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Different Core Vulnerabilities in Intimate Partners

The illusion of sameness is why intimate partners misunderstand each other.

In my last post, I pointed out how the illusion of sameness allows common differences in focus, processing, and temperament to cause sometimes fatal rifts in relationships. The most troublesome and the most hidden of differences is core vulnerabilities.

Your core vulnerability is the emotional state that is most dreadful to you, in reaction to which you’ve developed the strongest defenses. Other states of vulnerability are more tolerable if they avoid stimulating a core vulnerability and less bearable when they don't. For most people, either fear (of isolation, deprivation, harm) or shame (of failure) constitutes a core vulnerability.

Fear and shame are both pretty dreadful, to be sure. Though no one wants to experience either for very long, one is usually worse than the other for most individuals. If fear is your core vulnerability, failure is likely to trigger a deeper and more dreadful fear of isolation, deprivation, or harm. If shame is your core vulnerability, fear will trigger a deeper and more loathsome sense of failure. For the fear-avoidant, failure sounds like this:

“If I fail, no one will help, love, or comfort me.”

For the shame-avoidant, failure sounds like:

“If I fail, I won’t be able to help, love, or comfort myself, and I won’t feel worthy of anyone else's help, love, or comfort.”

When the fear-driven fail at work, they want more closeness in their relationships. When the shame-avoidant fail at work, they are likely to fight with their partners or withdraw from them, preferring to be left alone.

People whose core vulnerability is fear of isolation will accept shame, even humiliation if they have to, in order to feel safe, secure, or connected or at least to avoid feeling isolated. People whose core vulnerability is shame (failure or loss of status) will risk harm, abandonment, and resources to feel successful or at least to avoid feeling like a failure.

The Fear-Shame Dynamic

You should know at the outset that 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. 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; the other shuts down or gets angry. One gets angry, resentful, or quiet; the other worries or feels isolated or threatened. Both blame their feelings on each other.

fA common example of the fear-shame dynamic occurs on the highway. When higher estrogen partners are startled (estrogen enhances fear), high-testosterone drivers get angry (testosterone blunts fear), 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 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 there. 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 Unavoidable in the Toddler Brain

We're almost certain to misunderstand each other when the fear-shame dynamic locks us in the Toddler brain. Avoiding fear or shame feels very different on the inside from 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.

For more on using the Adult brain to regulate the Toddler brain, see Soar Above.