Shame Is Why We Fight

When a man can’t soothe his woman’s anxieties, he has failed to protect her. And in our culture of masculinity, failed men are expendable.

I wrote recently about the link between violence and shame, specifically in relation to the recent tragedy in Connecticut. I thought it would be good to come down from the radical violence level and relate the dynamics of shame to romantic relationships. By this, I mean nonviolent romantic relationships.  I will have to tackle domestic abuse and shame, where there is most certainly a parallel to be drawn, on another day.

What I’ve found is that men and women seem to trigger shame in one another unconsciously through their interactions. Below I’ve summarized two similar theories on the topic: silence/violence theory and the fear-shame dynamic.

Silence/Violence  Theory

Sociologist Thomas Scheff proposed that shame is a factor in all interpersonal and collective conflicts. He said that war is a byproduct of the emotional world. Drawing on Erving Goffman terminology, he proposes that there are cultural components of being male and female called the  “cult of masculinity” and the “cult of femininity.”

“The cult of masculinity seems to involve isolation from others, suppressing fear, and acting out anger. The cult of femininity would be the reciprocal, engulfment with others, suppressing anger, and acting out fear.”

—Thomas Scheff, War and Emotion: Hypermasculine Violence as a Social System

He draws on a large body of research to suggest that shame is silent in our society. We don’t talk about shame, but we act on it with a higher frequency than any other emotion. The way that we socialize men, then, promotes anger and creates shame over fear. The way that we socialize women, then, promotes fear and creates shame over anger. Thus, each partner’s “acted out” emotion triggers shame in the other leading to conflict.

 [According to the theory of ] Relationship expert Dr. Steven Stosny …  males who cannot protect the females are subject to being attacked by other males; this vulnerability can be called shame.

The Fear-Shame Dynamic

Relationship expert Dr. Steven Stosny crafted a theory of relationship conflict with similar implications, but different explanations called the fear-shame dynamic. Basically, he also suggests that partners in heterosexual relationships inadvertently trigger fear and shame in one another.

His theory begins in the world of instincts. He says that, in most social animals, females tend to be more fearful, vigilant, and receptive to sensory stimuli while males tend to be more aggressive, physically powerful, and expendable (in that ova are more valuable and rare in a pack than sperm). By extension, males who cannot protect the females are subject to being attacked by other males; this vulnerability can be called shame.

“This ancient male vulnerability presents in modern humans as dread of failure, particularly as a protector, provider, or lover. The pain of failure can be so debilitating for men that we expend enormous amounts of emotional energy trying to avoid it, both in behavior and in the construction of the male ego, which can be thought of as a denial of failure.”

—Dr. Steven Stosny, The Fear-Shame Dynamic, Anger in the Age of Entitlement

This dynamic, he says, works well when a relationship first starts.  Every time a woman is anxious, concerned, or vulnerable, the man can be supportive and helpful.  He wants to soothe, comfort, and fix all a woman’s problems.  He’ll want to be with a woman who is satisfied with him physically, emotionally, and intellectually.  A woman who, as the article puts it, “soothes his dread of failure.”  After the honeymoon phase, this same dynamic becomes toxic.  After the solidification of a bond, such as in child-bearing or cohabitation, a man expects his female partner to be fear-free due to his protection.  When she does experience anxiety or fear, this causes an immediate shame reaction in the man who feels like her emotions equate with his inadequacy. He may respond by being aggressive, defensive, or by shutting down.

Angry reactions by men trigger further fear responses in women.  Most men have no intention to hurt their female partners and are stunned that their girlfriends and wives are scared of them when they know they would never hurt them.  Most women have no intention to belittle their male partners and are stunned that their boyfriends and husbands are so angry and defensive in the face of their feelings.

Angry Men, Scared Women and the Shame-Blame Cycle

The more I’ve read, the more I’ve seen this trend pop up.  Recent studies showed that in chimpanzees as well as in humans, prejudice sparks fear in women and anger in men. Women report fear more often, despite no actual difference in  fear behaviours between sexes. Sexual intimacy issues in couples stemming from women’s inability to give their sexual energy to men due to anger and men’s inability to receive women’s sexual energy due to fear. While I think there could be a lengthy debate about the origins of this trend,  one thing is for sure: it’s definitely happening.  I want to mention here that when I say male, I intend to mean “part of the cult of masculinity” and when I say female, I mean “part of the cult of femininity.”  It would be reasonable to expect biology to play less of a role than socialization.

