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Question

My husband is really defensive and tells me I’m shaming him every time I share my feelings with him. It’s like the second I start talking about my frustrations and needs, he pulls out the “you’re shaming me” wild card and I’m supposed to stop talking to him. I feel like my hands are tied and I can’t ever have a productive conversation with him. I’ll even point out that I think he’s in his shame to try and help him break out of it, but that only makes it worse. Do you have any ideas on how I can actually have a meaningful conversation with him?

Answer

It can be maddening to be cut off when trying to communicate directly with your spouse. You have a lot to share with your husband and you’re not getting through. I have no idea if you’re actually shaming him when you speak with him, but let’s talk about how you can take a closer look at your interactions to see if there is a way to improve your connection to him.

Even though everyone has a different tolerance for shame, there are some fairly common interactions that produce shame in others. Here are some questions for you to consider regarding your communication style with your husband:

  1. When you speak to him about your concerns, are you telling him how he feels or what he thinks?
  2. Do you lecture him in a one-sided monologue?
  3. Do you raise the volume of your voice or get a certain tone of irritation when you speak to him?
  4. Do you use a mocking voice to mimic him when trying to describe your experiences with him?
  5. Do you interrupt him when he’s speaking?
  6. Do you ambush him with your frustrations without concern for what he might have going on?
  7. Do you attack his character or insult him?
  8. Do you roll your eyes or exhibit other contemptuous non-verbal behaviors?
  9. Do you invade his personal space when talking to him?
  10. Do you criticize him in front of others?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, please recognize that these are common ways to shame another person. Most people don’t start off interacting in these ways, but eventually get pulled into a negative interaction cycle where they start treating the other person this way out of sheer desperation to get through. You may have reached a point in your relationship where you go straight to frustrated behaviors instead of trying, as Dr. John Gottman calls it, a softer start-up.

If you have a more aggressive interactional style, then this is important feedback for you to consider before you proceed any further. He might be the most difficult person to communicate with, but your interaction style are behaviors that you can control. And, please recognize that just because you have concerns doesn’t mean that you get to bring them up however you want. How you speak with your husband is just as important as what you want to share with him.

Now, if you answered “no” to these questions, then your husband might be a shame-prone or highly sensitive individual who internalizes other people’s needs as a sign that he’s a failure. True, he could be deflecting personal accountability for ways that he’s hurt you by accusing you of shaming him. But, in my experience, this is a just a cover for the deeper shame he’s likely feeling.

This is a difficult dynamic because every time you try to address concerns, he immediately hears criticism and evidence that he’s a failure. This type of internalized shame sets everyone up for frustration because it’s based around the individual’s belief that they are flawed and defective as a human being. Virtually all comments, observations, feedback, and even compliments can trip the shame-based belief system and create endless arguments.

If this is the case, I highly recommend you work closely with a marriage therapist who can help him hear what you’re really trying to say. You can even invite him into marriage counseling to reassure him that you want to make sure you can hear and connect with each other instead of feeling so distant from each other. It’s highly likely he’s just as frustrated as you, so he might be open to working with you in couples counseling if he knows you want to be close to him.

It’s tempting to want to get to the bottom of the shame and find out why he believes these things. The challenge with this approach is that there really is no bottom to the shame pit when you’re the one driving the conversation. You’ll just be chasing and endless loop of distorted beliefs and blame. Instead, the shame-prone individual has to be the one to ask for help and recognize that they are the one who has to stand up to the shame and embrace a new belief system.

In my experience, shame-prone individuals have been through some type of trauma, abuse, or abandonment in their life that makes it hard to trust that others have their best interest at heart. Even though it’s best to approach these relationships with extra sensitivity and concern, it doesn’t mean that you need to be consigned to a life of silence because they can’t handle your concerns. Keep softening your approach, but be clear that you want to be understood. Again, it’s likely you’re going to need help from an outside professional support to help keep your husband’s shame at bay.

Stay with your concerns and keep trying to share what you need with your husband. Silence and resentment are your alternative, which will create more drama down the road. You can interact with him in healthy ways that align with your values. Check yourself to make sure you’re not making these interactions more difficult. If the shame and blame surface, kindly step away from the interactions that are sliding into shame with an invitation to return when you can talk openly in a connected way. If you can’t get to that point, then invite him to join you in couples therapy so these patterns can be explored and healed in a structured environment.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

If you or a loved one are struggling with the devastating impact of pornography issues, sexual betrayal, and relationship trauma, I have created a 6-part audio program to help married couples strengthen their recoveries. You can purchase the 6-hour audio program here for a limited time at the reduced price of $29 – https://geoff-steurer.mykajabi.com/marriage-recovery

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT