The Real Cause of Recurring Relationship Conflict: Defending Against Shame

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Recurring Relationship Conflict

Many of us have been in relationships with lots of conflict. Most of the time that conflict evolved around the same issues we just did not seem to find a way past. Recurring relationship arguments without resolution are the biggest cause of distance within the relationship, relationship dissatisfaction and ultimately relationship breakdown.

Couples sometimes seek help in therapy but if they are being taught how to communicate differently without unearthing the real cause for their recurring arguments and why there is no solution to those conflicts, no lasting change can happen because no real awareness and understanding has developed. And so we keep doing what makes more sense: continue to argue without solution.


What We Argue About

In all my time as a therapist and relationship coach I have never seen a couple argue about what they think they are arguing about. It has never been this straight forward. Most couples are very, very competent at hiding the real cause for their arguments even from themselves and so it is no wonder that no solution can be found.

Relationship conflict is painful. When we argue with the one we love, the one we want to share our life with, the one we feel we have invested so much in, the one we saw ourselves growing old with, we suffer. And we don’t understand why they are behaving the way they are behaving?

“Why don’t you understand me? Why can’t you see it my way? Why don’t you want to help me make things better? Why don’t you make me feel better? It would all be so easy if you just …”

Right? If only your partner could change this one thing, then everything would be fine. So why won’t they do it?! It can drive you insane!

The problem is that the problem you think you have is not the problem you actually have.

Recurring relationship conflict is rarely easy and straightforward to solve. Sorry. I really am.

When we think we are arguing about money or kids or chores or nights out or sex, we don’t really argue about that. Maybe we start off with disagreeing on the topic that seems to cause our rifts but it soon turns into a power battle. No one want to lose. No one wants to give in. No one wants to be dominated by the other. “You want this but it’s not what I want so I won’t let you have it.”

The usual response to this pretty generic amongst humans. We all hate to be controlled, being told ‘no’ and what appears like to be deprived of our autonomous choices, freedom and individuality.”I am not going to let you control me! You just wait and see.” Stalemate. A stalemate in conflict. A stalemate in growth. A stalemate in love.

“Once conflicts escalate for awhile, they often reach a stalemate: a situation in which neither side can win, but neither side wants to back down or accept loss either.” Eric Brahm

So if our recurring arguments are not about what we think it’s about, what are they about?

Some might suggest that it’s about power and that is partially true. But most of us are not really that much into power to risk what we value so much: our relationship.

The power we are trying to hold onto is only for the purpose of defense.

When we have recurring relationship conflict that goes unresolved, we are fighting to defend against feeling shame. We defend against toxic shame rising to the surface.  

You Think I’m Wrong, Right?

I know. It sounds unbelievable. You don’t just have to take my word for it. When you start to look inward and allow yourself to explore what is truly going on for you, you will make some astounding realisations.

But first, let’s briefly look at toxic shame to make this a bit easier to understand.


The Biggest Core Wound Of All: Toxic Shame

Shame is a normal, healthy human emotion with the purpose of self-regulation. Toxic shame, however, is something passed on from caregivers who are shame-bound themselves. Toxic shame originates in childhood when we were given the message of ‘not good enough’. Our little brain made sense of the experience the best way it knew how to and ran with it. We never turned back to question it …  

Toxic shame says ‘I am not ok. I am inherently bad, flawed and defective.’ Toxic shame is the message of inherent unworthiness. And it taints everything …

To have healthy and loving relationships, we need to have a respectful and loving relationship with ourselves first. We cannot relate to another human being in healthy ways if we cannot do it with ourselves. It just does not work. Our fear of being ‘found out’ will ALWAYS come between us and the other person.

When we value someone else, we want to keep them in our lives. “But if I am so inherently flawed and defective, why would they want to stay? I need to hide this!”

It is this exact hiding that creates a barrier between us and the other person because loving relationships need openness, transparency, authenticity and vulnerability to create closeness and intimacy. Without it we cannot reap the fruits of relationship. And we will start to complain about that … “This relationship was meant to make me happy. What the hell is going on?! What are YOU doing or not doing?”

We will complain about the absence of intimacy, which expresses itself in a multitude of ways. It is usually those symptoms we fight about. It is those symptoms that fuel our ongoing relationship conflict.

But they are not the cause.


The Expressions of Toxic Shame in Our Relationship

Still not sure, you are having an issue with shame? Here is a list of what you might be experiencing in your relationship, if you are struggling with toxic shame:


  • Conflict and Drama: This is usually fuelled by taking on the various roles in Karpman’s Drama Triangle. Every role is shame-based and defends against the feeling of shame by engaging with others in unhelpful ways.


  • Judgement and Criticism: Judging and criticising allow us to compare ourselves positively to others and inflate our sense of self-esteem by devaluing others. We then naturally fight for self-esteem.


  • Blame and Abdication: when we blame our partner for what is going on, we abdicate ourselves from taking any personal responsibility. We see ourselves as the blameless recipient of our partner’s attack or withdrawal and make it impossible for anything to change.  


  • Power Struggles and Imbalances: When we feel devalued or put down, we automatically begin to push back. Instead of thriving in love and life by creating an amazing life together from a place of equality, we use our energy in power struggles. This results in lack of change, growth, vitality, energy, intimacy and fulfilment.


  • Instability and Insecurity: Healthy relationships thrive in an environment of emotional safety. All the above directly eliminate any sense of emotional safety. Questioning and threatening your relationship further increase any perceived instability and exaggerate the downward spiral you and your partner are on.


  • Codependency: Codependency does not exist without toxic shame. If you feel that you need to recover from codependency, address your toxic shame first. Then deal with what’s left.


