the offending partner).

3. When the hurt partner can speak of the pain and the other partner hears the feelings, the door is open for the injured partner to speak more deeply of the hurt. The importance of the bond is often part of the hurt partner’s explanation.

4. The injuring partner becomes more aware and is having a “felt sense” of the partner’s pain. He or she is emotionally connecting with the partner’s concerns and level of feelings about the event. At this point, the injuring partner is able to take responsibility for what happened and express regret and remorse with true empathy

5. The injured partner is able to accept comfort and reassurance, feeling that the partner “gets it” that the event was hurtful for him or her.

At this point, both partners are more able to respond to each other: One partner accepts that the event was hurtful to the other, and the hurt partner can begin to trust that he or she will be heard and understood.

Jane & John Practice How to Apologize in Relationships

Jane is feeling very hurt that John was not very focused on their 15th anniversary. Granted, Jane was the one who usually planned the dinner or weekend away. She was typically more tuned in to special occasions.

But this year, John was more distracted than usual because of changes at his job. His company was forecasting another “reorganization,” which was usually upsetting to all the staff because there were many unknown possibilities that could impact his work and his sense of job security.

Feeling that the number “15” was an important milestone, Jane planned an overnight at a local resort and some spa time for both of them. But John was on his phone to colleagues and he even bought his laptop. Jane felt a slow burn as the weekend progressed, feeling unimportant and sad that John could not focus on her and on being close.

Jane held back speaking up because she did not want to cause an argument — and she kept hoping John would respond to her hints that he set work aside for just those two special days together.

Not surprisingly, on the drive home, Jane could no longer contain her feelings. She was angry, and she became very emotional about how hurt she felt. John defended his position. He hoped she would understand how worried he was about work. Both felt distant and they tabled the discussion when they got home so they could spend time with their children.

As the days moved forward, each hoped for the other to gain some understanding and apologize. However, the subject of the weekend became a “hot potato” of shorts, each doing a pretty good job of avoiding any discussion of their disappointment.

Lingering Feelings Are Still as Painful

Jane grew frustrated that her feelings weren’t being acknowledged. She told John they really needed to talk.

They were able to use the above guidelines, which they had practiced before in couples therapy. While they had a roadmap for the discussion, they both felt a degree of apprehension. So, John took the initiative: “I know it’s hard for us sometimes to discuss problems. However, I realize we need to set this behind us.”

John’s acknowledgment of Jane’s need to talk helped her relax, knowing she would be heard and that John was willing to understand her deeper feelings. They knew how to apologize in relationships — and they needed to have that conversation.

The discussion took some time — and considerable patience. However, they slowed down their reactions to each other and worked at focusing on what each other was saying. They were able to agree that had Jane spoken up earlier, it might have helped John realize how distracted he was. John was able to recognize how he was distant and how important the weekend was to Jane.

Each was able to apologize with sincerity. The couple was able to turn a hurtful time into a bonding event — when they shared deeper feelings and their need for understanding and support.

Bigger Events May Be More Challenging to Heal

The most challenging dilemma for most couples is navigating affair recovery. You can learn more here [link to blog]. To learn more about Emotionally Focused Therapy, read [link to cornerstone page.]

To understand more about communication in relationships, read our article on relationship communication here.

If you are reeling from an emotional affair and need help moving on, read our article on the subject here.

Attachment Styles: Unlocking the Keys to Loving Well

attachment styles

Attachment styles have moved into more discussions and writing about relationships over the past few years. And for good reason: Understanding your own and your partner’s style can forge a new bridge to a deeper awareness of your differences. Most importantly, this new awareness opens the door to greater compassion — and then closeness.

There’s science here, too, that supports the growing use of attachment styles in helping couples better navigate the challenging times in their relationships.

In this post, we’ll address the basics of the science of attachment, how couples can struggle with different attachment styles and how couples can increase the depth of their connection by heightening their awareness of how attachment impacts their relationship.

