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