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Intimate Relationship Dynamics III

Exploring the fear-shame dynamic

In the first posts of this series I discussed two of the three unconscious dynamics that most commonly rule unhappy relationships: demand-withdraw and pursuer-distancer. The third dynamic, fear-shame, almost always underlies the first two.

As the most pervasive and hardest to detect of intimate relationship dynamics, the fear-shame dynamic is triggered by antagonistic reactions to core vulnerabilities. But the core vulnerabilities (fear and shame) are rarely experienced directly. Most adults have forged entrenched habits of avoiding them. The fear-shame dynamic is really a clash of conflicting habits used to avoid fear and shame.

In the fear-shame dynamic, fear-avoidant behavior in one partner triggers shame-avoidant behavior (expressed as withdrawal or aggression) in the other, and vice versa. One frets or worries or pursues; the other shuts down or gets angry. One gets angry, resentful, or quiet, the other worries or feels rejected or threatened.

On a day-to-day basis, habits of avoiding fear and shame are most influenced by the hormones estrogen and testosterone. The following hormonal effects are present in all social animals:

Testosterone blunts fear and drives competitiveness and status-seeking (increasing the dread of failure.)

Estrogen enhances fear and drives nest-making and alliance-building (there's safety in numbers and security in nests.)

The effects of hormones are more complicated in humans, of course. Unlike all other social animals, we're settled all over the planet, do not sleep in real darkness, take a variety of medications, eat lots of animals that are rather alarmingly overdosed with hormones, and experience rapid societal changes. It's perfectly normal in humans (and more interesting) to have high testosterone girls and women, high-estrogen boys and men, and a rich mixture of both hormones in either sex. Yet it seems to be an element of attraction that, in general, high testosterone folks and high estrogen potential partners are drawn to each other, regardless of sex and sexual orientation.


The fear-shame dynamic is a survival-based mechanism observed in most social animals. Females of social animals tend to be more fearful and vigilant than males in general but especially when they have children. They also tend to have better hearing and/or sense of smell, making them ideal alarm systems for the group. Males are larger, more powerful, more aggressive, and more expendable (the pack will have billions of sperm but only a handful of eggs.) The anatomy of males makes them better suited to protect against intruders and predators. Males who fail to respond to female fear and shift into protective aggression, are subject to attack by more dominant males. Though anthropomorphizing is risky, the failure to protect causes a vulnerability in the males of social animals that seems close to what we would call shame.

The human brain is more socially structured than that of any other animal. In us, this primitive interactive mechanism takes on more complicated forms, which surreptitiously undermines intimate relationships.

Confronted with the anxiety or fear of higher estrogen partners, higher testosterone partners instinctively respond with protection or support. But if they don't know how to protect or support — or are reminded of failures to support or protect — they're likely to employ one of two defensive strategies. They either turn the aggression onto their partners (usually in the form of criticism, "superior reasoning," controlling behavior, coercion, and so on), or they'll rein in aggressive impulses by withdrawing (stonewalling or "going quiet.") Anger or withdrawal by higher testosterone partners stimulates anxiety or fear of isolation in higher estrogen partners, even if the anger or withdrawal has nothing to do with the anxious partner. (By the way, the fear of isolation is not the same as finding it unpleasant to be alone. Fear of isolation is the sense that no one cares about you. Most high estrogen people don't mind being alone, as long as they don't feel isolated.)

A common example of the fear-shame dynamic occurs on the highway. When higher estrogen partners are startled, high-testosterone drivers get angry, perceiving the response as an assault on their charioteering. They'll sulk or say something sarcastic or turn into Ben-Hur, ready to drive those other chariots off the road. Any of the above makes passengers more anxious or afraid and probably angry. Each partner feels that the other is overreacting, insensitive, or inconsiderate, if not abusive.

Here's an example of how shame stimulates fear. Rose could see in Carlo’s sullen behavior that something happened at work. He’d been bothered by the conditions there for a while, but he never wanted to talk about it when she asked. This time, she waited until he was relaxed with a drink, after a nice dinner. At last, he opened up to her.

“It’s getting really bad. I don’t know if I can take the insult anymore. It’s endless crap from the boss, and that asshole, Charlie. Why do I keep doing putting up with it? The damn job’s just not worth it.”

He wanted to say more, but he noticed his wife’s nervous expression.

“But if you quit your job, how will we pay the mortgage? We can’t do it on my pay alone.”

Rose proceeded to give him advice on how to handle the boss and his coworkers in a “mature way.” They argued for a while, until Carlo ended it with,

“I shouldn’t have brought it up. Let’s just watch the damn movie.”

As with all intimate relationship dynamics, what was being said was not the problem and not really the issue. Carlo’s core vulnerability — dread of failure — automatically stimulated Rose’s fear of deprivation and isolation, which made him feel more like a failure. Instead of cooperating with his wife to deactivate the fear-shame dynamic, he tried to avoid his shame by shutting her out, which, of course, raised her anxiety. Rose tried to avoid her anxiety by telling him how “mature people” would react, which, of course, increased his shame.

Misunderstanding is Inevitable

We're almost certain to misunderstand each other in the throes of the fear-shame dynamic for two compelling reasons.

Avoiding fear or shame feels very different on the inside than the way it looks on the outside. If you try to avoid feeling anxious, you’ll likely come off as controlling. If you’re avoiding shame, you’ll appear aggressive or rejecting. Partners are not likely to respond to each other’s deeper vulnerabilities; they're more likely to react to what they see: control, aggression, rejection.

Worse, as far as understanding each other goes, the fear-shame dynamic is subject to the illusion of sameness — the assumption that events and behaviors have the same emotional meaning to both partners. It's an illusion because partners almost always differ in:

  • Temperament
  • Metabolism
  • Hormonal levels
  • Core vulnerability
  • Family history
  • Life experiences
  • Developmental trajectory (they mature at different developmental stages).

All of the above greatly influences the emotional meaning we give to events and behaviors. If you expect (or demand) that behaviors and events mean the same to your partner as they do to you, you’ll be disappointed and frustrated most of the time, especially when one of you is trying to avoid fear, while the other is trying to avoid dread of failure as protector, lover, or parent.

Many therapists greatly underestimate the power of the fear-shame dynamic or, worse, pathologize it. Just the other day I received an email from a woman married to an angry, resentful, and, at times, emotionally abusive man. Their marriage therapist, a man, explained that her fearfulness and lack of trust of her husband, who is trying to reform, was a kind of "emotional blackmail" — a shame-driven characterization if ever I heard one. He recommended that she go into individual psychotherapy to discover the genetic or childhood origins of her fear. Similarly, female therapists are quick to label men's egos and struggles with shame as developmentally immature or narcissistic and blame it on bad parenting or patriarchy.

In the next post, we’ll finally get to how we can change the powerful relationship dynamics that cause so much pain and distress.

Intimate Relationship Dynamics