Attachment Styles in Action: Familiar Scenarios

Diane is enjoying a girls’ night out at a local club. Dave is home playing board games with their kids. Both are relaxed, having fun. Dave is not worried about Diane, not anxious about when she’ll be home.

At a party, John is talking with a woman who is the date of a colleague. His wife Jane notices, and she’s becoming more angry and wishes he would come be with her. And, why is he spending time with this other woman?

Ann wants Andy to open up about issues at his job; Andy, though, prefers to leave problems at the office and deal with them as needed. Ann feels closer when they talk; Andy can be uncomfortable discussing emotions.

Each example demonstrates a different style of attachment. Without understanding attachment styles, couples can struggle to connect and feel close, fall into arguments frequently and even have different parenting beliefs they struggle to understand.

So, what exactly is attachment? And what are its origins for us as individuals?

Attachment: The Science, Briefly

We learn to love and be loved in our earliest years. As infants and young children, we are entirely dependent on our parents to feed us, keep us safe and to help us feel secure.

Our young brains are learning whether or not we can count on our caregivers to be there when we need them, to offer comfort and to help us experience joy that comes from connection with those important to us.  Children look to their caregivers for applause and encouragement when we take our first steps, to encourage us when we go out into the world on those early days of school and when we need reassurance to try something new.

Our early experiences are unique — and they begin to influence our brain development and how we will connect and bond with others as we grow. And, these early experiences of relying on others can set the stage for how successful we are in our adult romantic relationships.

Keep in mind, however, we are not intending to blame parents for misguidance. Parents themselves are influenced by their own family of origin, their culture, the era and times and stress they may be encountering.

As we mature, adult attachment is the bond formed when we fall in love. Attachment includes:

  • Seeking and maintaining emotional and physical connection with our beloved.
  • Reaching for this one special person for comfort during times of stress, offering us a safe haven from the challenges of daily life.
  • We miss our beloved when we are apart, and separation can bring forth intense emotions.
  • We depend on our loved one to support us emotionally, and it is this closeness that gives us confidence and courage to venture out into the world as individuals.

Benefitting from this New Understanding

Understanding our own ways of attachment and how we connect with others is important learning. And, we can, as adults, make changes to become more secure in our attachment styles.

The science of attachment was at first resisted — as often occurs with any new discovery. However, over the years, science has been better able to understand the roots of attachment. Today, we can actually see on brain images the impact of attachment when people receive comfort from their partner.

The source of our attachment styles can reach beyond childhood. We also find that experiences in previous romantic relationships can influence attachment feelings in the current one. If you had troubled, perhaps abusive, adult relationships, your attachment style now may reflect those traumas. Or, when a previous partner had an affair, you may be particularly anxious or cautious in subsequent relationships.

Understanding the Three Main Attachment Styles

Let’s take another look at our three couples mentioned above.

Diane and Dave have secure attachment styles, which include:

  • They are comfortable depending on each other
  • They assume their partner’s intentions are positive
  • They support each other’s growth and development
  • They don’t worry about abandonment and can easily trust each other

John and Jane may not share the same attachment style. Jane is anxious and she may tend to:

  • Need to be reassured that she is loved
  • Not feel John is as close to her as she needs
  • Be sensitive to any signs of rejection and need to know exactly where she stands in the relationship
  • Persistently call and text and worry if John doesn’t reply promptly when she feels the relationship is in any way insecure.

John, on the other hand, struggles to understand Jane’s worrying. His attachment style is secure, and her persistence can lead to arguments when he becomes frustrated with her needs for reassurance.

Ann and Andy also have different attachment styles. She is anxious when he is quiet and seemingly withdrawn. Andy’s behavior tends to align with the avoidant attachment style and can include:

  • A reluctance to get too close to others
  • A desire to be independent and minimize the need for others for assistance
  • Pulling away when things are going well and not be responsive when his partner wants connection
  • Not making his personal needs known

One of the foundations of Emotionally Focused Therapy is helping each partner understand his or her own attachment style and to be aware of and sensitive to the style of their partner.

