Defensiveness Or Shame Keeps Many Couples From Hearing Each Other
Written By: Mark Smith
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Grab your coffee and get settled in for your 5-minute therapy session. We are going to address the common cold of marital issues " defensiveness or what we therapists call "Shame." While shame is one of the most destructive forces in marriages, it also affects many other aspects of the lives of many if not most people. Shame has many faces: self-loathing, never feeling good enough, having an inward sense of being dirty, feeling the need to be perfect at all times, feeling evil to the point of knowing that you will certainly be damned to hell forever, being shy, needing compulsive rituals in an attempt to cleanse the conscience, being overly sensitive to criticism, feeling completely unlovable, an unbelievably heavy and oppressive force that drags you down with every step you take, an out of control spiral that can spin a life out of control, and a dreary life-long companion for many people. Shame drives people relentlessly to drink, use drugs, numb out on addictive sex, over-work, sabotage themselves, cut themselves off from relationships, and even to take their own lives. Shame grows like the plague in closed, non-nurturing, rigid, abusive, critical, secretive families.
With couples, shame presents a massive obstacle in the communication process. For example, there might be one member of the couple who struggles with shame due to an overly critical parent. Then when their spouse critiques them, which is healthy and is part of the whole marriage thing, they become way overly sensitive to the feedback. They don't hear, "Honey, I think that it would work better if you tried it this way." They hear, "You are stupid and I don't love you." Frequently, individuals with shame issues are also ragers. As they are encountering their critical spouse, who they are really hearing is their raging, critical, non-nurturing parent. I have seen many marriages end because one partner could not overcome their over-sensitivity to criticism. In such cases, the therapist becomes very much like an interpreter for the couple - they truly are speaking different languages. A couple who has developed enough trust in a therapist who can accurately read them, aid them in gaining objectivity, and thus defuse major conflicts, has a tremendous asset, an asset that many times can be the difference between a divorce and what ultimately develops into a healthy marriage.
Dave and Susan were a very shame-based, emotionally reactive couple. They both would hear and react to shame directed at the other that clearly wasn't there at all in reality. On several occasions, when the therapeutic interpreting wasn't particularly going his way, Dave would storm out of sessions enraged with not only Susan but with me. However, they worked long and hard on their recovery issues in group, individual, and couple's therapy. They hardly ever come in for sessions anymore, but on the few occasions that they have, Susan has confronted Dave rigorously about whatever issue they are working on. Dave doesn't even flinch. There have been no knee-jerk reactions of being reactive or defensive. Instead, he is able to joke with her, reach over and touch her, and calmly address the issues, which are being placed in front of him. It is as startling as it is beautiful. Dave's shame trigger, which once served about the same purpose as a ring does in a bull's nose, has been slowly but quite effectively deactivated. They now have a solid, stable and loving marriage.
If shame is a problem in your marriage you might seriously consider a round of therapy. Therapy is like opening the windows and doors to the house of your soul and giving it a good fresh spring-cleaning. Safe, powerful, effective therapy is very much like a fresh start in your life. It will give you a clear, crisp sense of direction unhindered by the negative influences of shame. As your shame heals, your communication with your spouse will become much easier and much less conflictual.
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