Note: Brittany Wong, editor of the Huffington Post divorce page asked me what are some commonly overlooked issues that affect relationships negatively, and I knew immediately what my answer would be. I sent her my comments for an article she is writing on the subject, but as usual I wrote an entire article myself … here’s the result.
Couples often come in to therapy complaining of communication, intimacy and money issues, but there’s another issue that is a big deal and almost always overlooked – it’s shame, or the terrible relationship a person has with their self.
Shame-filled people, and that’s almost all of us, believe at their core that they are defective and something is wrong with them. They beat themselves up for not being good, smart, attractive, athletic or charismatic enough, or for not fitting in. They’re easily injured emotionally, are manipulative, defensive and live life as phonies trying to be who they think they “should” be, rather than who they are. A certain segment of the shame-filled community just gives up on being an effective human being altogether.
Having a low opinion of yourself trickles down negatively to almost every aspect of marriage and ends up being the root cause of virtually every problem – from abuse, adultery and addiction to being dependent, boundary-less, a control freak, narcissistic and countless other dysfunctional ways of being. At the end of the day, a person who is shame-filled cannot have a healthy relationship with another person. That is why I yell from the rooftops that shame is the No. 1 cause of divorce in America and the world.
It really is true that if you don’t love yourself you can’t love anyone else. So another overlooked aspect of relationships is the absolute necessity to bring your best self in mind, body and spirit to your significant romantic relationship. That means if we want to be in a relationship and have it be healthy, we have to start with a healthy self. Bring your best healthiest self to the relationship, work to maintain that, hook up with a mate who is dedicated to doing the same, and you have a fighting chance at having a healthy relationship.
Instead, what I usually see is people who are not mentally, emotionally and physically healthy carrying a bunch of negative baggage into a relationship and then wondering why it doesn’t work. It all starts with each individual being as healthy as they can be.
I tell clients all the time that I practice what I preach. And you know what? Being healthy takes a lot of time and I have to plan for it. I have been working on my own shame issues for years, and feel that I am in recovery from the bad relationship I used to have with myself. I am now very good to me and make sure all my needs are met every day so that I can function well in every aspect of my life.
For my body and mind I know that walking at least 30 minutes a day is good for me physically, but also has proven qualities that enhance brain health and eliminate depression and anxiety. Why wouldn’t I do that? Well, to make it happen I have to get up at 6 am everyday so I can drink one cup of coffee (must have!) and then walk a 45-minute route near my house and still get to work by 9 am. That’s hard, because I am not a morning person, but I do it. The result is that I feel great and have plenty of energy, and I’m in a great mood for the rest of the day.
I’ve noticed that certain foods contribute to how good I feel during the day, and other foods weigh me down. So I take the time to cook healthy meals at home and pack them every morning to take to work. I almost never do lunch or eat take out.
During the day I work at a job that brings me joy, makes a difference on people’s lives and helps me make a pretty good living for my family. I always look forward to work, and am energized at the end of most days when I leave. When I get home I have a healthy relationship waiting for me that I spend a lot of time nurturing and taking care of as well. This contributes greatly to my quality of life, as do our two little dogs who make us laugh every day.
As I work through my days I pay attention to how I feel and keep doing the things I love, and eliminate the things and people who drag me down. It’s Mental Health Management 101. I have conversations with the people I need to so that we can get along, make changes and adjustments, and make our relationships better. I read about healthy relationships and mind and body healthy consistently so I can learn even more about awareness, mindfulness and how to be healthy in the midst of a busy life.
By 9 pm I’m heading off to bed. I was always a night owl, but I’ve changed it so I can get up at 6 for that walk and still feel good the rest of the day. I read in bed for an hour or so, and then call it a day. When the weekend comes I’ll get plenty of rest and exercise, and do the leisure activities and nurture the friendships I enjoy.
What I just wrote about takes a lot of time. Most people I work with have never even thought of working on shame, their relationship with themselves, or have ever thought for more than two minutes about the foods they put in their mouth or how to take action to have a great relationship. And you know what? It shows in how they feel, how their relationships work, and how happy in life they are.