Why We Fight:
The Fear-Shame Dynamic in Relationships
Couples don’t fight about what they think they fight about. It’s not “the big four” they identify in surveys: money, sex, raising the kids, or in-laws.
Most couples fight because they inadvertently cause shame and fear in each other. As long as this unconscious fear-shame dynamic is active, talking about the issue is likely to make it worse.
There is a survival-based mechanism observed in most social animals, in which fear and anxiety of female members of the pack serve as an automatic alarm system to stimulate aggressive-protective behavior in the males. (The better sense of smell and hearing of females makes them more sensitive to danger and more suited to be social alarms.) When the females get scared, the stronger males form a defensive/aggressive perimeter around the endangered pack.
The human brain is more socially structured than that of any other animal. In us, this primitive interactive mechanism takes on more complicated forms that secretly undermine intimate relationships.
Confronted with the anxiety or fear of a woman, a man typically responds with protection/support. But if he does not know how to protect/support or feels like a failure as a protector, he is likely to turn the aggression onto her (usually in the form of criticism, "superior reasoning," control, etc.) or rein it in by withdrawing in frustration (stonewalling or going quiet). Anger or withdrawal by men often stimulates anxiety or fear of isolation in women, even if his anger or withdrawal has nothing to do with her.
In general, a man is likely to stonewall, be critical, defensive, or contemptuous if he experiences or is trying to avoid the experience of failure as a provider, protector, or lover. A woman is likely to be critical, defensive, or contemptuous if she experiences (or is reminded of having experienced) fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation.
If the couple does not understand this unconscious, interactive dynamic, they will think they have a "communication" problem and will likely continue to provoke anxiety and shame in each other as they try to talk. They will begin to think that they have a bad, insensitive, or selfish partner, and eventually give up on the relationship without understanding the primitive emotional mechanism that did the real damage.
When Talking Doesn't Help
If you were to say to the man in your life, “Honey, we need to talk about our relationship,” what do you think would happen?
If he would answer with something like, “I thought you’d never ask!” or, “I’ve been dying to share my feelings about our life together, and I especially want to hear how you feel about us and how you want me to change,” you are luckier than the vast majority of couples. Most women would expect that their men would get distracted, defensive, irritated, fidgety, roll their eyes, or shut down completely, and most men would feel like they’re being punished for a crime they didn’t commit. She knows her lines, he knows his, and it always ends up worse than it started. No wonder the five words a man dreads most are, “Honey, we need to talk.”
It turns out that men are right; talking about your relationship is more likely to make it worse than better. Talking about emotions calms women because they get a shot of oxytocin, the bonding chemical, even from negative interaction. Men don’t want to talk because talking won’t make them feel better. In fact, it will make them feel worse - they get pumped with unpleasant-feeling cortisol in conflictive, emotional talk. Men experience more physiological arousal with more blood flow to their muscles when they have negative emotions. It is physically uncomfortable for them to talk, especially when they feel shame, and they are likely to feel shame when you approach them with anxiety or unhappiness.
There’s something more powerful than the stereotypical nagging wife and stonewalling husband at work here. It’s the same dynamic that seizes both of you when you startle at something on the road while he’s driving. He sees your fear as an assault on his charioteering and either puts a chilly wall between you or becomes an angry Ben Hur to show you how aggressively he can drive.
What happens to both of you when you get afraid of his driving and when you want to talk about your relationship is a primal dynamic that is present in all social animals: Your fear stimulates his shame/aggression. Often punished at an early age for showing vulnerable emotions (Big boys don’t cry!”), males tend to merge shame and aggression. To avoid the exceeding pain of shame, they become aggressive. That is why “Death before dishonor” is not a phrase associated with women’s groups.
We are also unlikely to hear the phrase, “No woman is an island.” Worse than feeling bad for a woman is having no one care that she feels bad. When women talk to each other, they often make connection by exposing vulnerability. If you tell her girlfriend, “I feel sad, lonely, ignored, etc,” she hears your complaint as an invitation to move closer and lets you know that she cares. So why can’t your husband do it like your girlfriends?