It’s also not unusual for a person to have a “mixed” attachment style. These folks can struggle with:

  • Fear of losing their partner but also have difficulty with closeness and intimacy
  • Suppress his or her own needs, which appears as passive or uncaring by the partner
  • Typically includes some attributes of the anxious and avoidant attachment styles

“Aha! Moments” Bring New Understanding

When John and Jane learned in couples counseling about each of their differing attachment styles, their eyes opened to greater insight.

John began to understand and gain new respect for Jane’s jealousy and her fears. Her first boyfriend way back in high school had cheated on her with her best friend. So, alarm bells go off for her when she sees her new husband talking with a woman at a party.

John learned to comfort and reassure Jane, and she learned she no longer has to feel haunted by her past hurts. She also learned in therapy to voice her fears and to let John know when she wanted him to be close.

Indeed, couples can learn and grow by understanding their own and their partner’s attachment styles. Jane, with John’s help, can become more secure in their relationship.

Not Set in Stone: Attachment Styles Can Change, Evolve

Challenging events can cause a change in attachment styles, particularly as the couple struggles to recover from an unusual occurrence in their relationship. For example, discovery of any kind of unfaithfulness by one partner commonly triggers considerable anxiety in the partner. A death of someone in the family may cause an avoidant partner to reach out to the other.

Newer research confirms that couples counseling can create shifts in attachment styles. When the anxious partner is able to express his or her fears, the other partner can begin to respond in ways that can promote security. Avoidant partners can begin to feel more comfortable opening up.

Our brains are capable of change — of growing new habits even in our later years. As we begin to gain new awareness of our attachment styles and the benefits of making even small changes, we can learn to become more secure.

The Core of Attachment

Decades of research have affirmed the role of attachment in couples’ relationships. Dr. Susan Johnson, the principal creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, notes that these many studies “confirm that our need to attach continues beyond childhood and also establish that romantic love is an attachment bond.

“At every age, human beings habitually seek and maintain physical and emotional closeness with at least one particular irreplaceable other. We especially seek out this person when we feel stressed, unsure and anxious. We are just hardwired this way.”

We can see that the need is strong for connection. Where couples can struggle is with the “how.” Gaining greater insight into each partner’s obstacles to the closeness they seek is a first step.

To learn more about Emotionally Focused therapy, read Emotionally Focused Therapy: The Most Effective Approach

Healing Shame as a Couple: A New Path to a Stronger Bond

Healing shame as a couple offers an opportunity to draw each other closer, to bring a new level of empathy and compassion to a marriage or relationship and to create a more secure, loving bond.

Sounds like a tall order, huh? Indeed, perhaps, but a worthwhile journey.

Shame keeps us from truly experiencing deep connection with another person and from fully experiencing joy. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we are less likely to affirm others, to reach out to others or to feel compassion and empathy for ourselves.

However, learning shame resilience allows the joy in. Hence, the worthwhile journey. Here, we’re going to discuss how shame limits connection and the path toward healing shame as a couple.

The Power of Shame

Marie* was very controlled by her partner in her last relationship. Now, in her relationship with Devin, she becomes fearful of any signs he could be asserting control or being manipulative. As a child, her alcoholic father was critical and had very strict rules. Marie easily gets emotionally triggered when Devin makes even small requests — that they work on a budget together or when he tries to plan their vacation by making suggestions.

Alice and Jim have begun a negative pattern of arguing over neatness around the house. Jim gets easily upset with Alice when she leaves things around and when she’s not as tidy as he wants. Alice is frustrated because she thinks she’s accommodating Jim the best she can, yet it’s never quite enough.

The problem is that shame stays hidden, so we’re not fully aware of how shame affects us. Here’s the other part of these stories:

Deep down, Marie hides shame that she was not good enough or attractive enough to be an equal partner in her previous relationship. She also lacks confidence from her at-times chaotic childhood. Devin tries to reassure her, but Marie’s fears often lead to arguments and accusations that Devin is asserting control.