According to the theories above, conflicts between the sexes are inevitable due to a lack of authentic emotional expression. Let’s say a woman comes home from work and expresses some sort of anxiety or fear. Perhaps she is just venting about how stressful her day was. She expresses anxiety and not anger due to socialization. A male responds by feeling angry due to repressed fear over being inadequate in keeping her from such feelings. His anger may come out as frustration, irritation, or an insensitive remark her way. This expression of anger over fear is also due to his socialization. The female has now received a negative reaction to her feelings which triggers shame in her. She acts out this shame, coupled with a natural response to aggression in a larger living thing, with fear. Her fear would propagate his anger, and so on. Both would continue with their outward or “acted out” emotions failing to match their inward or “repressed” feelings.

Now, we’ve got a cycle. One’s acting out anger and the other is acting out fear. Both are experiencing shame. When the communication lines are so severed, there is nothing even remotely close to a safe space. Think of your most embarrassing experience. Now think of telling it to a room of judgmental strangers. Shame disclosure just does not happen in unsafe environments. So, what do we do? We blame. The more we blame, the more shame we have, the more we blame. If you feel attacked, you’ll attack back. It’s just adaptive. The Shame-Blame cycle is rampant in many relationships that started off beautifully but, due to processes out of both partners’ awareness and control, are cycling straight for resentment, pain, and fracture.

Fighting Shame With Authenticity

If this article feels familiar to you, maybe you feel some consolation at having a more reasonable explanation for your conflicts with your loved one than one of you being uncaring or withholding. That warm, fuzzy feeling when you feel like you’re not doing anything horribly wrong and you don’t feel like your partner is out to get you either—that’s the product of validation.

Validation is the most authentic thing that you can do for a person. To validate someone’s feelings is to tell them that you accept how they feel and that their feelings are reasonable. To validate someone is to tell them that their authentic feelings—which they have had, do have, and will continue to have with or without validation—are acceptable to you. In essence, to validate someone is to tell them that they, in all their glory, are acceptable to you. To judge someone, to turn down their feelings, to tell them they can’t or shouldn’t feel a certain way—that’s telling that person that they are not acceptable to you.

Shame researcher Brene Brown calls shame a silent epidemic.  She says that, in order for us to find our way back to each other, we must talk openly about our shame and embrace authenticity.

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy—it can’t survive.”

—Brene Brown, “Listening to Shame”

Don’t be blinded by shame. Break the shame that blinds you to your integrity and dignity as well as that of your partner. Communicate and validate instead of shaming and blaming. Remember that love breeds love and hate breeds hate.

The more we accept each other and each others’ feelings, the safer we feel. The safer we feel, the more we feel comfortable disclosing. The more we feel comfortable disclosing, the less we repress. The less we repress, the less we act out. The less we act out, the less we fight. The less we fight, the more we love. The more we love, the more loved we feel. The more loved we feel, the happier we all are.

This was previously published at Authentunity.

Read more on Sex & Relationships.

Image credits: quote: Vironika Tugaleva; feature image:  Editor B/Flickr

About Vironika Tugaleva

Vironika Tugaleva is a people lover, inspirational speaker, reformed cynic, coach, and bestselling author of the award-winning book The Love Mindset. Her work helps people develop self-awareness, cultivate peace of mind, and discover the importance of healing, loving, and understanding themselves. You're invited to read more about Vironika and get a sneak preview of The Love Mindset .


  1. To my knowledge,there is no major religion-Judaism,Islam,Christianity- or political party that has spared humanity from consequences of it base nature. It is historical fact that feminism has had its problems with structual racism,sexism and classism.They blew it on dv and rape.There is a history in feminists circles of suppressing the fact that they knew as early as 1970 that women were violent also to their families.Why trust people like this?Not because they hurt people but because they deny it while blaming others.There is no excuse for this.

    • Technically, there is no Judaism, Islam, or Christianity without people. These are just constructs. Perhaps struggle has been ingrained in the history of many people and then blamed on constructs to keep us all from the responsibility of fixing the problem.

      I feel like everyone needs validation. Validation for how they feel, think, and act. Maybe all I’ve written about about is actually complete load of bull and is going to be proven to have been a major hoax in the history of social sciences. However, as long as this information inspires people to accept their current states and set off to do better, to practice compassion and validation, then it has value.

