I was conducting a therapy session for relationship problems with a married couple, their second, and the wife continually escalated to anger when any topic came up. Even when the husband kindly suggested they put their toddlers to bed before 10 pm so the couple could have some time together, the wife felt criticized and “attacked.” She failed to recognize his suggestion was an attempt to connect with her and was not solely a criticism. The root of their relationship problems was that her discomfort with feelings of shame led her to attack with anger.
In discussing this topic I’ll use the terms “Dominator” and “Submissive” that I describe in my book “Pack Leader Psychology.”
Dominators react to feelings of shame or low self-worth by attempting to control or dominate others so that they can manage, redirect or prevent shame-laden messages from affecting them. They have great difficulty admitting fault, apologizing, or being wrong. Dominators attack others with anger when they feel shame.
Submissives handle shame by attacking themselves with internal messages of shame: “See, you really are a loser. You need to change.”
Here is another example of how the feeling of shame plays out in relationships.
Janae, the Dominator wife, forgot to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home. David, the Submissive husband, asked if she picked up the dry cleaning. Rather than feeling the shame of her mistake and admitting her fault, she goes to great lengths to manage her pain. She makes excuses: “I had to work late” or “I didn’t think they weren’t going to be ready today.” Or she blames him: “You were supposed to text me to remind me.” Or she lashes out at him for an unrelated past mistake: “Well, you forgot to pick up the milk yesterday.” or “You should have taken them in last week.” These angry responses are “reactive emotions,” with shame as the “core emotion.”
To Janae, the feeling of shame is so intolerable that she must defend herself from experiencing it at all costs, even if it means damaging her relationship with her husband.
Shame plays out in minor ways like this or in major relationship problems, such as domestic violence. Dominators who go to the extreme of physical or emotional abuse cannot tolerate any sense of being criticized or rejected. The perception that their partner is withdrawing love in any way, no matter how minuscule, triggers their fearful reaction. So they become aggressively confrontational, to the point that they are then legitimately criticized and their partner does withdraw her love.
Sadly, Dominators then get exactly what they are working to avoid: The feelings of shame they dislike are now piled on even more deeply and intensely.
In my session with the couple, the wife eventually began crying, was resentful and stopped engaging in session. I could see she knew she had over-reacted, but she could not admit that. Even though I recognize the roots of shame underlying her behavior, it is difficult not to dislike a Dominator when she behaves in this way. I have to remind myself that those who need the most love often behave in ways that often drive love away. Finding compassion for these hurt people is essential, but can be a challenge for those in relationship with them who often trigger to anger themselves in response.
The other side of this relationship equation is the Submissive partner, who also is mishandling feelings of shame. He may take on more than his fair share of blame for the argument. He may learn to avoid directing shaming messages at his spouse because he fears her aggressive reaction. He wants to keep peace and will do anything to avoid causing a fight.
I also believe that because Submissives dislike the feeling of shame themselves, they avoid placing blame or shame on their partner. It’s as if Submissives know the pain of shame and want to protect their partners from it. This well-intentioned behavior, however, leads to a lack of assertiveness that enables the Dominator to continue to act out and avoid feelings of shame.
An attack-and-withdraw pattern then ensues in the relationship, leading to a painful and disabling feeling of disconnection.
If both partners could learn to manage feelings of shame in a healthy, self-compassionate and self-accepting manner, they would experience much less turmoil in the relationship. The Dominator would feel less urge to lash out at the Submissive. The Submissive would feel able to fairly criticize the Dominator and would not submit unthinkingly to the Dominator’s wrath. Both could be open and vulnerable about their feelings of shame with each other, which would lead to emotional intimacy, a closer bond and a deeper connection.
Shame is the root cause of most relationship problems and many other behavioral problems. It is sad that today so many people seem to have great difficulty handling this feeling in an emotionally healthy manner.