By adulthood, normal male socialization has funneled the shame-aggression response into a dread of failure, particularly as a provider, protector, lover, and parent. Confronted with unhappiness from the woman in his life he feels like he’s failing. He feels too inadequate to see the desire for connection that lies beneath her complaints.
Here’s a common example. Sarah was nervous about the weight she had put on when she modeled her new dress for her husband. “How do I look?” she asked.
Sensing her nervousness, Scott replied, “How much did it cost?”
This simple exchange in an otherwise loving relationship started a fight about money that quickly expanded to include sex, in-laws, and their relationship. But the fight wasn’t about any of those things. Her anxiety about her appearance triggered his shame, which he associated with provider inadequacy – he feels he doesn’t make enough money. Of course, his response made her feel like she wasn’t worth the cost of the dress. So that night she didn’t want to have sex with him. His shame as a lover aggravated, he refused to go with her to visit her parents as they had planned.
This invisible fear-shame dynamic is at the core of a great many relationship problems. The good news is that connection soothes both fear and shame. And that’s why you want to talk in the first place, to feel more connected. But it’s hard for him to feel connected when he feels like a failure. Had Sarah simply told Scott the truth, that she bought the dress to look good for him, he would have felt valued rather than threatened. And if Scott had felt protective of his wife’s anxiety, he would have reassured her, which would have dissipated his feeling of inadequacy.
Always try to connect before you talk about anything emotional. When people feel valued they cooperate; when they feel devalued or threatened, they resist.
The best advice for men is to incorporate small connective gestures into their routine, e.g. “Brush my teeth—kiss my wife. Pour my coffee—pour her coffee, answer work emails—email my love.” Be aware of how important she is to you—she provides the meaning of your life, so don’t wait to show love for her until she’s got her bags packed and ready to walk out the door. Hug her at least six times a day. Surprise her now and then. Help her often.
Women should start conversations with touch. Men need 2-3 times more touching to feel connected. Yes, they like non-sexual touching, as long as they’re not sex-starved. Men feel more connected through mutual activities, so try to do things with them. Women report that they have the best talks with their husbands while walking and driving because then he’s doing something with you. Understand that he feels connected to you when you are nearby but letting him do his routine. And don’t forget sex. Orgasm releases oxytocin and is his only source of the bonding chemical. It increases his desire to be close.
Fortunately, we have powerful internal signals of the fear-shame dynamic. If a woman feels anxious and her man isn’t helping, he’s probably feeling shame and she needs to make a compassionate connection with him. If a man is feeling hassled or trapped and his woman is making it worse, he can bet that she’s feeling fear of isolation or deprivation; he needs to get in touch with how much he cares for her and reassure her. The discomfort they both feel is not something that one is doing to the other. Rather, it is happening to both of them, and together and they can disarm it. Mutually disarming the fear-shame dynamic is the most effective way to achieve the closeness you both want, which is, at heart, a love beyond words.
When Your Ego Grows Bigger than Your Deepest Values
- You'll make more mistakes
- You'll develop resentment or anger problems
- Your anger management techniques will fail
- You'll be prone to emotional abuse and verbal abuse
- Your relationships will fail
Is Marriage Hard?
I am asked all the time by the press why marriage is so difficult. To back up their question, interviewers cite the high divorce rate, increasing reports of distressed marriages, and the persistence of emotional abuse and domestic violence.
I usually reply to the inevitable “marriage is hard” question with another question: “For whom is marriage hard?” Marriage is only hard for those who:
- Try to make their partners into someone they are not
- Believe they have superior rights, tastes, preferences, beliefs, or morality
- Are unwilling to use binocular vision to see their partner’s perspectives alongside their own
- Believe their partners are selfish, mentally ill, or defective
- Are unable or unwilling to admire their partners’ strengths and meet their vulnerabilities with compassion and support.
If you are one of those people, marriage will seem impossible. If you’re not, it’s just about negotiation.
