Marriage Problems: 50 Ways to Cause Fear and Shame

Do you accidentally make your partner afraid or ashamed?

Posted Apr 13, 2009

I've posted before - and with Pat Love have written a book about - the ancient fear-shame dynamic that secretly undermines intimate relationships. To briefly recapitulate, usually subtle (but sometimes obvious) anxiety or fear in one partner triggers shame-avoidant behavior (withdrawal or anger) in the other, and vice versa.

Near the end of our three-day boot camps for highly distressed couples, I ask the men to list all the ways they are likely to make their partner anxious or afraid without meaning to and the women to list all the ways they are likely to stimulate shame in their partners with no intention to do so. Amazingly, the more than 600 participants have come up with lists very close to what Pat and I first brainstormed when we were discussing the book. (We have to admit that our prescience came after years of looking in all the wrong places - childhood wounds, communication patterns, etc. - for why couples have such a hard time connecting even when they do everything right.)

25 ways to make a woman anxious

• Ignore her
• Tell her what to do
• Be short with your answers
• Tune out her feelings
• Stonewall or give her the cold shoulder
• Take her for granted
• Limit or criticize her spending
• Tell her stop worrying
• Tell her she's making too much of it
• Tell her to get over it
• Tell her she talks too much
• Complain about her weight
• Criticize her family
• Withdraw or shut down
• Yell or get angry
• Pout or sulk
• Threaten to quit your job
Flirt with other women
• Don't know her dreams
• Tell her she's just like her mother
• Complain about her girlfriends
• Give her the cold shoulder
• Dismiss her ideas
• Sound like you're trapped in the marriage
• Buy a sports car

25 ways to stimulate shame in a man

• Exclude him from important decisions
• Correct what he says
• Question his judgment
• Give unsolicited advice
• Dismiss his opinion
• Imply inadequacy
• Make unrealistic demands of his time and energy
• Overreact
• Ignore his desires
• Focus on what you didn't get, rather than what you got
• Withhold praise
• Use a harsh tone
• Be abrupt - spring things on him
• Undermine his wishes
• Condescend
• Criticize his personality
• Disrespect his work
• Show little or no interest in his interests
• Criticize his family
• Interpret, psychoanalyze, or diagnose him
• Make comparisons to other men
• Focus on your unhappiness
• Put friends before him
• Value others' needs over his
• Rob him of the opportunity to help

The majority of lovers crash into each other's vulnerabilities accidentally. But in the case of verbal abuse, intentional abusers seem to know intuitively where the jugular is. A verbally abusive man is likely to make his wife feel afraid of harm, isolation, or deprivation. A verbally abusive woman is likely to make her husband feel like a failure as a provider, protector, lover, or parent.

But lovers also know intuitively how to help and support one another. The primary regulators of both fear and shame are support and connection. That is what people provide for each other during courtship that makes them fall in love. It is what they must provide in marriage to keep the fear-shame dynamic from destroying it.