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.