At Marriage Helper, we often hear from couples that they’d love to put their marriage back together, but their spouse did something terrible. It might be that they had an affair, gambled away their money, or had an addiction problem, but that act is now causing them to feel shame. That shame could be keeping them from feeling like their spouse can forgive them. It keeps them from doing the necessary things to put their marriage back together. Is there hope in this type of situation if you’re wondering, “How can I help my spouse work through shame?”
Understanding Guilt And Shame
Luckily, the answer is yes. The feeling of guilt can be a good thing. When you feel guilt, it tells you something is wrong and you need to fix it. On the other hand, people who feel no guilt are labeled as psychopaths or sociopaths. But while short-term guilt can remind us we need to fix whatever is wrong, long-term guilt can cause a sense of shame if it’s not dealt with properly.
Shame can take a toll on your psyche, sense of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem. It leads you to believe negative things about yourself, which can even affect you physiologically. For example, you can start to feel like no one loves you and you’re worthless when the guilt turns into shame. These feelings of shame can lead to an increase in depression, anxiety, and less immune function. Guilt is, “I did a bad thing.” Shame is, “I am a bad thing.”
In psychology, there’s a lot of good work being done by people like Brené Brown researching shame and vulnerability. She’s studying how vulnerability can be something that helps people reverse that shame by sharing the things causing them to feel shame. Finding acceptance on the other side can help people escape a constant shame cycle.
Shame Can Manifest In Many Ways
People who feel shame often won’t be very transparent about why they are feeling shame. They feel like if you knew everything, then you would see them as a bad person as they see themselves. That makes them feel like they can’t put their marriage back together because they don’t feel you can forgive them. This thinking can lead to self-punishment.
The feelings of shame can manifest in many different ways. Besides causing them to feel like a bad person, it can lead to them becoming filled with pride. This can happen because they don’t want to feel the shame; they want to try and cover it up. Covering it up can present itself as being confident or very sure of themselves.
So, what can you do if you are dealing with shame?
Understanding Your Shame
The first thing you can do is allow yourself to become vulnerable and do some self-reflection. Try to understand why you feel the shame. Some people will find their shame tied to something they did in their marriage, like having an affair. Even for people who have done something recently in their marriage, those feelings of shame may be at least partly tied to something that happened earlier in their life. Shame is such a deep feeling that it can take a long time to present itself.
These feelings of shame can have a wide range of causes. It might be that you were expected to be perfect during your childhood. You feel like you’re not meeting that expectation now, making you unlovable. It might be the opposite end of the spectrum where you were constantly told you were a failure, leading you to believe it. Believing you’re worthless is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What Can Your Spouse Do To Help?
You can’t change your feelings until you recognize that you’re feeling shame, but your spouse can still help. If you already have a negative self-view, your spouse must be careful about how they respond to you. You can’t continue to pile on shame by blaming them. The person experiencing shame needs you to be a safe place for them. Continuing to blame them for things will drive them to disconnect further. The path to coming out of shame is making them feel accepted despite what they have done or even the false beliefs they have about themselves.
Typically, that’s not going to be accomplished by telling them they’re worthy and valuable because their self-image is already negative. You need to be extremely honest about how you feel about what they did to cause the shame. That might sound contradictory, but if you instantly forgive your spouse and try to move on, they don’t fully get to process what’s happened. If your spouse is telling you how bad they are, they want you to listen and empathize with them instead of trying to fix them. They need to be able to release those feelings.
Overcoming their feelings of shame won’t be a quick process; it can take anywhere from months to years. You should see some progress within the first few months, though. You need to continue having consistent conversations and reaffirming your love for them. You’ll not want to discuss it daily because those feelings might be too much, but make sure it’s consistent and as often as your spouse feels comfortable.
Using SMART Contact
Patience will be critical in this process. We’ve talked about the concept of SMART contact in several articles before. Simply put, SMART Communication teaches you the best way to approach any type of communication with your spouse in a “smart” way. Using these techniques in this situation will help by reminding you to avoid PUSH behaviors, respond in a kind, strong, and gentle way, and take it one day at a time.
Our intensive three-day workshops also discuss attachment theory which can be relevant to people experiencing shame. For example, your spouse might decide they don’t want to have contact with anyone, even other family members. This is called dismissing avoidance, and we devote an entire section to these issues at the workshop.
Remember that guilt is good in the short-term, but long-term guilt can lead to negative thoughts about yourself. The best way to help your spouse through this is to be a listening ear and a consistent source of empathy for them. Try to emphasize the good that you see in your spouse. And finally, remember that you can’t logic shame out of a person; you must love it out of them patiently.