A bright, funny, professional woman I know struggled with a personal dilemma she could hardly bear to name. She was paralysed by shame. There were new directions that she wanted to pursue in her professional life, but she felt she could not because it would have meant owning the skeleton in her cupboard. That skeleton was a bad relationship.
Hers wasn’t a monumentally awful relationship, her physically safety was not at risk, nor was she subjected to public humiliation, but still it was bad enough to erode her sense of self. She had her reasons for not leaving for a while yet.
Now, while I would like to see every woman leave an abusive relationship yesterday, I will never judge them. It’s not for anyone outside the relationship to judge. Still, I do care passionately about their life, their safety and their health.
This woman was ashamed to admit publicly that the relationship was bad because she was still in it.
Now this brings up all sorts of paradoxes in our society. We’re very good at telling other people to ‘put up or shut up’, yet we tend to voice at least some of our complaints relentlessly. Just a few months ago the world was exposed to the edifying spectacle of the England football team weeping shamelessly like 6 year olds when they dropped out of the World Cup, after a lacklustre performance … and young men and boys weeping on The X Factor seems almost de rigueur.
It is - for me at least, crabby person that I am - an extraordinary example of the self-indulgence that characterizes society… Far from being ashamed to show the world their weepy side, our gallant English footballers and other hopefuls expect to meet with understanding and sympathy. Theirs is a burden of distress for the nation to shoulder with them.
The woman I was speaking to felt obliged to shoulder her burden alone. She had learned to live around the difficult situation in her personal life. At this point in her life it seems to her the least bad option. The problem is that it leaves a hollowness at the heart of her life. It leaves her, like the Bee Gees, with a ‘hole in her soul’; a hole that will not be filled until she is prepared to reject the shame and own the failure of the relationship.
I believe there is a place for shame; it relates to wrongdoing, the things that we do that harm another person or society.
I do not believe that shame ever attaches to someone who lives with an abusive partner. What need can you possibly have to punish yourself when your partner is already doing it so effectively for you?
We all make the best decisions we can at the time, for the best reasons we have at the time. Whatever decision we make requires tremendous courage. There are no easy options in an abusive relationship. The question is: how can you best protect yourself from further psychological damage?
There is no place for shame in abuse recovery. Whenever you feel shame know that that is the abuser’s burden you are shouldering and embrace the feelings that lie beneath the stranglehold of shame. What you fight will persist, what you embrace will pass.
There may be immense sadness to being where you are – that’s perfectly normal. Without the anchor of shame to keep it in place, it will pass must faster than you probably think.