When your partner accuses you of some wrongdoing, strongly disagrees with you, or disappoints you, what’s your initial reaction? If you’re like most people, it’s to somehow feel you’ve been violated, which instinctively can make you experience them as your enemy. And that would likely be enough to prod you to start a fight with them, archly defend yourself, or exit such a provocative scene entirely.
In general, if your partner—man or woman—fiercely criticizes you for a mistake that, admittedly, you did make, there’s an almost irresistible tendency to criticize them back, defensively attacking them even more forcefully than they did you. Which makes things go from bad to worse as quickly as an unforeseen thunderstorm. And mutually trapped in such an emotional downpour, you’ll both get drenched.
Once communication turns hostile through attack/defend/withdraw tactics, no winner can emerge. It’s a lose-lose situation that unfortunately repeats itself in far too many couples. For just as you’d probably react negatively in situations where you felt ignored or put down, so will your partner react adversely if, unwittingly, your words produce that same shaming effect on them.
What Shame Depicts
Briefly, shame is about feeling dishonorable and disreputable. It’s a regrettable disorder of self in that it’s characterized by self-blame, reproach, and degradation. At its worst, it’s a manifestation of self-hatred or contempt. It’s viewing yourself in a predominately negative light. It’s not merely about feeling guilty for a mistake but shameful in concluding you’re a mistake. And avoiding direct eye contact, or even hanging your head in shame, are perhaps the most visible signs of this personality disturbance.
Given the intolerable burden of these self-perceptions, it’s only to be expected that you’d develop potent defenses to hold them at bay and keep them from expanding into suicidal depression. It’s no coincidence that feelings of shame have been shown to be predictive of suicide. Further, a shameful identity has also been associated with a large variety of consciousness-altering addictive behaviors, which is why simple efforts at abstinence are typically not enough to heal it (hence the "dry drunk").
The most common defenses, already mentioned, can link to anger and aggression, defensiveness, and disengagement—all of which may relate to your trying to assuage old self-doubts, the residue of which can still beleaguer you.
To sum up these characterizations, this most self-damaging of emotions inevitably makes you your worst enemy—it’s certainly not your partner, child, or business associate.
How We Resist Feelings of Shame
Only the most enlightened beings are typically able to withstand the instinctual temptation to go into self-protective mode when someone addresses them in a derogatory manner. And in today’s world, there’s so much “out there” that can affect our sense of security (ultimately, because of all that, psychologically, is still “in there”) that it’s altogether likely we’ll resort to primitive, even childish, ways to safeguard our so-susceptible ego from attack.
Whether it’s by blaming another or resolutely resisting their blaming us, we tend to project onto our perceived antagonist what we often experience as having been projected onto us. Yet, inasmuch as our partner may not have meant to shame us at all—unless in their experience we just shamed them, and they saw it as intentional—they’ll take affront at the vigor of our (counter-) criticism.
So what precisely about being blamed makes it so hard for most of us to handle? I’d suggest that when we were first acutely criticized, typically going all the way back to childhood, we felt a frightening disconnect from our caretakers. In those anxious moments, when we experienced them as disapproving or downright rejecting us, our all-important parental attachment bond felt broken, bringing to the fore our deepest fears of isolation and abandonment.
The younger we were, the more likely that, regardless of any extenuating circumstances or our parents having unrealistic expectations of us, we were made to feel inadequate, stupid, incompetent—in a word, ashamed. We felt not good enough. And the very essence of shame is the sense that there’s something irreparably bad or defective about us.
Back then, when we were being blamed, lacking any legitimate authority of our own, we felt obliged to identify with, or take on, our caretakers’ critical view of us. At the same time, feeling alone and unsupported in our own viewpoint, we pretty much felt compelled to dismiss its validity.
In short, over time we became sensitized to criticism, frequently even in its milder forms. And as we grew older we developed defenses to safeguard all that remained insecure about our self-image, needing to devise ways of contesting what we came to regard as onslaughts on it.
