hipsUnderlying the behaviours which sabotage relationships are feelings of not being good enough or shame.  Shame is a socialising concept, as it makes us want to be accepted and to conform to group norms. Mostly, we’re able to manage feelings of shame, which manifest as embarrassment or regret. However, deeper feelings of not being good enough – or even bad – are often so unbearable that their management is much more difficult, especially when shame is associated with something like need or vulnerability.
Interestingly, shame is not so often associated with anger, at least initially, so anger often replaces other emotions. For instance, the closer a couple become, the more vulnerable they may feel, as there is so much more to lose and so much more shame if the relationship goes wrong. However, couples rarely discuss these feelings. Instead, they often seem to unconsciously collude to avoid intimacy. Seemingly completely unconnected behaviours like picking an argument or working longer hours can help ‘manage’ closeness.

Influence of the past 
Shame can be evoked in babies and children when their needs aren’t met or when their feelings aren’t appropriately mirrored, understood or attended to. So if, for instance, a child’s need for comfort is derided, ignored or even punished, comfort and care becomes associated with shame. Let’s say, for instance, that a toddler’s busy mother became angry with him when he ran to her. Maybe she told him to stop making a fuss and he continued to cry. If she was really stressed, she may have smacked him or withdrawn from him, making him feel unworthy and bad for wanting soothing. These feelings can resurface when offered love and comfort as an adult, possibly leading to extreme difficulty in accepting a partner’s care, even though this may be longed for.
Dr Donald Nathanson identified four ways of managing not-good-enough feelings:
• Withdrawal
• Attack self
• Avoidance
• Attack other.
Using ‘withdrawal’, you probably try to stay out of the spotlight, maybe wishing you could disappear. In extreme cases this may mean being unable to face people at all. ‘Attack self’ is a similar strategy, whereby someone puts themselves down either privately or openly, perhaps using self-mocking humour. This can make the person seem ‘well able to take a joke’, so others may feel it’s OK to tease them. Unfortunately, for some people, this may actually feel devastating. Then, what others consider to be gentle teasing seems like confirmation of their awfulness. Sometimes, people may actually self-harm.
Both the withdrawal and the attack self coping strategies involve conscious awareness of feeling not good enough. In ‘avoidance’ and ‘attack other’ the person has distanced themselves from the not-good-enough feelings, sometimes to the extent that they seem grandiose or super confident.
Someone using avoidance may be able to keep their negative feelings at bay by being extremely busy – or ‘driven’ – and enjoying an adrenaline buzz from risky sports or activities. This can become addictive and may be associated with other behaviours which mask the unwanted feelings, such as heavy drinking, drug use, compulsive shopping, gambling or excessive use of pornography. Alternatively, or additionally, the person may show off or draw attention to their achievements. What’s actually happening is that they’re deflecting attention away from their negative, not-good-enough areas towards more successful aspects of themselves.
People using attack self and withdrawal often have highly perfectionist tendencies too, which can sometimes involve low tolerance for mistakes in others. The ‘attack other’ way of coping always involves some sort of shaming put-down and derision, often provoked by anger at any sort of snub, whether this is real or imagined, deliberate or unintentional. Some people using this strategy are not overtly critical but may use more subtle or ‘passive-aggressive’ tactics to unsettle people. Generally, they don’t respond well to criticism themselves and don’t accept blame or responsibility.
As attack self and withdrawal are within conscious awareness, they’re easier to change and less likely to affect other people, though those using them may feel very bad about themselves. The attack other and avoidance strategies are much harder to change, as they’re outside conscious awareness and may not feel like a problem to anyone who employs them. However, they may affect relationships, as others feel criticised or that the relationship is unequal. Compulsive behaviours or relationship issues are consequently what often bring people to counselling rather than an awareness of not feeling good enough. Unfortunately, the kind of soothing relationship needed in order to let go of these strategies is unlikely to develop because of them. This, in itself, may trigger not-good-enough feelings which have to be defended against, so that the attack other and avoidance behaviours become intensified.
Shame triggers
You may be able to identify the use of these strategies in fights with your partner. It’s not hard to imagine how each partner could trigger the other to use their own shame management strategies. For instance, a partner who withdraws may remind the other of a parent who refused to speak to them. This is a behaviour management strategy which has great potential for damage, as young children are unable to cope with their feelings while a carer is withdrawn. Consequently, one partner withdrawing because they don’t feel good enough, or simply to allow some space for recovery and reflection, can result in the other experiencing the withdrawal as punishing or rejecting and defending themselves by attack.
Many traumatic or early memories are outside conscious awareness and   surface as feelings which can flood the body when they’re triggered. Because they are so close and important, partners can easily trigger each other’s vulnerabilities. The resulting feelings feel as though they’re about what’s happening now, and may feel overwhelming, but are really just memories from long ago.

Managing triggers
Questioning whether the strength of your feelings is really appropriate can help to calm situations or head off an argument before it gets started. Whenever a feeling arises suddenly and overpoweringly, it can be helpful to take time out and see what you think when the feeling passes. Usually, though you may have felt upset, a little distance allows more perspective and acknowledgement that things aren’t as bad as they seemed. It can help to have signals with your partner which can be used whenever you feel triggered or think your partner is. Unfortunately, couples trigger each other  at the same time and it can be very difficult to hang on to reality and not just respond to what is being felt.
Becoming hijacked by memories like this is incredibly common, especially when shame is involved. That’s why it’s always worth talking about how to manage triggers when you’re both calm and untriggered. If that doesn’t work, couple counselling can help you find ways to manage these universal feelings and find solutions.

Based on Cate Campbell’s  ‘The unconscious contract’ in Love and Sex in A New Relationship, Routledge.

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