Dealing With Shame When It Affects Your Relationship

Updated February 26, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Shame is a powerful emotion that most people feel at some point in their lives. Although shame can be healthy in limited amounts for promoting cooperation, growth, and forgiveness, it can also be destructive. When people don’t work to overcome their shame, it can seep into their relationship and begin to have detrimental effects. Identifying, acknowledging, and dealing with shameful feelings can be crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship.

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Shame Can Have A Detrimental Impact In Your Relationship

What Is Shame?

Shame is an uncomfortable, strong, and painful emotion that arises when someone feels that they’ve done something wrong. It often brings discomfort that no one wants to deal with, and many people try to ignore or suppress how they feel. However, pretending that those feelings don’t exist is usually difficult, especially over an extended period. 

How Shame Affects Relationships

Although people usually try to hide their shame, it can end up undermining their relationships when those suppressed emotions impact their words, thoughts, and actions. When people feel ashamed, they usually keep their heads down, avoid eye contact, blush, or force a smile. Emotionally, they may show annoyance, denial, or irritability. The effects of shame often make thinking clearly very challenging. Some experience their mind going blank, a state of confusion, or have no words at all. 

A person experiencing shame may feel detached from others and have difficulty talking about it. This can be problematic in relationships, which are often built on emotional connection. When the emotional intimacy between partners becomes weak or damaged, it can negatively impair the relationship and even threaten it. Emotional barriers can make it hard to establish boundaries or create limitations. On the contrary, working through shame can bring couples closer while also helping them grow as individuals.

If you've done something wrong to hurt your partner's feelings, it may be difficult to admit it or apologize for it when shame is present. Shame can make you feel uncomfortable but also create a false perception that you're not good enough. Not feeling good enough can sabotage an otherwise healthy relationship, or even cause someone to leave their partner so that they don’t have to deal with those uncomfortable emotions.  

Shame may be an underlying cause for relationship problems without couples even realizing it. It can be common for couples to experience disagreements when it comes to things like money or intimacy, but there is often something deeper causing those conflicts. For example, money can create problems when partners are not happy about how it is spent. One partner may see the other’s spending habits as out of control or feel that what’s being bought is unnecessary. However, underneath the surface could be feelings of sadness or neglect, particularly if their partner won’t listen to their concerns. When partners work on dealing with their shame individually and as a couple, they may experience greater relationship satisfaction and less conflict.

Tips For Dealing With Shame

When shame isn’t addressed appropriately, it can affect how you make choices in your life and in your relationship. Talking about your shame might be the last thing you want to do, but it could also be essential to helping your relationship move to a healthier place. Here are a few suggestions to help you cope with unhealthy shame:

  • Learn how to pay attention to your feelings. It takes courage to explore your feelings but being open and honest about them can help you understand them from a new perspective. Take note of your reactions and emotions in the relationship and consider how they affect your partner.
  • Establish an environment that encourages patience and transparency. Partners can overcome shame together by creating a healthy environment for one another. Open communication can be key for allowing each person to express their feelings as they arise. When both partners can acknowledge their shame and work through it together, it can also make it easier to practice forgiveness. 
  • Know how to show support. Talking about and dealing with shame can be difficult. If your partner chooses to open up to you, be respectful and try to treat them the way you’d want to be treated. Sometimes, they may just need someone to listen, while other times they might want to be comforted. Asking your partner how you can support them can be one of the most effective ways to show them that you have their back.
  • Learn how to deal with your shame. There are proactive ways to deal with shame, such as talking about it with someone you trust, learning to acknowledge the feelings associated with your shame, and writing about your emotions to increase self-awareness. You can also work with a therapist for professional guidance. Taking the necessary steps to overcome shame on your own can help prevent it from affecting your relationship. 
  • Be truthful about your feelings. When trying to move past shame, it can be essential to remain open and honest. Try to avoid denying or defending who you are, how you feel, where you've been, and what you want. The more transparent you can be about your emotions, the more your partner can understand where you’re coming from. This level of honesty can help each of you achieve acceptance of each other along with workable solutions for a favorable outcome. 
  • Accept your partner for who they are. Acceptance can be key to a positive, healthy, and fulfilling relationship. Everyone has flaws, including you and your partner, but that doesn’t make either of you any less deserving of love. When your partner makes a mistake, try to remember that they are only human. Give them a chance to apologize and avoid holding grudges when they express remorse. Letting yourself off the hook by practicing self-acceptance and self-forgiveness can allow you to do the same for your partner.
Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Shame Can Have A Detrimental Impact In Your Relationship

What Happens If You Don't Confront Shame?

It can be vital to address unhealthy shame once it’s recognized for what it is. Unresolved shame can lead to unintentional behaviors or emotions that may affect your well-being as well as your relationship. Low self-esteem, anxiousness, and depression can all develop over time as shame takes root in the mind and body. Codependency can be another side effect of unaddressed shame, leading people to stay in relationships that are abusive, one-sided, or unhealthy. 

When avoiding shame, people may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs, alcohol, or gambling— which could even lead them to addiction. Partners may have shame that originated elsewhere before they became a couple. For example, someone who someone has been in an abusive relationship could experience a loss of emotional confidence, eventually leading to shame. This could carry into and impact the dynamics of their new relationship. Even minor critical remarks can cause shame to develop.

Confronting shameful feelings may not always be simple, but it can often be worth it. Many relationships can be safe havens for support and healing, which is why being in a healthy partnership can be so important.

Online Counseling With Regain

Talking about shame can be important in uncovering its root and eventually overcoming the feelings that are causing it. If you need someone to confide in about the shame you’ve been experiencing, talking to a therapist could be a viable option. Regain is an online counseling platform that can connect you to a therapist with the click of a button. Speaking about the things from your past that have caused you to feel shameful can be incredibly difficult. However, being able to talk about these topics from the safe space and comfort of your home could make all the difference. Regain also offers couples counseling so that you and your partner can grow productively in the relationship both separately and together. 

The Efficacy Of Online Counseling 

Shame reduction can be a crucial outcome of online counseling and play a vital role in the treatment of various psychiatric disorders. In one study, those participating in an online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) program experienced fewer symptoms of social anxiety disorder over time. Researchers found that these outcomes were the result of a reduction in participants’ levels of shame proneness. They concluded through this study that conditions like social anxiety disorder can be successfully treated by targeting shame. 

The Takeaway

Shame can affect relationships in a variety of ways. It might influence one’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings, and carry into various key parts of the relationship. It can be essential to recognize and confront shameful feelings to avoid the damage that they can cause. A healthy, loving relationship is possible when you learn productive ways to cope with shame. Confiding in an online counselor can be helpful when shame feels too overwhelming to handle on your own. With support and healthy coping techniques, you can learn how to move past the feelings that are holding you back from the relationship and life that you desire.

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