shame in your marriage The power of shame continues to make my mind fizz. (Yours might, too: This post on shame in parenting has drawn more readers than any other post on this site, bar none.)

But now all those thoughts are bubbling over what shame might look like in a marriage; in our most intimate concentric circle of community. See, I know shame—this idea that I’m not worthy of connecting with someone—immediately leads me to cover up.

Take the typical fight with a spouse. First reaction is not typically, You’re so right. I’m snippy, and I have a profound case of PMS. It’s more along the lines of blame-shifting (Well, if you’d stop overreacting like some kind of hypersensitive Pomeranian). Denying (I didn’t say you were arrogant! I said you were cocky). Hiding (If I don’t say anything, it will look a lot like peace and taking the higher road).

The Masquerade

Joking aside—this predilection to hiding means the manifestations of shame are endless. For me, it led to a profound insecurity (you can read how that affected our relationship); to people-pleasing ad nauseam, to the extent of a near eating disorder.

But as I thought about it, shame can disguise itself in a whole card deck of ways: Blame. Workaholism. Lack of vulnerability. Perfectionism. Control. Anxiety. Superiority. Shame researcher Brené Brown adds violence, addiction, depression, aggression, even narcissism (which she describes as the fear of being ordinary and unloveable). I actually think it shows up a lot in sex, a.k.a. marriage in a microcosm, perhaps avoiding connection. (Porn is actually a great example of sex without personal exposure or emotional connection, and, as a side note, it’s been found more addicting than heroin or cocaine.)

Because think about it. If we’re supposed to be naked and unashamed in marriage, how easy is it to be holistically naked (emotionally, spiritually…) if you suffer from shame?

The Recap

A few points I’ve written about previously:

Along with Brown and others, I would distinguish between guilt-awareness—a healthy awareness of what I’ve done wrong—and shame. (See my amateur’s chart distinguishing between guilt awareness and shame here.) Author Heather Davis Nelson writes in this excellent post on “10 Things You Should Know about Shame”,

Guilt’s message is, “I did something bad,” and needs justification and forgiveness. Shame’s message is, “I am bad,” and needs an identity shift and relational connection. Sin leaves both in its wake, and shame is what lingers even after forgiveness has been sought and granted. Shame feels like it’s welded onto you, but guilt feels like something outside of you.

Hear the isolation there? The unworthiness to really connect with someone, to give and take?

And, Brown illuminates, “I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

The Deep-seated Fear

As pastor Tim Keller relates in this podcast, every person’s greatest fear is to be fully known, but not fully loved. And our greatest desire? To be fully known, and fully loved. When we sense that rejection—as children, perhaps, or in other pivotal relationships and moments in life—our first temptation, I think, is that of hiding. (Think a naked Adam and Eve in the Garden: first shame, then hiding, then blame.) Fear has unfortunately led me to some of the most destructive, isolating choices I’ve ever made. And when that fear—of being found out, rejected, deemed unworthy—isn’t addressed with truth, I become relationally, self-protectively dangerous.

Shame reverberates, mind you. We immediately long to cast off a burden that’s just too much. So if you’re in a marriage with someone still dealing with their own shame, you may also receive messages that you’re worthy of disconnection.

But in all honesty–I don’t think any of us is naturally free from shame.

Brown explains, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”

My own shame has required me to revisit those moments where I felt my own unworthiness, my own rejection and failure. In fact, they’ve laid a lot of the “tapes” in my head. It was those moments that—whether someone meant them or not—I internalized the message, “Unless you ___, you’re not worthy.” Insert your own adjective, right? It’s like some haunted Choose Your Own Adventure. Unless you have your act together. Unless you’re socially acceptable. Unless you please people. Unless you maintain control. Unless you do what I say. Unless you…

The Only Antidote

Someone asked me recently what my husband did to love me out of my near-anorexia. It was charged, see, by an attempt to achieve control of myself—and in my own control, to control what others thought of me. What I told her? He showed me how Jesus loved me.

Some of you are new to this site and not really keen on the religious element. But then again, I’ve committed to tell the truth, as far as I understand it, in this space. So allow me at least one paragraph to explain.

In the Bible, God actually says while we were still screwing up, he sent Jesus to pay the price for my foolishness and personal evil (yes, “sin”–see Romans 5:8). Because Jesus paid that debt of mine, God accepts me utterly and totally. Not because I’m such a good religious person, mind you. He did all that while I was still his enemy; still hiding, still blaming, still ignorant and selfish and acrimonious. But that kind of love means I don’t have to hide. I’m not entering a courtroom day after day, proving my worth. My verdict was won for me.

And I’m already worthy of the biggest sacrifice ever made.

So since hiding wasn’t necessary—my husband talked honestly about his own sin, creating an environment of safety for us to be real. He set the tone for the true connection the Bible speaks about by “walking in the light”—by being authentic.

He acknowledged our dependence on God’s exclusive perfection. He wrapped me with acceptance: not out of flattery, but out of love despite my gold stars. And despite the ways I crashed and burned. We laughed at and prayed over our glaring weaknesses. He praised displays of my God-given uniqueness.

His determination to have a marriage in which we were both “naked and unashamed” in every way transformed us. Transformed me.

The Questions

Accepting our spouse doesn’t mean we’re giving some green light to their sin or weakness. Acceptance doesn’t mean “I condone your behavior.” On the contrary, it plays out the Gospel to them repeatedly: That while we were still sinners, God loved us. Chose us. Romans 15 reminds us, Accept one another just as Christ accepted you. That level of acceptance is a pretty tall order in any marriage.

It’s also a vital truth we’re constantly embedding—or not. As one friend told me, I decided to pray for a whole month that God would help me love him unconditionally.  Some questions to get us started: 

  • In what mélange of circumstances am I most likely to let loose with shame talk—starting in my head, then pouring out—indicating my spouse’s insufficiency?
  • What shame messages from my spouse’s past have recorded the “tapes” that may play over and over in his or her mind?
  • What phrases do I use that communicate to my spouse they’re beyond the range of acceptance? Not their behavior, mind you—but them, in light of how I’m treating them in their weaknesses?
  • In what areas is my spouse most likely to feel rejected by me–whether because of stuff in our past, his or her own failures, a personality clash, cycles we repeat, my own embarrassment, or something else?
  • Other than words, what are ways I can convey acceptance to my spouse? What habits of mine (like a relentlessly critical eye, my own perfectionism, or my own anger problem!) create static that interferes with that message?
The Difference

I was fascinated by the amount of creativity and courage that started blooming from every crevice of my brain when I started to at last internalize my husband’s acceptance. And it makes sense, now: As Brown writes,

Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.

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