Shame on You! The Folly of Shaming a Spouse


If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know I have no desire to help you win Best Husband or Best Wife of the Year awards. All I want is for you to enjoy being married. And this is not going to happen by shaming your husband or wife.
Shaming a young dog works pretty well. The dog will recognize you as the Alpha in the house, look down at the floor with an impressive look of penitence, and do almost anything to avoid a repeat of your shaming tone or pointing finger. You get your way and you’ll still have a great relationship.
This does not work with the man or woman in your life. If you manage to get your way, you screw up the relationship. And yet lots of us give it a try when we’re sure we’re right and our spouses are wrong.
“What sort of jackass can’t remember his anniversary?”
“Are you stupid? You said you would pick up the Beggin’ Strips for Fifi today, and here you stand without them.”
“Your browser history shows 6 different porn sites. How could you do this to me? I don’t want a degenerate like you sharing my bed!”
“Don’t be such a loser. March right into your boss’s office tomorrow and demand that raise you deserve! And get your feet off the coffee table while I’m talking to you.”
“Oh, good grief. How can you be afraid to visit your father in the hospital? He’s sick!”
“And once again you forgot the trash goes out on Wednesday night.”
Respect is the very foundation of a loving relationship for most men. It’s not possible to feel ashamed and respected at the same time. Don’t expect to feel cherished or desired or loved by a man who does not feel you respect him.
Anger is the usual response to unfair behavior, and appointing yourself the one who decides what’s right and wrong or treating an honest mistake as an intentional act is usually perceived as unfair behavior. Those “micro-moments of positivity resonance” that make us feel “in love” get squelched by anger.
That 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions needed to sustain a healthy relationship takes a big hit when you add shaming to whatever it was that upset you.
And this is the big one. Shame backfires. It doesn’t work the way guilt does. BrenĂ© Brown describes the difference this way:
Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake.
Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
When people recognize they failed to treat you the way they intended to treat you (usually, in a marriage, with kindness, generosity, and top priority), they feel guilt. And the guilt drives them make amends and repair the relationship.
When you try to force them to feel guilt, and especially when you attack their character in doing so, they feel shame. Shame does not lead to making amends or repairing relationships. It leads to anxiety, drinking, addiction, eating disorders, and narcissism. None of these will help you enjoy being married.
So, what can you do instead?
First, you can Assume Love. You can momentarily set aside your knee-jerk version of what happened to consider other explanations for the upsetting behavior, explanations consistent with a version of your spouse as someone who still loves you dearly and still possesses all of the wonderful character strengths you fell in love with. This often works, because you know a lot more about your spouse’s life and how his or her mind works than you can possibly recall while you’re upset. Sometimes this will reveal to you that there is no guilt for your spouse to own.
Second, you can share your dismay with respect and caring and own it as your own expectation, not some rule your spouse must obey. When done this way, without any shame, it may lead to feelings of guilt and attempts to repair your relationship. Or it may be the start of a Third Alternative to address your different ideas of what’s right.
“Our anniversary is really important to me. Celebrating it is a way of honoring what’s good and right between us. I’m sad that you forgot it is today.”
“I was expecting you would pick up the Beggin’ Strips for Fifi today. Having them on hand is important to me. Would you be willing to pick some up or to hold down the fort while I do?”
“I love you and I respect the man you are, and I want to want you, but when you visit porn sites, it is a huge turnoff for me.”
“I’m worried a lot about money lately, and I keep thinking you deserve a lot more for the hard work that you do, which would be an easy solution to my worries. It would help to hear from you what stands in the way of you getting paid more.”
“Is there anything that would make it easier to visit your father in the hospital? Could we bring photos or a game? Or maybe I could go and set up a Skype session between the two of you? You are such a caring daughter and so important to him.”
“Wednesday nights don’t seem to be good nights for taking out trash for you. Want to trade a chore?”
These approaches won’t get you very far with your Jack Russell Terrier, but they can make a big difference in whether you enjoy being married even when your spouse disappoints or angers you.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • I’ve been married for 35 years. My wife has used shaming against me the whole way. I don’t know how to continue living like this. So far I’ve somehow endured each painful moment. There is nothing to be gained from living with this kind of pain.

  • No, there isn’t, Mark. But she may just never have learned a better way to communicate. If you read some of the stuff on this blog about Third Alternatives, it’s a good way to deal with shaming.
    You can say, “This is how I am, and it hurts me to know it’s not good enough for you. But I’m hoping there’s a Third Alternative here, something that you could feel okay with that would fit better with who I am and who I’ve always been. Instead of telling me what’s wrong with me, would you please tell me what it is that would be different for you if I were this other person you wish I were? Are there things you’d be able to do or feel if you could reinvent me, things that really matter to you? Because I am more than willing to try to find another way to get them for you without putting one more nail in the coffin for our relationship.”

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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