Jim was raised by a critical mother, and neatness was one of the ways he would try to get her approval. Though, no matter how he tried, his mother would find fault.

How Shame in Relationships Limits Connection

We can easily see how hidden shame impacts these couples. Unspoken shame has power; as we’ll soon see. Speaking about and sharing our deeper feelings is the weapon that can diminish that power.

Shame in relationships includes:

  • One partner putting on a facade or front to protect their image with their partner (and with others)
  • Keeping deeper feelings hidden to avoid having the partner or others find out about personal “flaws”
  • Connection can be blocked because of the “mask” we wear to avoid being authentic

Understanding “Shame Resilience”

Noted shame researcher Brene Brown, Ph.D., uses the term “shame resilience” to describe how we can combat feelings of shame. And, she says, resilience begins with developing greater empathy toward ourselves and toward others.

And, yes, we begin with ourselves (though as we discuss soon, our partner can help).

We tend to keep shame hidden — we are ashamed of our shame! And, the hiding of shame is what gives it such power. When we learn to face shame head-on and with empathy, we can begin to deflate its impact. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive,” she writes.

Dr. Brown, in her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (Gotham/Penguin, 2012), she designates four elements of shame resilience:

  • Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers. Learning to recognize when you’re feeling shame and what events evoke these feelings.
  • Practicing critical awareness. Becoming able to see whether messages beneath your shame and expectations are realistic, attainable and what you actually want to be
  • Reaching out. “Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting,” she points out.
  • Speaking shame. Talking about shame and asking for what you need from your partner when shame surfaces.

In counseling, Marie shares her feelings with Devin, as well as her deep fears that she’ll lose the relationship. Now, Devin can make sense of her actions — and he can reassure her that their relationship is secure. She can begin to realize he’s not at all like the manipulator she felt shamed by in her previous relationship.

Also in counseling, Jim reveals his shame that lies beneath his demands of neatness in the home. Alice softens, and now it’s clear to her why their arguments can become so heated. With shame out in the open, they can work together healing shame as a couple with loving acceptance and kindness.

Healing Shame as a Couple Builds Connection

Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the leading developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, points out the problems of keeping shame hidden. “[Brain] scans show that suppression actually heightened activity in the amygdala, ‘fear central’ in the brain.” People become more stressed and tense when we hold back negative emotions.

And, importantly, she notes, “The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them.”

Think back to a time when you shared deep feelings with someone who was able to listen and respond with understanding. You probably felt lighter, a sense of relief. That’s the power of connection and the power of not containing and hiding shame. And, that’s the power of connection and how healing shame as a couple reinforces connection and trust.

Building Self-Compassion

One of the powerhouses of defeating shame is building our personal arsenal to diminish the hold shame can have on us. And, developing self-compassion is a fundamental tool.

A great resource is the work of Kristin Neff, Ph.D., whose work on developing self-compassion is well known.  Dr. Neff writes: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

Self-compassion involves acting with kindness and empathy toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, experience a failure, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. “Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?,” Dr. Neff explains.

Her website, www.self-compassion.org, is rich with information, including a self-test that’s easy and helpful to complete.

Defeating  and Healing Shame Together

Let’s look back at our two couples. Marie and Devin can now stand together as a team to work toward healing shame as a couple and create a new level of empathy. Devin asks Marie to let him know when she’s feeling afraid.

They work at talking through her feelings, and Devin learns what triggers her shame, so he can now approach those “land mines” differently. Marie works hard to accept that her fears were developed in painful past experiences. She accepts that those were very challenging times.

Jim begins to accept his shame as driven from his past. As a couple, they have several healing conversations in which Jim sincerely apologizes for his actions and accusations.

Now that Alice has deeper insight into Jim’s behavior, she is able to forgive. They can become partners in defeating shame and building greater compassion for each other.

