What is Relationship Shame?

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I wrote a bit about shame in my last blog. I know that this is a challenging topic to discuss but it is important to recognize it in your relationship so that you can work toward moving out of it in your relationship. First, in case you missed it, what is shame? I use this word so freely that I sometimes forget that most people don’t think about it on a day-to-day basis (like I do). Simply stated – shame is that awful feeling you experience when you feel like something is flawed about you. EVERYONE experiences shame, just in different degrees and at different times. Meaning that you might feel shame at a ‘two’ (one being very little; ten feeling a strong degree of shame) because you said something minor that, without intention, hurt your partner. Or you might feel a strong degree of shame perhaps when your marriage is in serious turmoil.

 What is relationship shame?

Shame is often discussed regarding individual shame; however, shame also exists within a relationship. Relationship shame occurs when you both feel and experience shame together for the same reason. And, to be clear, when I share these examples I am by no means stating that couples ‘should’ experience shame. I am here to help you remove this toxic emotion from your relationship.

 Examples of relationship shame:

~ Couples who find themselves unable to pay their bills. They are dealing with collection agencies and managing as best they can.

~ Couples who are not having sex.

~ Couples who have experienced an affair in their marriage and have worked it out and stayed together.

~ Couples who have had explosive arguments.

~ Couples who do not speak to one another for extended periods of time.

~ Couples who have children who have been in trouble.

The list goes on and on…

 A Short Story:

With quiet hesitation, Emma shares that she and her husband have not had sex in about a year. Frank quickly interrupts with agitation – “It hasn’t been that long!”

Emma cries and with a whisper responds, “Yes it has.” She continues with tears in her eyes, “You’re not attracted to me anymore.”

He defends himself in a frustrated tone, “It’s not that, I’m just busy and I don’t think about it.”

“You don’t think about me,” she says with hurt in her voice.

Frank raises his voice, “NO!! It’s not that, I’m just tired and busy.”

During our conversation, Frank discloses that he does not feel very good about himself – he’s gained weight and does not feel as sexual as he once did. Further, he is tired all the time.

His wife confesses that she recognizes she is overwhelmed with the children and does not feel as sexually attractive in her role as Mom. Emma shared that she reads articles that describe people in happy marriages as having sex once or twice a week. She concludes that she and her husband have a dysfunctional marriage.

Counteracting the Shame: Empathy and Compassion:

 Once emotions of fear and shame about their alleged ‘dysfunctional marriage’ settled a bit, we engaged in conversation with a calm understanding. During our conversation, empathy and compassion emerged from them both.

“We are busy,” Emma shared. “We have three children who are very active and Frank works hard, we rarely have time to say hello to one another.” Both expressed that they don’t have time to take care of themselves, which has impacted their self-image. At one point, Frank reached out to hold Emma’s hand. Clearly, they love one another; however, it was challenging for them to see that love when looking through a lens of shame.

They were able to counteract their shame by acknowledging the challenges that they face in their life and that sex, in many ways, was the last thing on their minds. Once they moved out of shame, they could connect emotionally with empathy and compassion.

The chances of them engaging sexually when shame existed in their relationship were slim. Counteracting their shame with understanding, empathy and compassion deepened their connection and provided more of an opportunity for a sexual relationship.

 Why do we need to discuss this topic?

 Shame is a toxic emotion that does not benefit anyone. It prevents empathy and creates disconnection so, when shame exists within a relationship, it can make it challenging for the two of you to feel happy, strong and confident as a couple.

 We are a culture that rushes quickly to judgment of others – drawing conclusions about people based on very little information. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard couples say, “none of our friends know about this” (regarding the topics mentioned above). Personally, I find that sad because when we experience challenges within our relationship, the one thing that we need more than anything is support from those who love us. When we feel the need to keep something secret, it is because of the shame we feel AND because we worry that we will be judged. People DO judge, so I am not suggesting that you share your struggle with those who will judge you, but I am asking you to recognize that because people will judge you does not mean that you deserve to feel shame.

Of course, shame is not the only result of these challenges – they also cause hurt, sadness, frustration, guilt and so on. In this blog I am only referring to shame – this is the one emotion that prevents growth in our relationship.

 What should we do if we have relationship shame?

 First – learn how to ‘counteract’ your shame. Meaning, in a sense, you must learn to talk to your relationship shame with a compassionate voice. For example, if you can’t pay your bills, remember that life is hard. We work hard and the ability to pay bills does not mean anything about you personally; the only thing that it means is that life is hard. I remember when my children were small – I was in school and money was tight – my car had a hole in the floor in the back seat. Also, I could not keep up with my bills and I hated answering the phone because I knew the possibility was strong that it was someone asking me for money. But here’s the thing – I loved my children heart and soul; I did the best that I could financially; I worked hard and studied hard. Yet I still battled shame.

Another example – sexless marriages (as discussed in the story) is one of the most googled topics regarding relationships. Simply knowing that it is a top googled issue might reassure you that you are not alone and there is no shame in the challenges that ALL of us have in staying connected in relationships.

 Coming together:

 One of the difficulties about relationship shame is that most of us have not been taught how to manage this aspect of our relationship. The challenge is even bigger if we are surrounded by those who would shame us, instead of supporting us, regarding certain aspects of our relationship.

 One important thing to mention – Have you noticed that I don’t write blogs about “why your relationship won’t work”?

The reason is relationships are challenging enough without being told why they won’t work AND some (not all) of these articles can feel shaming. I remember going through a challenging time in my marriage when many of those “reasons your relationship won’t work” applied to my marriage. When we are experiencing challenging times in our relationship – we don’t need to find a way out – we need help finding a way back in. We need to know how can we work this out and reconnect.

Ultimately, if you decide that your relationship doesn’t work and you decide to end it, you will feel much more confident and reassured knowing that you have tried everything possible to make it work.

Therefore, in your attempt to diminish or completely remove shame from your relationship, turn to what is good in your relationship; turn to compassion, forgiveness and recognizing the humanness in both of you.

*          *          *          *           *

If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!

And you can keep up with my writing on relationships, random thoughts and more by subscribing here.

One more thing… I really would love for you to share your thoughts with me. It’s not easy to do, I understand because it took me a long time to work up the courage to begin blogging! But I want to get to know you. When you feel ready, please feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section. And, if you would like me to blog about a specific topic – let me know! 

If you think this blog will help a friend, please share it with them or share it on Facebook and Twitter!

Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.

Photo Credit: Camdiluv ♥ @flickr.com

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What is Relationship Shame?
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What is Relationship Shame?
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Shame is discussed regarding individual shame; however, shame also exists within a relationship. It is important to recognize relationship shame so that you can work toward moving out of it in your relationship.
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