Shame and Repentance

Posted on August 31, 2012


Couples often seek therapy after there has been a betrayal in the relationship.  This often takes the form of sexual acting out by one of the partners through affairs or pornography.  The partner who acted out sexually nearly always expresses remorse about the betrayal.  Remorse (being sorry), by itself, is generally insufficient to bring about the healing and the return of trust to the relationship.   I would suggest that there are different ways in which one can be “sorry,” and these have dramatically different impacts on the relationship.  Whether the breach in the relationship is caused by a significant betrayal or something ostensibly more minor, the nature of the remorse is important to the healing process and arriving at genuine forgiveness.

On a more callous level, one could be “sorry” because of the consequences to oneself.  Essentially, “I am sorry because of the way I have been impacted by this.”  Obviously, this is not healing to the partner.  We see this less frequently in therapy because often a partner coming from this perspective is not interested in participating in therapy.

More commonly, the offending partner is deeply sorry for the offense.  However, the remorse for this partner comes from a place of shame.  The remorse and regret are very real and very painful, but that pain is still about “me.”  “I am so wretched that you deserve someone better.”  “I deserve to have you angry with me.”  “I should be suffering now because of what I did.”  This is frequently the starting point.  The way in which shame blocks the healing process is that the injured partner is not able to express their pain without the offending partner becoming overwhelmed by shame.  There may be tears, but in a sense the tears are about “how bad I feel (about me) and not about how much pain you are experiencing.”  There is a lack of empathy for the other in shame.  There is a lack of real presence and acknowledgement of the pain of the injured partner.

A much more healing form of remorse is repentance.  This is moving from “I am sorry that I am so bad” to “I am sorry because of what this did to you and our relationship.”  When the injured partner is able to openly express their pain and sadness while the injuring partner stays emotionally present, the healing can begin.  The offending partner acknowledges the wounded partner’s pain, owns his or her part in causing that pain, and expresses genuine remorse for the partner’s pain.  The communication is “I understand the depth of your pain; I know that I did that to you; and I am sorry for the pain that my behavior has caused for you.”

Shame interferes with emotional presence.  It is overwhelming and causes the shamed partner to emotionally withdraw leaving the injured partner feeling alone and unsupported and both partners feeling disconnected.  Repentance allows for and enables reestablishing emotional connection.  It enables the injuring partner to help the injured partner cope with the pain.  When there is a betrayal in the relationship, the injured partner will often ask, “If you love me, how could you have done this?” and conversely, “How could you do this if you love me?”  Acknowledgment of the injured partners pain and sorrow for causing it is an important step in rebuilding the love and trust.

This process is difficult, but real healing is possible.  Healing and restoration of trust is not a linear nor a binary process.  That is to say, it is not linear in that the process is not a straight line from lack of trust to trust.  The healing process comes with leaps forward as well as setbacks.  It is not binary in that one is not either wounded or healed.  The process of healing wounds is by degree.  Ultimately, the healing can be much better achieved with the aid of a therapist.  It is a road on which it is good to hire a guide who knows the way.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).