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Shame: Toxic to Relationships

Some years ago I worked with Paul and Alicia (not their real names) who were struggling in their relationship. I started working with them after Paul got into recovery from alcohol use disorder and gambling use disorder. Alicia was in individual therapy and attending Al-Anon, Paul attended AA and Gamblers Anonymous (GA). We had been meeting for two months when the therapy session focused on how they both felt distant from each other, and recalled how things used to be. We talked about what things were like for them during better times. 

They had a lot of history together, many positive times, some painful times. As Paul’s addictions progressed, the negative overtook the positive in the relationship.

Drs. Julie and John Gottman’s research on couples uncovered a very important finding: managing conflict and dealing with the painful parts of the relationship goes much better when there is a foundation of positivity in the relationship. All this means is not just focusing on the negative, and the hurt, but remembering and acknowledging the positive. Even in the most distressed relationships I’ve found that when couples are able to tap into something positive to say to their partner, things go better and actually make dealing with the difficult issues go a bit more easily. We talked about how important it is to share with your partner what you appreciate about them, what you like about their qualities.

In the session I asked each person to share several things they appreciated about their partner. They had not heard anything positive from the other person in such a long time that they both felt moved by the sincere appreciations that were shared.

Paul said that he felt it was hard to hear anything positive from Alicia, he felt shame about how his addictions had damaged their relationship. We discussed those feelings, but also focused on how important it is to put toxic shame in the box of “Not Helpful”, because shame is about feeling that there is something wrong with who we are, not what we did. Paul grew up in a very toxic family, he heard messages his entire life that he was defective and bad. We discussed the difference between shame and guilt or regrets.

While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person

Fossum and Mason – Facing Shame: Families In Recovery

Active addiction is defined as a loss of judgement and impulse control, leading to bad choices and priorities, and an inability to stop regardless of those negative consequences. Addiction brings people to places they never could imagine possible. Recovery is acknowledging the past, but not living in it or letting it define who you are.

Paul heard the difference between toxic shame and guilt, Defining self as bad is different than identifying behaviors that led to bad outcomes. He saw the importance in letting the positive appreciations sink in, and that this was good for for his recovery, and for the relationship.

Dr. Robert Navarra

Robert Navarra, PsyD, LMFT, MAC, is a Master Certified Gottman Therapist, Trainer, and Speaker, and an author. He is is certified as Master Addiction Counselor and specializes in treating and researching couples in recovery from addictive disorders. Dr. Navarra created "Roadmap for the Journey: A Workshop for Couples Embracing Recovery" and "Couples and Addiction Recovery: A Gottman Approach for Therapists, Counselors, and Addiction Professionals".

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