In an abusive relationship partners are typically poles apart in how much shame they experience.
In an abusive relationship, each partner typically differs drastically in how they experience shame. If you have problems being abused in romantic relationships you very likely feel ashamed easily. This means that you feel bad about yourself easily and might be very hard on yourself if you feel you have done something wrong. This partner can be male or female. We can call this partner the “conscientious partner”.
Unlike the conscientious partner, the “shame deficient parnter” is unperturbed by the idea they might have done something wrong. This is the emotionally abusive partner in the relationship. They likely have other characteristics that make them abusive for example they might experience a lot of anger, they might be jealous, they likely have little emotive empathy and perhaps they get violent. Whatever else is going on the key aspect is how the partners differ in their capacity for shame. The abusive partner is the one who is shame deficient. Any relationship can be abusive. A lot of focus is put on women being abused but men are subjected to awful psychological abuse too by shame deficient partners.
If you are wondering whether your relationship is abusive, understanding the dynamic that plays out between the more conscientious individual and shame deficient individual is critical. If someone has little capacity for shame then they will be very selfish, will not care if they hurt you, will not be interested in resolving issues that affect you, and have the capacity to engage in dangerous behaviour which could be very damaging to you, whether or not you have seen it yet.
When you have an argument with an abusive person, what usually happens is you bring something up but somehow the issue doesn’t get resolved. It ends up being all about how bad you are even though you just tried to bring up an issue which is to do with something they have done wrong. This is very confusing because the conversations typically gets turned around and you end up feeling in the wrong. If you wonder whether your relationship is abusive the next time this happens ask yourself the following questions
- Is this how someone kind would react? In an abusive relationship you spend a lot of time trying to figure out is this person an a***hole? How much of an a***hole are they? Is it them or is it me? and so on. The fact you even have these thoughts means they probably are an a***hole. They almost certainly are not kind. It often helps to think a little bit about how a kind person would respond. For example, you bring up that you don’t like it that you are the one who has to remember everything the kids are doing in your diary with no help from your partner. Whether or not this is a big deal, a reasonably conscientious and kind person will at least give pause for thought and acknowledge your feelings. This is because a kind person has a healthy sense of shame about whether or not they are fulfilling their personal responsibility towards the people they love. Think about it – a kind person would probably go even further than that and they might offer you some concessions pretty quickly and be keen to look for solutions together because your emotional well being is important to them and they prioritise wanting to repair damage because they have a healthy sense of shame about the impact of their own actions on others. An abusive person who is shame deficient doesn’t do that. When you bring something up like that the focus is on shutting you down and how you are wrong to have a problem with their behaviour.
- Does this person immediately shut you down and doesn’t even take the time to acknowledge your feelings? If they immediately put the focus on how you are wrong to even bring it up or start bringing up things you have done this is a bad sign.
- Do you repeat yourself and say it in different ways until you are blue in the face and you get no movement from them. It feels like you are talking to a brick wall. Everyone gets defensive sometimes but this person is like the Great Wall of China. When you bring something up they resist you as if their lives depended on getting you to back down. This is a really bad sign about the other person. This person is shame deficient.
- Does the conversation ramp up just with you trying to get that initial flicker of acknowledgement until you start to get cross. Then as soon as you lose your cool the other person immediately jumps on you with some comment about how you are such a terrible person, so abusive, so controlling or whatever? This is an extremely bad sign. If you see this pattern your relationship is abusive and your partner is shame deficient and potentially dangerous. It is not you. It is them.
If this is happening in your relationship then it is abusive and your partner is “shame deficient”. They are potentially dangerous. This person is supposed to love you. This person is supposed to treat you better than the average Joe but in fact you would get more respect from a random stranger than this.
They are not kind. This is not how someone capable of a loving connection behaves towards their partner.
So that’s the bad news, but if you find yourself in this kind of relationship there are some things you can do:
Realise that your partner is shame deficient. This is probably the most important point. As the conscientious partner, you question yourself about your own behaviour and feel bad about yourself and your behaviour easily. Realise that your partner is not doing this. Not at all. People differ massively in the dimension of shame and your partner is at the other end of the spectrum.
Realise that when you bring up something they have done they don’t feel bad about it. They don’t actually care. All they care about is dumping the shame back onto you. You can try until you are blue in the face to get them to feel bad about it but they still don’t. Therefore, give yourself a break and stop questioning yourself so much about your own behaviour and whether you are justified in having your feelings. Try not to question your feelings at all. If you have a feeling then that is sacrosanct. If you are in this type of relationship then this trumps all considerations about being reasonable to the other person. Your relationship is emotionally abusive. To regain your power you need to start honouring your own emotions.
Embrace your anger. You have a right to feel angry when you are disrespected. This person is disrespecting you. You don’t have to throw stuff around but you do have a right to stand your ground. You are dealing with someone who feels much too much entitled to stand their ground and never budge. Given you are dealing with someone who has this characteristic, if it is safe to do so then you need to get comfortable with embracing your anger and standing firm see https://abuse-recovery.com/2018/11/16/embrace-your-anger/
Given that your partner is shame deficient it is imperative that you work on letting go of your own shame. The shame deficient partner is using how prone you are to experiencing shame to control you. If these patterns describe your relationship, you are not dealing with someone who is in any position to make a character judgement about you. They might tell you that you are controlling, horrible or whatever. In actual fact this is them not you and they know it!
Ignore any invitations they make for you to feel ashamed. Instead observe that they have tried to make you feel ashamed. This indicates that they likely have a very bad character and are shame deficient.
Try to keep calm in an argument. By all means say what you think but try not to give them the reaction that they can con you into accepting all of the shame over. So try not to raise your voice, try not to call them names, try not to assassinate their character. This is not because you should be nice to them. This person is probably an a***hole. It is for your own mental health so they cannot be emotionally abusive to you and get you to hold all their shame. If you are the conscientious person then this is how the shame deficient person gets you under their control. This is the dirty trick where they provoke you and then make everything about your reaction. Don’t let them do that.
Even if they do push you into a reaction, give yourself a break and let it go quickly. Don’t beat yourself up over it. The interaction should never have been this hard. It is only this hard because you are dealing with a shame deficient person.
Work on self care and feeling good about yourself and embrace your right to bring up an issue that is bothering you and get a respectful response. Start to notice how your partner is behaving rather than worrying about whether you are being good or fair. If your partner is shame deficient then they very far from being good or fair people. So don’t beat yourself up about your own behaviour.
If you can work on letting go of your own shame and observing how your partner behaves rather than reacting to it, you can reclaim your power and see your partner more clearly. If you decide to stay in a relationship like this the less shame you experience the easier you will find it to deal with them.