Your Spouse Can Read Your Mind when Your Mind is Negative
Most marriage therapists and relationship books warn against "mind-reading," which means assuming that your partner knows what you want. With some couples this is good advice. But one of the reasons that marriage counseling usually fails in relationships with chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse is that your partner can read your mind when your mind is negative.
If you think or feel "nag, jerk, selfish, liar, loser, irrational, irresponsible, narcissist, borderline, or abuser" or make any other negative attribution in proximity to an intimate partner, it will certainly be communicated, no matter how positive the words you use; indeed, even if you say nothing at all. Remember, our species communicated sentiment through body language and emotional demeanor long before the development of language. Even low-grade resentment and anger -- irritability, impatience, defensiveness, chilliness, agitation, annoyance, and contemptuousness -- are clearly communicated without words.
All of this means that if you try to communicate verbally without changing how you think and feel, you will seem to people you love to be saying one thing and thinking another, which will make you seem manipulative, if not dishonest. You will almost certainly get a defensive or otherwise negative response, even if your words are entirely positive.
In contrast, getting in touch with your core value changes the way you see yourself and the people you love. It makes you focus on what is more important to you, connection or punishment, compassion or resentment, growth or the status-quo.
At the very least, activating your core value before you attempt to communicate allows you to be more authentic with loved ones and reduces the chances of a negative response from them. But even if it fails to improve your interaction, you will feel more confident and genuine within yourself by remaining true to your deepest values.
Many times the futile negative thought-positive talk dance reflects a superficial communication-skills approach to what is really a walking-on-eggshells problem, coming from chronic resentment, anger, emotional abuse, or verbal abuse. One sure sign that you are walking on eggshells in your relationship is feeling as if you're losing yourself in a stream of self-doubt. If that is the case it is even more important that you remain true to your deepest values. Authenticity comes from fidelity to your deepest values, not from indulging transitory feelings.
If you feel that things are unfair because you're not getting enough help, appreciation, consideration, praise, reward, or affection, you're in the grips of resentful living.
Resentment builds under the radar in all relationships, because they cannot be fair all the time. The trouble comes when resentment:
- Blocks natural compassion for loved ones and justifies disregarding their feelings
- Forms a self-linking chain of events that makes you look for things to resent
- Creates revenge motives in loved ones
- Starts a downward spiral of bickering, irritability, cold shoulders, emotional shutdown, angry outbursts, and, eventually, emotional abuse
Here are the early signs that resentment is building to danger levels. Either you or your partner is:
- Irritated by things you used to think were cute - facial expressions, laughter, tone of voice, manner of dress, etc.
- Losing interest in most forms of intimacy - talking, touch, hugging, sharing, sex
The following are advanced signs that resentment is becoming dangerous. Either you or your partner is:
- Judgmental about the other's perspective without being curious to learn more about it
- Irritated by how the other feels
- Intolerant of differences - you should see things my way
The RED ZONE:
- Your partner seems bent on making you feel bad, irritating you, hurting you, or pushing your buttons.
- It feels like you're sleeping with the enemy.
The term, “ego” has a benign meaning of “self-worth.” In this sense, ego is indistinguishable from one’s deepest values, as a sense of genuine self-worth depends of fidelity to our deepest values.
The problem comes when ego inflates to a feeling that the self is superior to other people. This leads to entitlement, i.e., a belief that you deserve special consideration, which is bound to produce resentment and discord in relationships. Love relationships in particular require compassion and equality in terms of value, which is why ego is the worst enemy of marriage.
Ego: The World’s Worst Defense
Inflated ego is a defense against shame or feelings of failure and inadequacy. It is based on a profound misunderstanding of the role of shame in the human motivational system.
Shame is a correction message, not a failure message. It tells you to do something different that will improve your experience of life at that moment. As a defense against shame, ego prevents improvement, and thereby undermines the motivational system. The larger your ego grows, the less self-aware and able to improve you become, which is why ego is the worst enemy of the self.