  • Abuse: It does not matter what kind of abuse occurs or who does what to whom. Whenever there is any kind of abuse present, there is always toxic shame in both partners.


These are some of the signs that are mostly observable in relationships marked by conflict. Other relationships might struggle with emotional distance for example so toxic shame would be expressed differently.  However, if you experience and engage in any of the above, it is evidence for toxic shame within you.


Getting Poked Where It Hurts

We might be perfectly functioning in everyday life. We may be competent at our jobs and complete our duties and chores efficiently. Quite possibly we even enjoy other people’s company and rarely encounter conflict with them. It can feel very different with those closest to us.

The ones we love seem to have the power to hurt us the most. To get us where it really smarts.

“So if that is the case, it has got to be my partner’s fault? Surely, right?” No. I know it’s probably not what you want to hear but we cannot blame ‘them’.

Conflict with our loved ones hurts as much as it does because of the place we have assigned to them in our lives. They have taken the place of someone we want to trust implicitly. Trust to be kind to us, respect us, love us. We thrive when we feel valued, cherished and loved.

When we engage in arguments during which we judge, criticise, blame and shame each other, we create an environment of hostility. An environment that awakens childhood memories that we then bring into this present situation.

“If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” Melodie Beattie

Once again we are the receiving end of someone’s wrath, someone’s anger, someone’s judgement, someone’s shame. And we don’t want to experience this again so we fight back. Our threat system gets activated and we defend ourselves by shaming the other person back. But because we are acting out of our own integrity, we are harming everyone involved.

We are making our worst fears come true. The one we love is telling us the worst things they could possibly say to us. They are attacking us at our very core and if this is what they think of us, then what does this say about the relationship? Clearly, it’s all a lie!

Any sense of emotional safety and trust is gone. And without this so is any chance for connection and intimacy. The very things we have been pursuing and longing for all along.


The Aftermath Of Recurring Relationship Conflict

At one point one partner withdraws. The damage is done. All energy is drained. We have become each other’s enemy. We just cannot take it anymore. Not one more word. Not one more dismissive or contemptuous look. No more comebacks. No more tears. No more. Just no more.

Many experience an avalanche of overwhelming feelings and distressing thoughts. What we have been trying to fend of is happening and we are in the claws of a shame and schema attack.

We feel listless, helpless, powerless and hopeless. We feel drained, alone and broken.

Maybe we use the last bit of energy to work out how we can get away, how we can leave once and for all so we never have to experience this excruciating level of emotional distress ever again. This can’t be love, right?


The Cause of Relationship Conflict Is Not A Lack Of Love

Recurring relationship conflict brings out the worst in us. It brings out all our fears and insecurities, our self-doubt and our patterns. We act out from a place of fear and threat and how we behave is rarely pretty. It definitely is never loving.

What’s tragic is that both partners are fighting for their relationship but how they approach each other makes it impossible to relate to one another in a constructive way.

The second we make our partner our enemy, we have forsaken them and our relationship. We don’t relate well or choose to connect with someone we perceive as a threat so in that moment, we disconnect from them. We are no longer available for relationship. And paradoxically, this makes us the threat.

“Love lives beyond conflict.” Byron Katie


The Cause of Relationship Conflict Is Toxic Shame

Don R. Catherall outlines how emotional safety is the basis for healthy and loving relationship. It is made up of perceived safety of relationship and partner esteem.

If one partner perceives the other one to threaten their esteem, the sense of safety dissolved and distance ensues.

So when we find ourselves in recurring arguments, we both fight to fend off the feeling of shame. We do not want to be told that we are somehow inferior, incompetent or disappointing. We do not want to expose ourselves to the spiraling, hot and suffocating feelings of toxic shame. So we pass it back to or partner.

John Bradshaw refers to this as ‘passing the hot potato’. As children our caregiver’s shame was passed down to us to minimise their own sense of shame. As adults, we respond in similar ways: when we feel shame rising – and this can be caused by our perception of someone’s look, words or reaction to us – we defend against it by making the other person feel ashamed.

It becomes clear at this stage why recurring arguments loop and do do not seem to end. The potato gets passed from one partner to the other and each touch burns away our sense of safety and trust, the very things we need to experience the love and safety that is always there. Hidden behind a wall a toxic shame and fear-based thinking.


What Now?

The things you have been arguing about might seem less worrisome now that you know that they are not the cause of your relationship problems.

Each partner has to learn to look inward and address their own issue of toxic shame.

We have to realise that our reactions to each other are really just reactions to our own fears and insecurities. When we notice that we are going into our threat system during an interaction with each other, we must retreat and focus on soothing ourselves. Nothing good will come from a conversation whilst being in our threat system.

We can also learn to cultivate a different attitude towards our relationship and our partner. To do so we must become familiar with the beliefs that cause us distress. We must unearth the lies of the mind that look like reality but are nothing other than fear-based constructs we came up with a long time ago.

To experience a loving relationship we must be loving towards ourselves and each other. We must learn to see the big picture and stop ourselves from being dragged into petty arguments that do nothing more than destabilise our sense of emotional safety with each other and reinforce the lie of toxic shame.

It can be a challenge at first. Some of us can see straight through it and won’t play the game of hot potato anymore but for most of us it’s a process. And every time we catch ourselves feeling critical of our partner or blaming them for something, we can learn to turn inward and tend to the rising feeling of shame that needs our nurturance, attention and love.


Marlena Tillhon

Marlena is a progressive psychotherapist and relationship coach and passionate about helping people connect with their innate wellbeing.

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