In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I’m offering up my own story of why I stayed in unhealthy relationships – ones in which my self-esteem took a nose-dive. I offer this story with humility and respect for the full spectrum of experiences – knowing that my own experience is not the worst, and not the best.
Looking back, I stayed for 2 BIG reasons:
It felt familiar. I grew up with an inconsistent sense of safety. Being caught off guard and suddenly feeling unsafe, whether physically or emotionally, was normal to me. As a child, I clung to the breadcrumbs of masculine affection and to the negative male attention that I did receive, while hopelessly yearning for something more substantial and more loving. I carried the same pattern into later relationships with significant others.
My shame infinity loop. I’ve shared before about my own version of the infamous shame cycle, but in this kind of relationship, it was more like an endless, double-headed, self-reinforcing shame infinity loop. Here’s the basic dynamic:
- My partner shames me by telling me in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that I’m worthless, or unattractive, or crazy, or whatever the painful insult of the day is.
- I take it in. I buy into it.
- With friends and family, I’m too ashamed to share how my ‘love’ treats me.
- I withhold information. I hide it.
I felt shamed by my partner, and ashamed with my friends and family.
“Shamed by” means hearing someone say the equivalent of “you’re not good enough to belong.”
“Ashamed with” means being with others and feeling “I’m not good enough to belong.”
The net result? Not feeling good enough to authentically belong anywhere. And what did that lead to? Clinging to the little sense of belonging I did have with my partner.
A lifetime of shame contributed to self-doubt and assumptions such as "everyone else thinks this person is wonderful- it must be something about me."
I lived in an invisible isolation. The shame infinity loop was like a 2-way blindfold - it kept me from letting myself be seen by others, and also blinded me to my reality and my choices.
How would I fill out my Shame Translator, if I had had this tool back then?
I would start by asking what are my ‘shame-producing shoulds’? My top few: I should try harder; I should be more loveable; I should be more attractive; I should know how to choose a good mate. I should be in a stable relationship. I should think this person is as wonderful as everyone else thinks they are.
Then, using the Shame Translator, here are just a few I come up with. I've included in parentheses the insights that my translations give me.
I am ashamed because within my intimate partnership, anyone who plays the role of female partner should do whatever it takes to please their mate. (Hmmm… I can see where that belief came from, but I don’t really buy into that)
I am ashamed because within my extended family anyone who plays the role of competent family member should have enough intelligence to choose a good mate. (Well, actually humans are complex, and we can’t possibly know what aspects of another person might only become visible later on – that has nothing to do with my own intelligence)
I am ashamed because within my group of friends anyone who plays the role of group member should believe my partner is wonderful. (Well, actually, as this person’s intimate partner, I know better than our other friends, and I’m checking boxes on this list.)
The Shame Translator is available to use for free at ShameTranslator.com . I find it helps me look at each of my shame-producing shoulds in a new way, and reveals paths forward that I couldn’t even see before.
The rest of my story… By luck I ended up marrying a true gentle-man, in every sense of the word. Without having had experienced his genuine love and kindness for 12 years I wouldn’t be who I am today. We’ve been divorced for a decade now, and still hold mutual respect and gratitude. AND, without having addressed my core shame, guess what? My old relationship patterns sometimes reappeared. Working with my shame in this new way restores my confidence in my ability to hold self-awareness and self-respect going forward.
Please share your own thoughts, experiences, or domestic violence resources in the comments below...