These couples made it emotionally safe to explore their inner feelings and the emotions beneath their behaviors. They sought counseling because they were stuck in trying to break the cycles of arguing on their own.

Emotionally Focused Therapy authors and trainers Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies (Wiley, 2013) (yes, there is a “dummies” book for EFT!) suggest:

  • Recognize that shame is often colored by fear — a fear of being vulnerable, of not being fully accepted
  • If your partner becomes defensive, understand that shame is an internal battle with oneself. Your partner’s defensiveness may feel personal, so realize it’s not about you.
  • Show appreciation for the risks your partner is taking to reveal shame and the courage he or she is showing to step into such a painful place with you.
  • Validate your partner’s experience. You don’t need to have gone through his or her pain to understand your partner’s feelings.  Keep in mind that your partner’s emotional landscape may be different than your own. Allow them to be your guide by listening with compassion.

Healing shame as a couple is not easy for many. Yet, breaking through the barriers to connection that are the result of hidden shame can lead to new opportunities for closeness and joy together.

* Names and circumstances have been changed to preserve privacy.

Shame in Relationships: Powerful Forces Can Undermine Connection

Shame in relationships often lies hidden, beneath the awareness of each partner. Yet, shame can have a powerful impact on

each partner and in how they interact with each other, particularly during stressful times.

Shame is defined as believing we are flawed and unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is a belief deep within our daily awareness that we are not valuable, that we are somehow flawed and perhaps not worthy of love and happiness.

Importantly, shame can block our connection in relationships. We are often fearful of sharing our deeper beliefs and fears about shame — and this can keep us distant from our partner.

As we learn about shame and how it affects our lives, we can also learn to change our inner thoughts, our behaviors and reduce how shame can be negatively impacting our relationship with our significant other.

Shame in relationships is so important to identify and work through that we’re devoting two posts to this vital topic: In this article, we’re going to give you a primer on shame and discuss how men and women can experience shame differently. In the second, we’ll help you understand pathways to battle shame and to building empathy and greater understanding of yourself and your partner.

How Shame Limits Happiness

First, shame is different than guilt or embarrassment. We may feel guilt based on something we did. Shame, on the other hand, is feeling bad about ourselves and who we are. Guilt can fade over time; shame stays with us, often beneath our awareness, unless we take actions to defeat this “inner enemy.” Embarrassment is less painful because it tends to be fleeting, and we know similar situations often happen to others.

Noted “shame researcher” Brene Brown, Ph.D., whose books and TED talks have created a greater awareness of shame and its impact on our lives, notes, “Shame is all about fear . . . Shame is about the fear of disconnection. When we experience shame, we are steeped in the fear of being ridiculed, diminished or seen as flawed. We are afraid that we’ve exposed or revealed a part of us that jeopardizes our connection and our worthiness of acceptance.”

Psychologist Richard Lazarus points out that shame can result from a variety of factors, from the family environment of our childhood to cultural messages. We may experience shame as a result of ideals we believe we fail to achieve.

Psychologist Tara Brach says experiences of shame can originate in broader cultural messages that give us a set of very high standards. “We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too dramatic, shy or loud.”

Sources of shame in childhood can include being criticized, bullied, blamed, neglected and not provided with positive nurturing. Shame can be linked to trauma, including physical or sexual abuse. Shame gets a foothold when we don’t feel good enough as ourselves, as who we are. We feel we don’t measure up to others, to expectations or to an ideal desired by others.

Shame and Connection and Belonging

We’ve written quite a bit here on our website about the importance of the emotional and physical connection between partners. Research has validated how having a secure relationship contributes to our overall well-being and the desire humans have for an emotional bond with their partner.

The role of shame and relationships can be rooted in each person’s beliefs about themselves as being lovable. “If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging,” Dr. Brown writes.

If we have areas about which we feel shame, the ability to maintain a healthy relationship — particularly during difficult or stressful times — can be challenging. The need to belong and for connection to a significant other can get confused with the need to please others, to ignore our own needs for the sake of maintaining connection and to be able to ask for our needs to be met by our partner.

