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Shame and Love

The eyes are perhaps the prime organ of love.

"For a long time, I was ashamed of the way I lived."
"Did you reform?"
"No, I'm not ashamed anymore."
—Mae West

Is there any connection between shame and romantic love? Although they appear to be very different, they do have something in common—they express our profound values or those of others.

Shame and love are similar in that both involve a global evaluation with a profound impact, but whereas in shame, the evaluation is directed at oneself and is negative, in love, the evaluation is directed at the other and is basically positive. Both shame and love may involve positive and negative features, but the essence is different: In shame, it is negative, and in love, positive.

In shame, one thinks of oneself as a bad person, not simply as someone who did a bad thing. When shame is due to a certain action, this action is taken to be indisputable proof of one's own character rather than an isolated action that may be ascribed to negligence or weakness of will. In a similar manner, in romantic love, we do not think of our partner merely as someone who does good deeds, but rather as someone who is basically a very good person.

In light of the global negative evaluation of the self in shame, there is a need to hide or cover oneself—to avoid others seeing us. Indeed, hiding is a very typical behavior of shame, which is often expressed in a shrinking of the body, as though to disappear from the eye of the self or the other. When there is no way of avoiding others seeing us, the ultimate solution for some people is also a suicide.

Love also involves very profound issues, and hence, when love goes wrong, committing suicide is an option. It is interesting to mention that men often take romantic rejection in a more dramatic manner than women: Men are three to four times more likely than women to commit suicide after a love affair has decayed.

Taking the extreme measure of committing suicide in order to avoid shame or facing romantic rejection by a meaningful person illustrates the powerful impact of those emotions. Indeed, shame is a highly painful experience that can cause the disruption of current behavior, confusion in thoughts, and an inability to speak. Likewise, love also has a powerful impact on the one who loves.

In shame, more is at stake than a specific act of ours (as in guilt) or how a person presents herself in a social context (as in embarrassment); accordingly, shame is a more intense emotional experience than guilt or embarrassment. When people commit suicide because of shame or rejected love, they usually overrate the impact of those emotions. These people may know that the impact of these emotions is unlikely to last, but their negative feeling is too intense to bear.

Sometimes people are unable to imagine that such feelings will not last forever. The intense nature of shameful experiences, including those involved while being in love, also explains why these experiences often become pathological. However, the very existence of shame and love is not pathological—on the contrary, the absence of the capacity to feel shame and love is a pathological condition.

The need to hide or even disappear, which so typical of shame, explains why shame is often connected with sight and being seen. In the biblical story of the Creation, we are told that before Eve gave the apple to Adam, there was no shame. Shame emerged only after they ate the apple, and "the eyes of both of them were opened, and they felt that they were naked." When God called to them, they hid from him in shame. Indeed, hiding and attempting to disappear—or at least wishing to do so—is a prevailing manner of coping with shame (and embarrassment).

This tendency may explain why a typical behavior of shame, as well as of embarrassment, is that of breaking off eye contact. (It is interesting to note that gaze aversion in embarrassment, which expresses a lesser profound flaw in us, is found to be briefer.) Gaze aversion is typical also of situations in which we shun unwanted intimacy, as when people move closer to us than we wish them to, or when the topic of conversation takes too intimate a turn. A sustained meeting of eyes between the sexes may be perceived as being excessively intimate or intrusive.

In situations opposite to shame and embarrassment, such as love and sexual desire, when we want to reveal our basic attitudes and values, retaining eye contact is the typical behavior. Indeed, couples who love each other a great deal spend more time making intimate eye contact than couples who love each other to a lesser degree. (For some reason, women spend more time looking at men than vice versa.)

It is not merely that love is expressed in spending more time looking at each other, but looking may also lead to loving. Accordingly, Susan Anthony claims that in life, actions speak louder than words, but in love, the eyes do. Hence, the eyes, rather than the genitals or the heart, are perhaps the prime organ of love. The eyes are then quite important in communicating our emotions. No wonder that the eyes are the organs that release tears—these are typical of intense emotional states.

More than other emotions, shame and love express our deepest values and commitments; in order to free ourselves from shame and love, we would need to unload these values and commitments. Freedom, as Janis Joplin reminds us in a popular song, is "just another word for nothing left to lose." Shame and love are, in fact, a constitutive element of normative life.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, don't be ashamed to show me how much you love me, and please do not close your eyes when we make love, as we have nothing to hide."