Shame is so ugly, it’s the least studied human experience. We don’t want to touch, talk, read, or think about it. John Harrison, a licensed counselor, explains why.
A new couple coming to me for counseling greet me at the door to my office for their Monday 11 a.m. appointment. They enter with a polite “hi, nice to meet you” and a smile. Jason and Melanie sit on the couch together and fill out the consent paperwork cooperating in a manner which gives an impression of a normal, healthy relationship.
But something isn’t right.
Melanie sits staring at me intensely, waiting to speak. Jason looks at the floor, to the wall behind me, and then quickly finds the floor again. I ask what brings them in to see me and the flood gates open. Quickly, Melanie is in tears telling me of the on-going relationship Jason was having with an out of town co-worker. Last week she caught him sending the other woman an e-mail detailing their next planned meet up.
Once Good Men Doing Terrible Things
“I just don’t understand,” Melanie says, between choking back her tears. “This is not the man I married!” I glance at Jason and I can tell he’s in what I would consider a “major shame attack.” He’s in shock of the reality of what he’s done and blankly staring past me.
He is mentally detached from both me and his wife.
Jason is just as traumatized as his wife is. Married eight years with two young children and a beautiful wife, none of that could stop him from allowing what he says was “harmless flirting” to become a full blown affair. Now he’s left with more questions than answers and a suffocating sense of shame.
“How could someone do this?”
The truth is this is not an answerable question. The answer of “it was fun and exciting” doesn’t go over well. But that is often the truth. When it comes to infidelity, there is no good excuse or answer. The cheating partner often feels they are now, deep down, a terrible person. Fair? Maybe. Deserving? Perhaps. There’s an unavoidable sad truth in situations of adultery. The shame from the infidelity ends up being just as harmful to the relationship healing as the infidelity itself.
Why Shame is Hard to Deal With
Shame is ugly. It’s so ugly, it’s the least studied human experience from a psychological perspective. We don’t want to touch, talk, read, or think about it. Even researchers don’t want anything to do with it. It’s part of the human experience but we react to it very much the same way we’d react to having a disease. It’s that awful.
It is apparent in my sessions with Jason and Melanie that Jason is a shameful person. Even before he married Melanie. It’s his negative sense of self that was a big reason he sought attention outside his relationship. Feeling shame has been a problem for him in the past but what he’s feeling now could paralyze him, push him away, or simply end his marriage.
How Men Use Shame in a Destructive Manner
I’ve watched men deflect their true thoughts and feelings from their partners because they do not think they are entitled to them.
- Men can physically isolate themselves because of shame. Hiding in basements or “man caves” is seen as “normal.”
- Men can distance themselves emotionally from their partners because they were simply never taught how to be intimate.
- When desperate to get away from feelings of shame men can tend to express their insecure feelings by blaming their partner, or raging on them in anger to regain control of the situation or conversation.
- It’s common for men attempt to shut down and give up trying to make their relationship better because of feelings of shame.
Using “Healthy Shame” for Self Growth
We all know what shame feels like. Unless you are one of the few people who are incapable of being empathetic, you know how paralyzing it can be.
Shame does have a useful function. It can show us that our actions that have led to becoming shameful are not congruent to our true selves. Our true selves are the part of self that is sensing the shame. When we know we are “good people” who have acted outside of our true selves, we don’t have to become our shame. This relationship with shame is called “healthy shame.” When shame is used in this manner, it can promote self growth, understanding, and healing.
Healing From Infidelity
A few sessions into our couples counseling, I begin work with Jason to relate to the part of himself that he knows he can be. Jason and I spend much of the next two sessions making a different meaning for his relationship with shame. He’s learning to use his shame as a reminder of how he doesn’t want to behave anymore, instead of taking his shame on as his identity. Melanie is supportive of Jason doing this as long as he agrees to work on their relationship. No more isolation and no more angry outbursts. She wants him to be responsible for his actions but also to heal enough to be the husband she knows he can be. Now he has to want it too.
“Own the shame, Jason, but don’t become it,” I say. He nods in agreement.
Nurturing the “Little Boy”
Ultimately, the scared and immature boy that committed the adultery is faced with a challenge. It’s the man’s responsibility to nurture and parent himself. He must work to nurture and love that “little boy.” It is nobody’s job but his own, fully stepping into the person he is by stepping into his shame. It’s a curse and a gift that he has bestowed upon himself, and it’s his responsibility to make a choice.
Shame is a catalyst. A relationship can go one way or another. Shame can further destroy self and relationships or it can promote growth and healing. Infidelity is indeed a horrible thing. It destroys marriages and families.
Shame, left untreated, can be passed down generations. My hope is that more men decide to take the steps to step into their shame to become better men, husbands, and fathers.
(The characterizations in this article are fictitious. The story described is a compilation of my various experiences in working with couples and their experiences with infidelity and shame.)
Photo: Jerry “Woody”/Flickr