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Choose Today: Shame and Fear or Authenticity and Intimacy?

By Caroline Bernhardt-Lanier

In the early years of our marriage, my husband Jason and I used to get stuck frequently in the same frustrating interaction. “We need to talk about our relationship” I would announce to him out of the blue, with urgency and anxiousness in my voice. “I’m feeling disconnected.”

How do you imagine he would respond?

“Why of course, honey! Let me drop everything, and let’s have a wonderful conversation about our negative emotions and what’s not working in our relationship!”

Nope.

No words, just some heavy eye rolling and groaning with dread. And then, if I persisted and criticized him for not being ready and willing to talk immediately, he might walk away annoyed or snap at me irritably. And then I would feel more anxious and disconnected, sulk, and respond in passive-aggressive ways.

Sound familiar?

What happened in this scenario? My husband and I activated what researchers Steven Stosny and Pat Love call the “unconscious fear-shame dynamic [in heterosexual couples], in which the fear or anxiety of one triggers shame-avoidant behavior (withdrawal or aggression) in the other, and vice versa.”

Every time I said “we need to talk” to Jason, it would be to express discontent and frustration, to offer what I thought was “constructive criticism,” or to voice my fear of being disconnected. No wonder he wanted to avoid those conversations! I was vulnerable to the fear of disconnection, and he was vulnerable to the shame of being a failure.

Like most men, Jason wants to be a great protector, provider, and lover. This is what expert relational coach David Bowman calls “a man’s secret hero desire” for his intimate relationship:

Men want most in their lives to have a happy wife or partner AND to feel like they are largely responsible for that happiness. You can call it the provider instinct if you want. We men don’t have to hunt for wild game to provide anymore. We don’t even have to make all the paycheck. Most women could do fine on their own, thank you very much. So what’s left for a man to do? It is to be a good husband (translation: experience a satisfied and content wife). It is also referred to as a man’s secret hero desire.

The contrapositive of this situation, unfortunately, is that when the woman is the least bit dissatisfied, the man’s extreme vulnerability to failure kicks in, and he easily begins to feel like a shmuck. My own personal shmuck-meter goes off even when my wife Donna says something as innocent as “I noticed there’s moss on our roof.” I immediately go to “Oh no, any good husband would not have his wife worrying about moss on the roof.”

Fear of failure and shame can be toxic in our intimate relationships.

Shame is the voice that says “you’re not good enough,” and triggers feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and inferiority. Researcher Brené Brown calls shame a silent epidemic, particularly in men.  She describes that men feel regularly shamed in their daily lives and that it’s the small humiliations that are most hurtful. Many men live in fear of embarrassment, intimidation, and disrespect. They learn to shut down or retaliate in anger to deal with shame or to try to avoid it.

Author and psychotherapist Jed Diamond illustrates the pattern of shame in a personal story:

We’re ashamed of being ashamed. I felt it today when my wife reminded me of something I had said to her that was unkind. I pride myself on being a sensitive, caring man, and when she pointed out this shortcoming, I could feel the shame rise up in me. I felt myself getting warm. My first thought was, “I didn’t do it.” My first words were, “I never said it.” I felt confused and off balance. I wanted to run away and hide. I wanted to disappear.

I was awash in my shame, but I tried to cover my discomfort. Shame is such a wretched feeling, most of us try and deny we are feeling it, hoping that if we don’t look at it, shame will magically disappear. But shame is stubborn. The more we deny it, the more it sticks to us like glue.

So how do we break this cycle of shame and fear? How do we instead create patterns of authenticity, compassion, and connection in our intimate relationships?

Some tips for women from Caroline:

  • Express frequent appreciation to your partner
  • Validate and show respect for him
  • Grow your compassion and empathy for him
  • Pay attention to how you might be shaming him
  • Clearly express your needs and desires in positive terms
  • Learn to contain your reactivity and soothe your own fears and anxiety
  • Experiment: stop talking and engage in sexual intimacy. Then have a conversation!

Some tips for men from Jason:

  • Be courageous: express how you feel. The vulnerability of self-disclosure can stop the cycle of shame and blame. Tap into the power of vulnerability. Start by using any one of 5 words: happy, sad, angry, ashamed, scared.
  • Man-upAdmit your faults and apologize when you can see you have hurt your partner.
  • Remember you do not have to be perfect and strong all the time. Accept your limitations and flaws and be aware of your fear of failure. 
  • Listen and validate her feelings and thoughts, without being defensive. Suspend having to fix it – especially if you are not a plumber.
  • Find ways to connect, beyond sexual ways (You’ll enjoy more sexual intimacy too). And forget the golden rule of doing what you’d want from others. Instead, what would your partner want? What’s his or her love language. Then just do it (you’ll feel good, too).

These days, Jason and I are learning new ways to deal with the often-hidden shame and fear cycle in our marriage. If I’m feeling anxious or disconnected, I’m learning to seek out connection in ways that don’t necessarily involve an emotional conversation, such as a shared activity or physical touch. I’m also trying to express genuine appreciation more often and honor when he needs space. If I really need to talk through a frustration, then I’ll make an appointment for an Imago Dialogue, a structured format for safe conversations. Or, Jason will simply roll his eyes in a semi-playful manner and try to listen with an open heart to what I have to say. Other times, when he can tell that things are off between us, Jason has learned to suggest “let’s take a walk.” His initiating this simple invitation is often all I need to feel reconnected and cherished.

How does the subtle fear-shame dynamic show up in your relationship?

You don’t have to stay stuck in the same frustrating patterns! Experience the joy of authenticity, compassion, and connection.

Contact Caroline or another skilled relationship expert at the Imago Center today for guidance and support.

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