Where Shame Leads . . .

A few of the ways we may unintentionally be coping with shame include:

  • Addictions. We numb our feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, work, sex.
  • Perfectionism. We don’t feel good enough, so we are on a treadmill of sorts trying to continually prove ourselves and avoid criticism, judgment or blame.
  • Anxiety. We may feel we would be okay if we were smarter, stronger, better and could handle anything life throws our way.
  • Anger. We may unintentionally blame or criticize others, including our partner, in response to feelings of shame, as a way of protecting our own vulnerability.
  • Depression. We can feel helpless to improve our situation because of our core beliefs about ourselves as not deserving something better.

Shame in relationships can have two origins or roots: Partners may have come into the relationship with some shame related to who they are. Or, shame can result from actions by the partner during the course of the relationship that can include criticism and blame. Unfortunately, in abusive relationships, the person who feels blamed can begin to lose confidence and a sense of emotional security.

Women, Men & Shame

Dr. Brown’s research has yielded some very interesting information on how men and women in America experience shame.

For women, shame is centered around how they look and being “good enough.” Cultural messages to women include:

  • Look perfect. Do perfect. Be perfect. Anything less is shaming.
  • Despite achievements, women may struggle to feel good enough.
  • Shame can result when women can’t “do it all” — at work, at home, as a spouse.
  • Women can feel they are never enough at home, with kids, in bed.
  • As a youth, girls may have felt they were never cool enough.

Men, on the other hand, are triggered by fears of being seen as weak or a failure. Shame for men can occur when they feel:

  • Failure at work, in sports, in marriage, with money, with children
  • Being wrong; not doing it wrong, but being wrong
  • A sense of being defective, being seen as having any weakness or being anything but tough
  • Showing fear
  • As a youth, boys felt criticized or ridiculed

When we look at the broader context in our culture, we can see how shame does, indeed, feel different for men and women. Now, let’s look at how we experience shame in relationships.

Many Forms of Shame in Relationships

Interactions with our partner can trigger long-held and often-hidden shame beliefs. Women can feel insecure in their relationships if they don’t feel pretty or good enough, for example. Men can feel shame in relationships if their role doesn’t live up to cultural standards to be tough, fearless and take-charge.

Both feel pressure to be good sexual partners and good parents.

Julie and Sam* have struggled with arguing the past few years, mostly centered around parenting. During times when their arguments escalated, Julie would be critical of Sam’s limited interactions with their kids. Sam would criticize Julie for being too lenient and for coddling the youngsters.

Can you find the shame? It’s sneaky and often hidden — and each person experiences shame differently and attaches meaning to what is said in very unique ways. Sam feels shame because he works long hours to give the family a good and secure lifestyle. He’s often tired in the evenings, and knows he’s not fulfilling all of Julie’s needs as both husband and father.

Julie strives to be a “perfect” parent (which is, of course, impossible!). However, when Sam says she’s lenient with the kids, she feels an emotional stab of shame that she’s not a successful mother.

Their different shame triggers keep them from being able to calmly talk about how they want to parent as a team and to agree on household rules for the kids.

Here’s another example: Carrie was cheated on by her former partner. She is insecure in her relationship with Gina. Carrie gets upset when Gina doesn’t answer texts, when Gina is out with her friends and, well, just about any time.

Since discovering her previous partner’s infidelity, Carrie has struggled to feel confident and good enough as a desirable partner. Since meeting Gina, she has become insecure and jealous — emotions she never felt before. To make matters more difficult, Carrie feels intense shame about her fears about Gina being faithful. Gina becomes frustrated because it’s so hard to reassure Carrie that their relationship is secure.

Hope for Healing Shame in Relationships

There is, fortunately, good news. We can learn to identify the roots of our feelings of shame, to understand their impact on our relationship and to work toward diminishing that inner voice that tells us we aren’t good enough.