      A few days ago, I got a letter from a man who said that this article gave him and his wife the insight they needed and made them understand the importance of validating each other. He said he wanted to teach this to his children to make a better world tomorrow. I feel like, for me at least, that makes it worth it. Some of us are validated by science, some by fictional pieces, and others by music. However it happens, it’s important for people to accept that there are reasons for their behaviour, especially if the behaviour is negative, in order to move onto seeking to change their behaviour for the better.

  2. This has been a great trip down the nature/nurture rabbit hole.

    The recurring problem I see with this hole is that nature is used as an excuse for ‘that’s how things have always been, so that’s how they’ll have to be’ cowardice, while nurture is thrown back and forth across the lines, both parties saying ‘we need to change’ and both saying ‘but you first’.

    Yes, patriarchy rewards greed in men and sloth in women, shaming everyone in the process, but we don’t have to erase the forward thrust and the inward draw altogether. We don’t need to be amoebas to keep from being apes.

    I’m not saying this to shame the author or the commentators into anything. I want to validate the exploration of this territory. It really IS as new to our society as it is ancient to our species.

    • Thanks for your comment! You know, it’s funny – personally, nature or nurture, I’m not really AS concerned as I am concerned with getting us out of this warfare. It seems like, regardless of the origins of our patterns of conflict with one another, the way out is the same – validation, acceptance, compassion.

  3. @Vironika: How does your theory explain that the women of Rome found the gladiators- trained remorseless killers- to be the most sexually desirable of all men.For rich Roman women bedding- not marrying- gladiators was a positive marker of their status.The more deadly and dangerous the man,the better.

  4. It’s funny…but your point- it doesn’t matter if her behavior was intentionally meant to hurt me,it was still very wrong- was lost on her.

  5. @Vironika:Well I hear your point but it fails to address many issues around the causations of abuse. Besides,it is rare when one answer solves a widespread complex problem.

  6. @ogwriter

    Thank you for your engagement!! I love readers like you who read, think, ask, and share with curiosity, openness, and respect. :o)

    The way I see it, patriarchy is simply the giving of power to men. Without a long winded discussion about why it happens, where it came from, or when it started, I see it as a process that has been and still is occurring and that is detrimentally affecting us as human beings in the same way as any imbalance of power (fascism, slavery, etc.) has.

    It hurts all women by depriving them of power and in correlation hurts many men by expecting them to consistently exhibit it, want it, and work for it. That is not to say that some don’t benefit from it. Anyone who 1) values only power and 2) has power…. Wins. This has happened in various types of oppression (if not all). So, to fight it, everyone who DOES not qualify for both criteria in that they value other things such as compassion, love, honesty, happiness or who does not have power, those people, I think, must come together! Not to use the power back against the benefactors of an oppressive regime. Not to fight violence with violence, but to balance the power dynamics so that everyone can have their own share of the power without anyone having more or less. This is my dream. De-centralized, widespread justice for everyone. The redistribution of power so that power becomes EMPOWER and the power we have is in how our individual actions fuel each others’ happiness.

    • “The way I see it, patriarchy is simply the giving of power to men.”

      This identifies a key flaw in the theory. “Given”? Really?

      Who gave this power to men? Thtis formulation presuppsoes some paternalistic influence in the uiniverse granting and withholding power. That is not a very adult or useful worldview.

      Men ahve power because they take it, because they have to. Women don’t because they don’t have to, they can rely on some man’s power . That’s the gender dance in a nutshell.

      And it sucks. It infantilizes women and it enslaves men. Either gender has to power to stop the dance – women by being truly independent – no rape whistles for self-defense, which is really just calling a man to defend them – and men by simply refusing to have anything to do with dependent, high-maintenance women – and that means *any* maintenance.

      Men have to develop the self-respect to demand equal partnership. It’s out there and more will be available as supply follows demand. That’s what cultural change is all about.

      • Thank you for sharing.

        I certainly do NOT mean by “giving” what you’ve suggested. And that would most definitely not be a useful world view, I agree. Patriarchy is a social construct. It doesn’t exist without people. It’s been constructed by people, long ago. It continues to affect us now. Social constructs don’t just immediately disappear. They are built and they can be de-constructed.

        The families and couples I know that really subscribe to a patriarchal system… the women really do give the power to men. Because they’re told to. They’re not given any other options. They don’t see any way out. Maybe some see a way out, but they don’t know where to go. In any case, women are taught, in patriarchy, to give power to men. And men are taught to take it.

