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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 pay rent?"
"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 blaming/shaming them.

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 that?"

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 or never.

Here are some simple steps to determining how you feel/what you need:

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 www.sdcouplestherapy.com.




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