Feelings of shame, or the attempts to avoid such feelings, are at the root of all relationship discord. Furthermore, the painful experience of shame is so unbearable that it is often bypassed or repressed. This results in one or both members of the couple withdrawing, blaming, criticizing, rejecting or being dismissive towards the other.
Shame is often an important component of struggles for control. To let go of control is to feel that the shame and blame of the relationship belongs to one person, and that one’s feelings or point of view will never be acknowledged. The final result may be chronic isolation or a constant struggle for control.
Blaming is a common way that partners protect themselves from the pain of shame. When partners blame each other, neither person feels heard or understood, both are too busy defending themselves instead of listening to what his or her partner is saying. Mutual blaming leads to an escalation of shame and more blame, increasing the tension and distance between partners, thus making communication and intimacy more and more difficult.
Escalating shame most frequently occurs when partners end up in the roles of pursuer and distancer. When the distancer withdraws, the pursuer wants more contact and reassurance. The more the pursuer pursues, the more the distancer distances, leading to a seemingly endless conflict or impasse. An important element of this cycle is the fact that both partners often feel shame for their respective feelings or needs. The pursuer may feel rejected and shamed for “wanting too much,” while the distancer may feel shame for either being uncomfortable with closeness, or for wanting more space.
Each person feels criticized (shamed) by the other, each not realizing that both are having the same experience of shame.