By: Barbi Pecenco Kolski, MFT-Intern
The Impact of Shame on Relationships
One of the most damaging things we can do to our partner is to shame
them. What does shaming sound like? It is most often a statement
made with a tone that conveys disgust and gives our partner the
message that they aren't OK or are somehow bad/wrong. Here are some
examples I've heard in my office or used on my husband (before I
learned how bad shaming is for relationships):
"What is the matter with you?" or "What the hell were you thinking?"
"Be a real man" or "Man up" or "What kind of a man would ask me to
"You are disgusting!" or "You are a loser!"
"Joe Shmoe is a real family man." (implying that your partner isn't)
"You are just like your mother/father." (if this isn't a compliment
and let's face it, it usually isn't!)
"You're crazy!" or "You're so emotional!" or "You're so needy!" or
better yet "You're psycho!"
Shaming can also be conveyed non-verbally by eye-rolling, huffing
and puffing, giving a nasty look, or being sarcastic.
It is very important that we feel emotionally safe in our
relationships. We cannot possibly feel that way when our partner
consistently sends us shaming messages that explicitly or implicitly
imply that we are somehow not OK.
I wholeheartedly believe that relationships can be negativity free.
I work with the couples who come to see me to have this kind of
relationship. Negativity free means no blaming, no shaming, no
criticism, and no feeling emotionally unsafe. Ever!
Most people don't believe this is possible. My own therapist is
skeptical when I tell her that my husband and I very rarely fight.
Why we would waste our time fighting when we darn well know how to
talk about what's bothering us without blame and criticism, how to
get our needs met, how to not build resentment, and how to allow the
other person to truly be themselves? We wouldn't!
These shaming behaviors are so ingrained, it's difficult to stop
them. We've heard since we were small that we are either good or
bad, right or wrong. But there is a better way!
In short, it's best for your relationship if you confide your needs
and feelings and stop diagnosing your partner, interpreting them, or
So instead of, "What's the matter with you? Why can't you keep a
job? How could I have married such a loser?" you can stop implying
that there is anything "wrong" with your partner, take
responsibility for how their behavior impacts you, and express what
you really need, "When you told me you got laid off from your job, I
felt really scared because I'm not sure that we can live on my
salary alone. I need to know that you are going to go out and look
for another job immediately or file for unemployment so that I'm
assured we will have money coming in soon. Are you willing to do
Your partner will appreciate you being on their side and simply
sharing your needs and feelings without all the blame. At the same
time you are also being clear about what you need to feel OK in the
situation and you are asking for your partner's help in meeting your
need. He/she will likely be able to respond in a more satisfying way
than if you continue to berate them.
What often happens when we blame or shame our partner, is that they
now become so invested in defending themselves from our perceived
attack that the real issue (how will we survive without your job?)
gets lost. He/she will spend time blaming their boss for their job
loss or ineffectively fighting back, which means that you won't get
the satisfaction of knowing if your partner is willing to meet your
needs until you somehow finally resolve this argument in three days
Here are some simple steps to determining how you feel/what you
Step1 -figure out what you are feeling in the situation (you may
feel angry that your partner lost their job, but is that your MOST
primary feeling? In this case, you likely feel scared about an
uncertain future, so go with that. A scared partner is easier for
most of us to deal with than an angry one)
Step 2 - figure out what your needs are in the situation (we need
money to survive/I need to know you are willing to do what it takes
to contribute positively to this situation)
Step 3 - figure out the strategy to get the needs met
(unemployment/get a new job)
Step 4- Ask your partner if they are willing to help you get your
need met (Are you willing to look for a new job immediately or file
for unemployment or employ some other reasonable solution?)
Just for fun (on your own) you can think of your MOST judgmental
thought about your partner "YOU ARE SO LAZY!" Now let this thought
go and return to your feelings and needs.
This can be a difficult shift to make, but you can motivate yourself
to respond in this new way by thinking about how much time and
negative energy you will have to invest if you go the
blaming/shaming route ("You are so lazy") versus a more satisfying,
less destructive route ("I am scared about our finances, please
reassure me that you will do what it takes to contribute.")
This doesn't mean that we don't get to ask our partner to change
their behavior. But they will NOT be able to respond to "You are so
lazy" productively. They will get stuck in their shame and will want
to avoid you, not work with you to make things better. Even if
he/she does go out and get another job, there will be negative
feelings of resentment between the two of you due to your partner
feeling so disrespected by you, which damages the relationship in
the long run. Your partner cannot give freely to you under the
threat of coercion. It has nothing to do with whether they love you
or not, or whether they are truly dependable or not. It has
everything to do with human nature.
This article was written by Barbi
Pecenco Kolski, a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern specializing
in individual and couples relationship therapy in San Diego, CA.
Find out more about her at