Shame and Values
Shame serves as guardian of our deepest values. Whenever we violate them, we experience shame, not as a punishment that requires defenses, but as motivation to be true to our deepest values. As soon as we think and behave according our deepest values, shame diminishes. As long as we do not, shame increases, forcing us to develop elaborate avoidance strategies, such as distraction, drinking, drugging, thrill-seeking, blame, criticism, resentment, anger, and aggression.
In love relationships, shame motivates integrity to our deepest values, which usually means behaving more compassionately toward loved ones. Inflated ego short-circuits the purpose of shame and eventually destroys intimate relationships.
Marriage Help: Make It Easy
After years of working with couples, I am still amazed at how very hard we make it for our partners to give us what we want. When we protect our vulnerabilities with self-obsession, usually in the form of entitlement, resentment, anger, superiority, or self-righteousness, our perspectives become narrow, rigid, and devaluing of others. The motivation then is more to punish than to get the original desire met. We'll make demands on our partners without regard of their likely reaction and in total rejection of their perspectives and vulnerabilities. In other words, we'll make it as hard as possible for our partners to do what we would like them to do.
Here's an exercise to gauge the extent to which you make it hard for your partner to do what you want. First, list what you would like to see more of in your partner's behavior, e. g., show more compassion, listen better, be more helpful, have more interest in sex.
Write how you make it difficult for your partner to show you more of what you would like. Examples:
"I make it difficult for my partner to be more compassionate by my lack of sympathy for why he/she is not compassionate at the moment."
"I make it difficult for my partner to be more interested in sex by constantly complaining and ignoring his/her needs for intimacy."
"I make it difficult for my partner to listen by talking at him/her, instead of having a conversation (a give and take of information of mutual interest)."
"I make it difficult for my partner to be more helpful by criticizing what he/she does when trying to be helpful."
Now think of how you could make it easier to get what you want.
To make it easier for my partner to____________, I will____________________
Example: "To make my partner more compassionate, I will try hard to understand and sympathize with his/her perspective, even if I disagree with it."
"To make my partner listen better I will listen better to him/her."
"To get my partner help more, I will appreciate his/her effort."
This approach will not guarantee that your partner will cooperate with you, but it will greatly raise the likelihood. You can certainly reduce the resentment, anger, and emotional pollution in your home by recognizing your own blind spots and respecting your partner's vulnerabilities.
The Powerlessness of Blame
The road to psychological ruin begins with blame.
It's not about blame, it's about healing. The primary question to ask yourself is this:
Am I being the kind of husband or wife that I want to be, in accordance with my deepest values?
If you feel bad and blame it on your partner, what can you then do to make yourself feel better? Not a thing. The act of blame renders you powerless. It also strips your painful emotions of their primary function, which is to motivate corrective behavior.
Human pain – both physical and psychological – is part of a sophisticated alarm network. The purpose of your guilt, shame, and anxiety is not to punish you. Its primary function is to motivate behavior that heals, corrects, or improves.
For instance, the purpose of a pain in my foot is to get my attention so that I will do something to make it better. My conscious mind decides what to do, choosing a behavior with a specific goal—I take the rock off my foot, or get better fitting shoes, or medicine to treat an infection. If you doubt that this is the purpose of the pain, consider what would happen if you were pinned down and could not take the rock off your foot. It would hurt like hell for a while and then, once your brain figured out that there’s nothing you could do about it, it would go numb. You probably know married couples who, after years of being unable to relieve their distress, have gone numb.
The crucial point is that your pain always motivates you – not your partner or anyone else – to make it better. The discomfort in your bladder doesn’t tell you that she needs to go to the bathroom or that she drank too much water. Neither does your guilt or shame tell you that she has to do something. Your wife can disappoint or sadden you, but your guilt and shame – and the resentment and anger they cause – are ultimately about you being true to your deepest values.
Like physical pain, negative emotions are internal alarms meant to attract attention to perceived injury or threat, for the sole purpose of motivating corrective behavior. The primary purpose of emotional pain is to make us take action to increase the value of our lives. The purpose of guilt, shame, and anxiety is to get you to be more loving and protective. They hurt us until we act with love and compassion.
