Feeling embarrassed by some of your spouse’s behaviors?

Embarrassment is a self-monitoring healthy reaction that guides us in being socially appropriate and valued by others. For some individuals this personal monitoring emotion extends to the behavior of their mate. Is it appropriate to feel accountable for a loved one’s conduct?

Common examples of embarrassments include: “I feel very embarrassed when my husband drinks too much and acts foolishly,” “I feel embarrassed by the way my wife dresses,” “ It really embarrasses me when my spouse is inhospitable to our adult children.” Certainly, all these emotions are understandable but can they propel a spouse’s behavior change?

In marriage, pairs are viewed as a team, a unit and a unique entity. This social “oneness” compels mates to act according to their own agreed upon norms and conform to the social expectations of their peer group. When one of them is not in compliance with either of these standards, it is understandable that it may upset the other partner. Yet, where does individual accountability converge with couple’s presentation and how do you handle these differences?

Researchers Anita Eller and Miriam Koschate define embarrassment as “A relatively complex emotion that involves our understanding of what other people think of us. We feel embarrassed when we believe that somebody else has noted our mishap or when we believe to have made a negative impression on people that matter to us.”

If embarrassment results from concerns about losing positive regard of others, why would one feel it when the partner acts inappropriately?

Respect and social approval is individually earned and each person’s perceptions dictate his/her actions. The man who feels embarrassed by his wife’s attire may worry about her vulnerability, reputation or safety, which she may not share. The wife’s concerns about her inebriated husband’s acts may or may not lose him the respect of his friends. Adult children are not likely to asttribute unkind or impolite gesture of one parent to both parents.

Since a spouse is unlikely to be de-merited in the eyes of others for actions he/she did not undertake, a case can be made that the embarrassment a partner feels when the other falters is a compassionate response of feeling embarrassed for, not about the other.

Very often discussing the socially unpopular conduct with the offending partner does not result in a behavioral change. As long as the erring mate does not personally feel embarrassed about his/her conduct, no change is likely to occur. Embarrassment cannot be transferred from one individual to another. It requires sufficient self-awareness and discomfort to motivate one to modify his/her ways.

If your partner engages in conduct that feels embarrassing to you:
• Accept that you are not being judged for your mate’s behavior.
• Understand that motivation for change only occurs when the individual feels personally embarrassed.
• Realize that people vary in their perceptions of what is or is not appropriate behavior.
• Regard your embarrassment as a compassionate feeling for your mate.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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