Toxic Shame Has No Place in Marriage Restoration

In this article I will use female pronouns for the betrayed spouse and male pronouns for the addict, because that is the focus of my work. Also, parts of this article focus on unique ways men react to shame. However, in no way do I mean to imply that sex addiction is not an issue that women can struggle with as well.

During every couple’s intensive that my husband Jeff and I facilitate, we spend three full days with a couple who is struggling with sexual addiction. Acting out behaviors range from pornography, to multiple affairs, to prostitution and everything in between. Regardless of the specific type of acting out, the trauma the wives have experienced due to the betrayal, secrets, and lies is extensive.

While my passion is supporting and advocating for partners of sex addicts, it is in the best interest of both partners to recognize the unique struggles being experienced by the addict. In this series, I will discuss shame, what it is, and how it prevents the male sex addict from being able to offer his wife the support she needs in order to aid in her healing and the restoration of the marriage.

Shame is a normal and healthy response.

As the addict confronts how his actions have harmed his wife, himself, and his relationship with God, shame is a normal and even healthy response. John Bradshaw, in his book, “Healing the Shame That Binds You,” states, “Healthy shame is essential as the foundation of our spirituality. By reminding us of our essential limitations, our healthy shame lets us know that we are not God. Our healthy shame points us in the direction of some larger meaning. Our healthy shame is the psychological ground of our humility.”

However, sex addicts too often get caught up in toxic shame that can keep them “me” focused. It inhibits empathy. Remaining stuck in toxic shame can prevent an addict from being able to step outside of himself and be present for his grieving wife. This kind of shame is deep-seated, often originating in childhood.

Bradshaw describes toxic shame as having a “demonic potential to encompass our whole personality. Instead of the momentary feeling of being limited, making a mistake, littleness, or being less attractive or talented than someone else, a person can come to believe that his whole self is fundamentally flawed and defective.”

This person is unable to experience healthy guilt, which says, “I made a mistake or a blunder, and I can repair that blunder.” Instead, they view themselves and each one of their actions as flawed and defective.

While no one in their right mind would describe sexual betrayal as a simple “blunder,” one can see how toxic shame can prevent a sex addict from being able to recognize that they have the capacity to put in the hard work to earn reconciliation in their marriage.

Two of the deeply rooted core beliefs of every sex addict, created by childhood abuse and neglect, were first introduced by sex addition treatment pioneer, Patrick Carnes. These are, “I am basically a bad, unworthy person” and “No one would love me as I am.”

With this belief system, how is fighting for a marriage even worth the effort since the addict doesn’t believe he deserves the marriage or that the battle could ever be a success since his wife will never love him?

What does this look like in real life?

It can look like a selfish, narcissistic individual who doesn’t care about his wife or how he has harmed her. It can look like a man grappling to stay above water by grasping at unhealthy coping mechanisms. For the addict who desperately wants freedom from his addiction, it can look like efforts to help his wife (because he does care and he doesn’t want to lose her), quickly followed by anger and defensiveness the moment she expresses valid anger and suffering, as his toxic shame rises to the surface.

In her 2012 Ted Talk, Listening to Shame, renowned author, researcher, speaker and expert on the topic of shame, Dr. Brene Brown argues that men and women experience shame differently. “For women, shame is a web of unattainable expectations that say, ‘Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you struggle.’ For men, the primary shame mandate is, ‘Do not be perceived as weak.’”

As a wife attempts to set boundaries, a male addict stuck in toxic shame will often feel that if he agrees to all her “demands,” he is being weak. When she says, “I am scared of you acting out again and need to see you attend twelve-step meetings, install an accountability software on your devices, and attend counseling in order to feel safer,” he might hear, “You are incapable of taking charge of your own recovery and doing it right so I am going to tell you how to do it.” If he “gives in,” he feels powerless and defeated and often doesn’t stick to his commitments.

In fact, he is very likely sharing his perception of her boundary setting and safety-seeking with his counselor and fellow group members through a shame-based lens that then causes him to receive harmful feedback that he brings home to his wife. I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count.

In a 2012 interview with author Roman Krznaric, Brene Brown describes the relationship between connection and shame. “If you think about connection on a continuum, what I have learned is that anchoring this end of the continuum is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationships. On the other side of the continuum connection is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people.”

Brown argues that shame cannot be felt by those without a capacity for empathy. This is very encouraging! She states, “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” She says the most powerful words one person can say to another are, “Me too.”

According to Brown, The answer is developing “shame resilience” and empathy that is the “real antidote to shame.” This means, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

The problem here occurs when the betrayed (victim) can not, and should not be expected to, respond with empathy and understanding toward the betrayer who perpetrated against them. In time this can and does occur for many couples, but the partner must first experience empathy from the addict as the injuring party. It can feel like a never ending and hopeless cycle…two deeply wounded people who don’t have the capacity to offer the other what they need.

There is hope.

In my next article, I will discuss other ways shame impacts the marriage, how an addict can find empathy from other healthy sources, and how none of this should prevent a betrayed partner from self-care and boundary-setting. I’ll also discuss how the partner can take care of herself as she works toward determining whether her husband is capable of offering her what she needs and whether her marriage is worth trying to save.

Overcoming shame is long-term work. A wife should not be expected to wait in the background while he does this work in the hopes that eventually he may be ready to be a patient, loving, trustworthy and honorable husband.

Please feel free to contact us at Comfort Christian Counseling or visit our website to learn about how we can help through counseling and three-day couple’s intensives.