Turn off Your ADS
AUTOMATIC DEFENSE SYSTEM
YOU YOUR PARTNER
Except in the case of abuse or battering, the real barrier to a satisfying intimate relationship is not the personality, selfishness, ill-will, poor behavior choices, or communication skills of you or your partner. The real enemy of your relationship is the hypersensitive Automatic Defense System (ADS) that has evolved between you.
Activated almost entirely without words, the ADS gets triggered unconsciously by body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. By the time you're aware of any feelings, it's usually in an advanced stage. It's the feeling you get when your partner doesn't look at you or or sighs as you or when you hear the door close before he/she enters the room, or when he or she starts with that "tone." Suddenly you find yourself in a defensive posture, prepared for the worst.
Of course, when you are both defensive, the worst is likely to happen. You can just as suddenly find yourself in a battle of cold shoulders or curt exchanges or hot arguments - the missiles seem to start flying on their own, with no one giving the order. You both feel powerless. You get irritable, impatient, resentful, or angry and want to stonewall, ignore, avoid, shut down, criticize, yell, or devalue yourself or your partner.
The sensitivity level of the ADS varies throughout the day. In its hypersensitive stage, anything - serious or trivial - can set off your ADS. There are certain times when it is likely to become hair-trigger:
- When your physical resources are low - you're, tired, thirsty, hungry, sick
- During transitions - stopping one thing and starting another, such as coming, going, waking, driving, starting dinner, finishing dinner, etc.
- Under stress
- When anxious or depressed
- Within a year or two of attachment losses - loved ones moving away or passing away.
But even when your physical and mental resources are high, certain incendiary triggers are so powerful that anything remotely close to them will set off your ADS. These usually invoke the memories of some form of past betrayal, such as:
- Financial secrets
- Threats of abandonment
- Having intimately-revealed vulnerabilities thrown up to you (childhood wounds, fears, past failures, etc.).
Over time, the ADS tends to stay in a hypersensitive state more or less continuously, as you come to expect that your partner will let you down in some way.
Like all defensive systems, the hypersensitive ADS has preemptive strike capacity that is also mostly unconscious. Without intending to, you have an urge to get your partner with some kind of critical remark before he or she gets you. It may seem like you are always defensive, but many times you are striking first in anticipation that you partner is about to do the same.
Good News and Bad News
The bad news about your ADS:
- It runs on automatic pilot
- Like any habit, it's hard to break.
The good news about your ADS:
- You still care about what your partner thinks
- Your emotional well being is still intertwined.
You probably know couples who are largely numb to one another. They are not interested enough in the negative opinions of each other to be hurt by them. They don't hurt because they don't care. Where there is pain, at least there is life, and a motivation to heal and improve. Following the motivation to heal and improve will help you disarm your ADS.
Disarming Your ADS
It's important to realize that in the vast majority of cases you inadvertently push each other's buttons. Even though it may seem that your partner is out to make your life miserable, neither of you likes the way you feel when your ADS gets triggered. Neither of you wants it to be triggered. The secret to disarming it is to see your partner as an ally in the effort rather than a nemesis.
To disarm your ADS:
- See it as a pattern between you rather than something your partner does to you
- Make a core value decision of what is more important to you - giving in to your ADS or disarming it
- Maintain the will to disarm it, even when it feels awkward or scary to do so
- Appreciate times of hypersensitivity and the enormous power of incendiary triggers
- Be compassionate to yourself and your partner
- Be allies against it - it's bigger than either one of you but not bigger than both of you
- Be able to say, "Oh, we're triggered again; let's set it right. You're important to me; I want us to be close."
One thing is for sure: Your ADS is not going to improve without determined effort. If you conscientiously try the above and still find that it is too difficult to break on your own, your ADS has become reflexive and habituated. In that case, you may need some internal reconditioning to eliminate it completely, such as that provided by HEALS.
