Being the best partner — 31 March 2013
Why do we shame the one we love?

Shame is a profoundly painful emotion aroused within us in response to our internal negative assessment of our conduct or being. Since it serves to safeguard our moral conduct it is harsh and punitive. Knowing how painful this emotion is, why would we ever shame the one we love?

Mencius, The Chinese Philosopher stated, “Men cannot live without shame. A sense of shame is the beginning of integrity.”

Psychologist Paul Gilbert explains the social basis for shame: “Humans’ innate needs to be seen as attractive to others form the basis for shame and mediate evaluations of social standing, social acceptance and social bonds. Shame and humiliation are associated with attacks on, and losses of, social attractiveness. The internal experiences of shame are derived from submissive strategies where one seeks to signal to others awareness of loss of social standing and limit possible damage.”

Since feeling shame renders us fearful of loss of love and acceptance, why would we shame or be shamed by the person who vowed to love and cherish us?

The most common reason that people shame others is to quell their own feelings of hurt, annoyance, irritation, insecurity or displeasure. The attack is a way to feel empowered by disempowering the mate. Since this is a war tactic, it has no place in a love relationship.

The shamed partner is often wounded, distracted by the assault and likely to becomes submissive and withdrawn. Though some researchers found a direct association between shame and aggression, June Tangney and Associates found “no relationship between shame-proneness and measures of assault or verbal hostility.” They discovered, “Shame-proneness was more clearly associated with irritability, resentment, and indirect hostility.”

Shaming another individual gives the shaming person a temporary sense of superiority and comfort through the belief that he/she is superior to the other. This false sense of self-worth is unsustainable and damaging to both partners.

There are two ways that humans can gain their sense of self-worth. I call it: Earned and Unearned esteem. In Earned esteem you behave in a way that produces internal approval. You have helped another person and can feel pleased with your conduct. Unearned esteem comes from demeaning another individual. It is short, fleeing and unsustainable. It soon requires a new attribution of failure, inadequacy or ineptness to another person for one’s temporary sense of wellbeing.

Developing a couple’s culture of shaming each other in order to feel better about oneself is a destructive way to gain temporary Unearned esteem that often leads to personal and couple devastation. Learning to appreciate your mate even when you are frustrated, hurt or disappointed and negotiating a mutually rewarding compromise provides you with a greater Earned esteem as a partner and facilitates your blissful union.

  • Understand that shaming your mate has no place in a loving relationship.
  • Realize that handling your frustrations with kindness renders you a healthier being with a solid sense of Earned personal esteem and a good marriage.


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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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