        The harm of this is quite evident, but to repeat something I’ve said before, unless you 1) only care about power, and 2) have power, then oppressive systems are not of benefit to you. Those who do not benefit from oppressive systems, like patriarchy, should get together and seek to de-construct this social construct.

  7. @Vironika:Oppression and the patriarchy. I looked up the definition of oppression and it has nothing to do with the patriarchy or the sex of the person. Your language is somewhat confusing because it is contradictory to me. You say that everyone is equal and everyone’s pain should be acknowledged, then you link the very meaning of oppression to men only. I believe we should validate the feelings of another, to a point. Absolutism, in most situations, is usually a bad thing. Some will use validation as an excuse to hurt people and not responsibility for it. Others will use it to control. In theory, validation sounds great, but in reality it only addresses part of the problem.

    I have been controlled by women who use her emotions to keep me on the defensive, always wary about how she may be feeling or perceiving the world about any number of issues. When men have to do this, they subconsciously learn to repress their own feelings because her’s are more important…happy wife, happy life. And as you noted, females on average, have heightened emotional sense that are triggered easier than a males. The problem is women don’t perceive it that way. Many times,this results in a woman’s emotional world dominating the relationship. For instance, it was noted by Jules on another post that men should concern themselves with the little things that upset a woman’s world. He said that he noticed that a woman who was sitting with her legs open( she was wearing pants) crossed her legs because he came into the room. This was framed as a big deal and as something that men should be sensitive too.Wow! There isn’t enough time in the day?!

  8. @Vironika:I don’t believe for moment that my pain–even being the great grandson of former slaves–is more less important than anyone else’s. At the same time,I don’t believe the patriarchy is THE problem either,it is a mask.Social contructs like socialism,democracy etc. don’t prevent humans from commiting horrific atrocities. But they do help to mask the brutality.Why isn’t equality common to democracy and in feminism?It ain’t the patriarchy,it’s the people.

  9. @Vironika:True story: Tell me what you think.I told the woman that I’d hoped to ride off into a thoroughly,romantic sunset with my girl,replendent and enriched with creativity and joy of life.She insisted that be vulnerable since,of course,love depends on it. I told because of my past, she needed to be clear about boundaries among men in our social circle. I didn’t restrict her behavior–she wouldn’t allow that anyway– nor was I jealous. She proceeded to stomp on that wound by 1)Restarting a private relationship with her ex who was a known mutual acquaitance.I was not allowed to go out with them.I told her repeatedly how much it hurt and how much I felt anxious and that my self-esteem was suffering.2)While at a wedding,I was talking to a mutual friend and she came over to join us.I offered her a seat next to me and he offered her a seat on his lap,she sat on his lap. I fell slowly into a hole so deep light could neither get in or out.Get this, when I told her that her behavior was having the already discussed negative consequences,she said she wasn’t purposely shaming me?! Whether that’s true or not I can’t take the chance,the stakes are too high.To top it off, this woman was extremely jealous. I left her AND she wanted to remain friends;not a chance.

    • “she said she wasn’t purposely shaming me?! ”

      Even if that lie wsas true, that she wasn’t doing it intentionally, what would it matter? What diference does her intent make? She was not intentional? – fine, she was negligent, and not only that, she insisted on continuing to act in her negligent way.

      Would have tolerated similar behavior from you for even an instnat, or would yoyu have been a “dog” for acting the way she did?

  10. This is an interesting article! I do see the cycle of blame and shame daily; I admit that I’ve been a part of it in many cases. It exhausts me though to seek to acknowledge another’s perspective and have my perspective devalued. I’ve had to learn to distance myself from too much access to people in pain (and there are many of them); you can only take them so far. Share what you can but let them make the decisions that are best for them.

    I’ll be more mindful to not create shame in my own son’s life but the ability to bear responsibility in a given circumstance.

  11. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Nice article! I do think much of the shaming is tacit– not expressed verbally or even consciously– but projected. That’s why many men don’t agree that men “slut shame,” for example, because we and our male friends don’t do it– but women may project that this is happening anyway, and it be be occuring on a deep level

  12. Thank you for sharing. Your insight is remarkable. You know, your comment that your authentic sharing of your vulnerabilities has caused women to hurt you feels really familiar. It hurts me to see this happening so often to men and, unfortunately, this pattern is really prevalent.