Rear and Side View Mirrors
During conflict with anyone, but especially a loved one, your perspective becomes narrow, rigid, and resistant to any feedback that mitigates the negative assumptions you are currently making. Worse, you have no idea of how you seem to your partner. In short, you suffer severe blind spots that are the psychological equivalent to driving down the highway without rear or side view mirrors.
You know well how your partner looks and sounds when he or she is resentful or angry. You could write a book about it, or at least a pamphlet or blog post.
But you never think, at least not at the time, about how you look and sound when you notice that your partner is resentful or angry. You don't think of how likely is it that your partner perceives you at that moment to be rejecting, condescending, manipulative, selfish, controlling, or not giving a damn about he or she feels.
Of course your partner has blind spots, too; his or her reactions to you are often inaccurate. But even if his or her reactions to you were entirely incorrect, what would be most likely to change them for the better - defensiveness and resentment, or genuine concern about the hurt causing his or her reaction?
Do You Want to Make It Better or Worse?
If you want to enlarge your blind spots and ensure relationship crashes, the best way to go about it is to assume - or even consider - that your anger, resentment, or other negative reactions to your partner are "justified" or "appropriate." This will only make your perspective narrower, more rigid, and, well, blinder.
If you want to get off the treadmill of conflict with people you love, the first thing to do is accept that, like everyone else on earth, you suffer significant blind spots about your demeanor and behavior in emotional interactions. Only a tiny proportion of brain cells engage in objectively analyzing your own demeanor and behavior under the best of circumstances, and that part receives practically no blood flow or synaptic activation during emotional arousal. Our brains are simply not wired for accurate self-evaluation during emotional arousal. What's more, negative arousal keeps us hyper-focused on a perceived threat and impervious to information that might mitigate the threat. That is how the people you love most in the world can seem like saber tooth tigers when you are angry or resentful, with all your thought processes dedicated to magnifying how bad he or she is at that moment.
Adjusting the Mirrors
If you are tired of relationship crashes, the best strategy for reducing your blind spots is to use the reactions of your partner as a system of rear and side view mirrors.
If you believe that your partner is:
- Attacking you, ask yourself if you are devaluing him or her, at least in your head
- Being selfish, ask yourself if you are coming off selfishly
- Superior, condescending, or disrespectful, ask yourself if you are being respectful and open to his or her perspective
- Devoid of compassion and caring, ask yourself if you are compassionate at that moment.
Adjusting for your blind spots in emotional interactions has to be intentional, just as you have to intentionally adjust the rear and side view mirrors of your car. If you drive on automatic pilot on the road or in your relationships, your blind spots will lead you to disaster. Putting a little care and effort in your blind spot adjustments will get you where you want to go.
Power Love Formula:
To Love Big, Think Small
The key to a strong relationship lies in small moments of connection, incorporated into a daily routine. The Power Love Formula, elaborated in How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking about It and in Love without Hurt, is designed for routine connection. It takes less than five minutes a day and will certainly strengthen your marriage.
Here are the 4 ¾ minutes of the Power Love formula:
Love, like life, is made up of small moments of connection.
- Make some brief acknowledgement of your wife's importance to you at the four major transitional times in the day: waking up, leaving the house, coming home, and going to sleep
- Hug six times a day, holding each hug for six seconds
- Entertain at least three positive thoughts about her when you are not with her.
- Implement your contract once a day: "I hereby agree to express my love for you daily by..." (one of the following):
- lighting a candle for you
- posting an “I love you note”
- putting a flower petal on your breakfast plate
- sending an “I love you” text message
- writing one verse of our favorite song
- other ____________________________
Unequal Love and Sexual Desire
Relationships in which the level or intensity of love and/or sexual desire is unequal are prone to resentment, anger, and emotional abuse.
The person who loves less and/or wants less sexual contact feels guilty and unable to meet the needs of the person who loves or wants more.
The person who loves more and/or wants more sexual contact feels rejected and unworthy.
If they are unable to sympathize with one another's core hurts, they will likely numb their pain with resentment, anger, or emotional abuse.