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Navigating Shame in Relationships

Jonathan Riley

“Honesty is the highest form of intimacy” – Anonymous

In relationships, shame is a sabotaging force. Some people with deep shame issues find they have a fear of intimacy. So, they jump from one relationship to the next, or stay in one relationship but with an exhausting pattern of ‘push & pull’. In some cases, shame can lead you to stay in codependent or even abusive relationships, confirming your shameful notion you are not worthy of good things such as love. Socially, you may find you struggle to be fully yourself, always acting happier than you are, or that you have constant conflict with others that comes from your shame driven tendency to be defensive. Shame can lead to friendships with individuals who do not recognise or treat you well or relationships where you meet the needs of others and avoid your own needs.

Shame is often the underlying cause of conflict in relationships. These conflicts can result in couples with high levels of shame resorting to defensive strategies to deflect their experience of shame. Strategies include rage, blame, criticism, contempt, control, withdrawal, etc. The presence of shame in any relationship hinders intimacy. It is therefore difficult for couples with internalised shame to reveal their feelings, determine when self-disclosures are appropriate, respond to the partner’s feelings, express desires and preferences, notice the partner’s desires and preferences, face and resolve conflicts, manage couple differences and tolerate their own and each other’s limitations. Without awareness, shame is often the foundation for building walls against intimacy, leading us to develop a false self for others and ourselves.

Shame can force us to be hypervigilant in order to protect ourselves from exposing our true feelings to others and ourselves. It can inhibit intimacy in all of our relationships but is especially powerful in undermining our capacity to be open and authentic in our most loving, intimate relationships. True intimacy requires a sense of safety, a relationship in which we feel safe and, as a result, are free to be ourselves, to be authentic and present. It requires having a significant other who can listen without judgment, who can validate and be a witness to our feelings.

Yet, we cannot feel safe even in a loving relationship when we have issues with shame that have not been addressed. Shame can lead many couples to find ways of avoiding intimacy – all while craving it. When a conversation is perceived as threatening, we may avoid discussions or change the subject. As a consequence, many couples use work, play or addictions to deal with shame and lack of intimacy in their relationship.

Finally, intimacy can be extremely challenging even in the most loving of relationships. It can make us feel vulnerable to emotional pain, especially when it is accompanied by our past shame. We can be more present in our lives when we can acknowledge, accept and learn to let go of the heavy weight of shame. We can then become more authentic and connected in all aspects of our life. And meeting this challenge is essential for forming a more vibrant and fulfilling loving relationship.

Next week we look into the topic of Shame and Avoidance


Davies, M. (2019, October 24). What a shame! how relationships are affected by unacknowledged shame. Retrieved from

Jacobson, S. (2020, May 11). Shame – is this Emotion Secretly ruling your life? Retrieved from