In the next post, we’ll explore what researchers have discovered about healing shame and the role our partner can play in helping us grow and thrive.

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* Names and circumstances have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

Emotional Communication for Couples: Getting to What Truly Matters

Emotional Communication for Couples can be Both Challenging emotional communication for couplesand Perplexing

So we’ve learned about why emotions in relationships matter, and how the habitual ways we get stuck drive a wedge between us. When it comes to actually learning emotional communication for couples, it can feel confusing.

Here’s a quick example of how communication can get off track:

Sarah is upset with Kelly for not remembering what Sarah needed at the store. “You only think of yourself. You don’t care about what’s important to me!”

The degree of Sarah’s anger startles Kelly. After all, she didn’t intentionally forget what Sarah requested.

But the anger about the forgotten item is actually just a “surface emotion.” Deep down, Sarah still feels very hurt because Kelly had texted an old girlfriend. The  issue, while being worked on in counseling, still lingers for Sarah occasionally.

Sarah’s deeper emotions were more than anger: She felt hurt, sadness and a fear of losing the relationship that is so important to her.

In this post, we’ll help you understand how learning to become more aware of those deeper emotions and how speaking from those feelings can radically change and improve couples’ communication. Yes, those are strong words — change and improve — yet that’s what we see in our offices as couples learn this new path to greater understanding and connection.

Emotional Communication: Distinguishing the Two Levels

Surface emotions are ones that you and your partner can see: We can see that our partner is angry, frustrated, withdrawn, critical and blaming.

Deeper emotions, however, show the important feelings that are “pushing” or producing the surface emotions. And, deeper is what matters when we’re trying to truly understand each other, particularly when one partner is upset. Deeper emotions stem from what things mean to us. 

Deeper emotions are compelling and powerful: Sadness that the relationship is going poorly; fear that the relationship is unstable and insecure; hurt from times when you didn’t feel important or that your partner was emotionally unavailable or inattentive when you needed care; grief because of the loving connection that feels lost.

Yet, why are only surface emotions expressed when couples argue?

holiday boundaries for couplesYour Brain in Love: When We’re Upset

When we’re upset, the emotional center of our brain (the amygdala) becomes activated. Our brain goes on a type of high alert when we are upset. We’re naturally sensitive to the outside world — and very sensitive to our partner’s moods.

We form a strong emotional bond when we fall in love. We are profoundly connected to that one special person. When that bond feels threatened in any way, our emotional brain almost instantly reacts. The “fight,” “flight” or “freeze” responses come to the fore. Our partner sees our anger, frustration, silence or our verbal attacks.

Here’s where a lot of damage to relationships can occur: Hurtful things are said, criticisms can be demeaning. The emotional brain’s fire can inflict an emotional wound on the partner. These remarks then can become embedded in the partner’s thoughts and fears and are difficult to let go.

Here’s where emotional communication for couples often falls into a pattern of arguing: One may be angry and press the other to talk; another may want to shut down the argument because the disputes are painful and never lead to resolution. Or, in another pattern, both partners may become defensive — repeatedly stating why their position is “right” and that the partner is “wrong.”

Those patterns, which we call “negative cycles” can, over time, cause great harm to the security of the relationship. Couples find they are walking on eggshells, fearing any upset of the other. There’s less talking, lots of avoiding — all while the hurt feelings continue to linger.

Calming Our Extreme Emotions

Emotional communication for couples is essential for sustaining healthy, loving relationships. However, first couples need to understand how to reach the important emotions — the deeper ones that lie at the heart of our feelings and needs for secure connection.

In Emotionally Focused Therapy, the most-successful approach to helping couples, therapists guide couples to slow down their activated emotional brain and allow their “thinking” brain to come into play.

It is from this more reasonable, calmer place that emotional communication for couples helps partners learn to become aware of their deeper emotions and — most importantly — express them to their partner in a way the partner can understand.