How to Communicate in Situations Likely to Provoke Shame
Ask yourself: “What is it I want—vs. not want—when my partner criticizes me?” If you reflect on this seminal question, you may realize that it’s to have them better understand your needs and desires or to reveal caring and concern for you even when you’ve made a mistake or hold a different viewpoint than theirs. And if you delve deeper into this, you’ll recognize that that’s what they want from you as well.
So can you transform your mindset to accommodate them as much as you’d want them to accommodate you?
Doubtless, it would be advantageous to get beyond angry, retaliatory reactions when you’re in a blaming/shaming conflict with your partner. How then can you learn to deal with such frustrations in ways most apt to affect positive change? I’ve written many readily available posts on this subject (see References), so here I’ll bullet just a few of them:
- Sympathizing vs. Blaming. If your partner missed a freeway exit because they were preoccupied with some work-related predicament, can you, in realizing their distraction, tell them you understand how their not being able to stop ruminating about their professional crisis led them to ignore the off-ramp?
- Calming vs. Catastrophizing. If your partner forgot to make a mortgage payment in time to avoid being financially penalized, before you get angry with them, can you ask yourself whether this is really anything worth blowing up over? For answering this question negatively should help you relax.
- Humility vs. Arrogantly Proclaiming Superiority. When your partner acts foolishly, unthinkingly, or inconsiderately, can you substitute the thought, “I never would have done that” with “I’ve done some pretty dumb things myself, so I’m not going to hold my partner in contempt because they messed up (after all, I certainly wouldn’t want them to do this to me)”?
- Mindfulness vs. Mind Reading. Rather than reacting judgmentally to your partner’s wrongdoing, can you consciously try to interpret the motive(s) behind their erroneous behavior more empathically?
- Fact-Finding vs. Fault-Finding. If you strongly disagree with one of your partner’s (frankly uninformed) opinions, rather than denigrate their perspective, can you—“softly”—ask them whether they’d be willing to read a scientifically based article on the subject that might possibly alter their viewpoint?
- Polite, Mild-Mannered Feedback vs. Coarse, Enraged Labeling. If, when getting provoked yourself, you’re tempted to engage in name-calling, “gotchas!”, or strident verbal attacks, can you restrain yourself and address your partner in a more courteous, low-keyed fashion?
- Listening vs. Dismissing. When your partner expresses a belief sharply conflicting with your own, can you still care about them enough to seriously attend to their opposing ideas so they feel genuinely heard by you? Can you learn to put aside your differences and agree to disagree (vs. condescendingly critiquing them for their “inferior” reasoning)?
And if, to start, you’re only capable of carrying out a few of these suggestions, you’ll still be on your way to establishing a more harmonious relationship.
© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Below are a sampling of my earlier relationship posts that, closely complementary to this one, focus on couples better accommodating the hardcore differences between them:
Seltzer, L. F. (2009, Jun 30). Criticism vs. feedback—Which one wins, hands-down? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/200906/criti…
—————. (2010, Mar 17). Stop criticizing your mate: Relearning what you once knew. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201003/stop-…
—————. (2010, Apr 28). How to optimize your relationship: The 70/70 compromise. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201004/how-o…
—————. (2010, Sept 23). Can you and your partner agree to disagree? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201009/can-y…
—————. (2010, Oct 19). The arbitrariness of blame. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201010/the-a…
—————. (2013, Jan 11). One marriage = Two realities. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201301/one-m…
—————. (2014, Apr 10). The do’s and don’ts of emotional ventilation. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201404/the-d…
—————. (2015, Mar 11). How to respond when your partner’s bark feels like a bite. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201503/how-r…
—————. (2015, Oct 29). Compromise made simple: 7 handy tips for couples. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201510/compr…
—————. (2015, Nov 11). Do you defend your partner’s defenses? Here’s why you should. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201511/do-yo…
—————. (2016, Oct 19). 6 steps to resolve relationship conflicts, once and for all. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201610/6-ste…