    I’m a big believer that patriarchy really hurts men too. In the process of researching this, I’ve come across the PHMT (it’s an acronym, it’s so well-known) “tactic” is referred to as a “silencing tactic” for feminist discourse. This further saddens me because … how can we ever get rid of this thing called patriarchy, this thing called centralized power, this thing called oppression that hurts EVERYONE involved… if we keep fighting about who’s hurt more? Really, justice is justice. Equality is equality. We all deserve to feel it, give it, and uphold it in every moment we’re alive on this planet.

    • The thing about the PHMT tactic is that it is often used as a proxy for talking about the ways in which men are harmed. Rather than get into the ways that men are mistreated in the criminal justice system just chirp that PHMT. Instead of talking about the ways fathers are unfairly treated just say PHMT. It’s the feminist version of YOLO (You only live once).

      It is true that everyone is hurting but when you can’t even talk about the harm that is being inflicted upon some people without ALWAYS having to quantify it in relation to how harm is inflicted upon others it is no wonder that people get bogged down in who has it worse, as unproductive as it might be.

      • Danny,
        ” The thing about the PHMT tactic is that it is often used as a proxy for talking about the ways in which men are harmed.”

        That is very often, most often the case when PHMT is used, but not here. In this case when a woman shames a man this way,s he is acting as a tool of the patriarchy.

        In fact women are so heavily invested in and active in and supportive of the patriarchy that the term “patriarchy” is a misnomer.

        • That is very often, most often the case when PHMT is used, but not here. In this case when a woman shames a man this way,s he is acting as a tool of the patriarchy.

          Of there are cases when it actually holds true Ginkgo. Merely addressing why it is referred to as a silencing tactic.

          It’s about the same as a boy crying wolf. Yes there are cases when there really is a wolf, but certainly that doesn’t make it okay to just turn it into a rubber stamp and act as if all cries of wolf actually mean there is a wolf about.

  13. @The connection to shaming and dv , in my view works like this. Take a man who is under constant pressures, from the time he is a child, that the culture he lives in doesn’t express or acknowledge or allow him openly deal with or question, and put him in a situation where his identiy-status in the social order is challenged.

    Then, the woman who he trusts and loves and knows his vulnerablities pushes him too far is when problems can come up that lead to an esculation of hostilities. I am not saying it is right, I am just saying I think there’s a connection. For instance,(just one of many examples) it is probably not a good thing to a say to a man who is strugglimg to find work,” If you were a real man you ‘d have a job.”This kind of use of shaming by a man’s woman or his community can have devastating consequences that he probably won’t even realize are taking place until he has lashed out verbally or physically. As I said before, I can’t afford to have a woman in my life who doesn’t understand this, it puts me and her at risk.

  14. @Vironika: In the black community that I know and grew up in the shaming of men is a common feature of the culture. The anxiety that white males are starting to note in a big way has, to my knowledge and personal experience, always been present in the black community. He has been expected to achieve at an almost unnatural rate of accomplishment, relative to his challemges.

    An historical example would be the Civl War.Not only did blackmen have to compete to achieve the prevailing standard of masculnity with those with whom his practical status was unequal, he had to do it on terms that further put his future at risk; by fighting in the war itself.Frederick Douglas championed the role of blacks-slaves- fighting in the war to prove themselves worthy of being judged men. Remember they were considered animals by the government and the populace.
    Shaimng goes way back

  15. @Vironika:For me, the issue is not the shaming that is done subconcously that is the problem.It is thje in your face knd of shaming that is a part of the fabric of relationships that is the problem.To be sure, the two are related, as the former wouldn’t exist without the latter.Nonetheless, there is hardly need to hide shaming in American culture. I beleieve that there is a connection to this shaming and dv

    I also don’t beleive the damage that can be done psychologically to a man when he under the constant threat of shamhg from his love interest. I am careful about letting the woman I love know what my vulneralbilities are around masculinity because too often, even after I have described in full detail to her thr possible consequences of her shaming me through emasculation usually—-depression and anger from me–it has failed to impress most women I have known. Many have used the knowledge to hurt me in the most egregious ways.


  1. […] It’s interesting that we are so willing to be kind to victims, but not to bullies. Every bully was a victim once. Maybe I’ll get a lot of flak for saying that. But I really believe it. Shame is the prerequisite to violence. […]

  2. […] article The Shames That Blind Us which has also been published on Good Men Project under the title Shame Is Why We Fight Share this:FacebookTwitterStumbleUponGoogle […]

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