Surface emotions and behaviors when in distress can include:

  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Quiet
  • Blaming, accusatory
  • Defensive
  • Critical
  • Frustration
  • Pushing partner to talk
  • Withdraw from conversation

Deeper emotions when in distress include feeling:

  • Abandoned, alone, isolated
  • Sad, hopeless
  • Like a failure to partner
  • Not good enough, inadequate
  • Hurt
  • Afraid, fearful the relationship is in trouble
  • Guilty
  • Unlovable, shame

Anger can be both a surface and a deeper emotion: We’re upset and angry with our partner because the anger we are feeling deep down (and the issue contributing to that anger) hasn’t been addressed.

To get to our “thinking” brain, we just need to calm our thoughts. Ok, easier said than done! However, taking some deep breaths or taking a short break from the discussion gives your brain time to de-escalate and then switch to the part of your brain that is more logical and able to have a helpful discussion.

It is from this other part of the brain that we can talk about important issues with our partner from a calm place, and which makes a safe space for our partner to be able to thoughtfully respond.

The Different Emotional Communication for Couples

Back to Sarah and Kelly. They’ve realized they’re in the negative cycle and that an important issue has come up. They agree to try to talk things through.

Kelly apologizes for not being thoughtful of Sarah’s request. This calms Sarah, who feels Kelly is not defending and may be open to hearing what she has to say.

Sarah and Kelly have worked on the texting problem in therapy, but at times it still comes to the surface. Sarah takes a moment to go inward and realize the tension she feels in her chest is signaling that she is upset.

“I think it’s taking me a while to get over what happened. It still hurts from time to time. I know it was a big misunderstanding on my part, but it’s taking me a while to trust again. When you didn’t seem to care about my needs, I think I automatically went to that hurtful and scary place. And, because I’ve been hurt in previous relationships, it’s a trigger for me when I don’t feel important to you.”

Sarah’s now-relaxed brain could connect with a deeper emotional wound. She now could calmly share her fears with her partner — opening the door for Kelly to reassure and comfort her.

When we learn to “speak from” our deeper emotions, our partner can then understand what we’re experiencing. Both partners can stay calm. And, Sarah can then ask for what she needs.”

“Please forgive me for getting so angry,” Sarah asks. “I know we’re both trying so hard to get past this.”

Kelly can stay connected because she doesn’t feel attacked and because it’s now clear to her why Sarah was so upset. Kelly can offer reassurance to Sarah of the importance of their relationship. And, they are learning to master emotional communication for couples!

Getting to Those Deeper Emotions

Here are some tips that might be helpful.

  1. When you realize you’re in that “negative cycle” and those surface emotions are taking over, slow down. Take a moment, learning new emotional communication habitsperhaps some deep breaths. Ask your partner if this is a good time to talk without distractions and in private. Emotional communication for couples is more successful if you both can set aside a time to be open to each other.
  2. As you become calm, consider what deeper feelings are “pushing” your upset response. Deep down, what’s really coming up for you?
  3. See whether you can find the “trigger” for the negative surface emotions. Is it an event? Something said, or not said; something forgotten.
  4. Keep in mind that you could be making assumptions about your partner’s behavior. When we’re upset, our assumptions are often quite negative — that our partner is in the wrong, that his or her intentions are to hurt us, that they don’t seem to care.
  5. Staying calm, can you “speak from” the deeper emotions. “I felt hurt when my birthday was almost forgotten . . .” “I felt afraid when you were late today and didn’t call me . . .”
  6. Allow your partner time to respond. Be curious about what was going on for them. This is an excellent opportunity to build a new, important understanding between you. So, allow that to unfold.
  7. Make a request from your softer emotions. “Because I get afraid when you’re late, could you pull over and call me?”

You might be interested in more ideas on improving emotional communication for couples

Better understand your different responses in the negative cycle

If you might need help to identify and conquer your negative cycle and learn how to slow things down to communicate about real issues instead of fighting, you might want to consider connecting with a Denver Couples Therapist here at A Peaceful Life Counseling to learn more about couples counseling