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Battling for Control: How Externalized Shame Fuels Destructive Power Struggles in Intimate Relations

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Relationships are a delicate dance of emotions, desires, and power dynamics. It's no secret that power struggles can arise, causing tension and challenges in intimate relationships. But what if we told you that there's more to these power struggles than meets the eye? Externalized shame is a hidden psychological force that fuels these battles for dominance and jeopardizes the very foundation of our relationships. In this article, we delve into the intricate interplay between externalized shame and power struggles, revealing the underlying motivations, destructive patterns, and, ultimately, the path to healing and healthier connections.


Power struggles are complex conflicts that occur when people compete for control, influence, or dominance over their partners.
Elephants in a power struggle

The Role of Externalized Shame in Power Struggles

Power struggles are complex conflicts that occur when people compete for control, influence, or dominance over their partners. These conflicts can take a variety of forms and have a number of underlying motivations. Overcompensation for or concealment of shame is a common motivation in power struggles and, if left unchecked, can become an individual's primary coping mechanism in the relationship. Surprisingly, shame isn't our enemy—it serves an adaptive or evolutionary function by encouraging people to conform to social norms and expectations, fostering social cohesion and stability. However, our response to this emotion usually does not line up with evolution's purpose. Thus, our maladaptive response to this benign emotion will negatively affect interpersonal relationships.


No one wants to live with the anguish of shame; it is such a distressing and unpleasant emotion, the desire to demonstrate competence and worthiness to others and to oneself becomes instinctive, automatic, and externalized as interpersonal power struggles. People will blame, criticize, or withdraw from their partners as a defense mechanism against further feelings of shame and vulnerability. This leads to a cycle of disconnection and mistrust, eroding the relationship's foundation. Externalized shame is then used to manipulate, persuade, and control others, resulting in jealousy and corrosive comparisons between partners. This is because everyone, including yourself, has a fundamental need to feel valued, competent, appreciated, and desired. Understanding how externalized shame and power struggles interact can help us understand the complexities of relationship dynamics and provide bonding advice.

Blame and Criticism: Unveiling the Impact of Externalized Shame

In power struggles in relationships, one partner may resort to blaming and criticizing the other. For instance, a spouse who feels inadequate in their career may externalize their shame by constantly criticizing their partner's job or diminishing their accomplishments. This can result in resentment and additional control conflicts, ultimately weakening the relationship and possibly causing long-term harm. This behavior stems from externalized shame, in which individuals project their own feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness onto their partner. By identifying flaws in the other individual, they temporarily alleviate their own feelings of shame. This frequently escalates conflict and erodes trust, impeding effective communication and resolution.

The Desire for Control: How Externalized Shame Drives Power Struggles

As a protective mechanism, externalized shame can also fuel a strong desire for control. The individual's goal is to hide their shame and vulnerability from their partner as well as themselves. This could be the case with a romantic partner who has unresolved trauma-related issues. They may attempt to exert control over their current partner by dictating their schedule, monitoring their social media, or insisting on constant communication. This desire for control stems from a fear of vulnerability and abandonment, as well as an attempt to avoid any triggers that may bring up past traumas. This behavior can be damaging to the relationship as it erodes trust and autonomy, leading the controlled partner to feel suffocated and resentful. Ultimately, it may lead to a battle for dominance and trigger feelings of shame and inadequacy in both partners. By exerting control over their partner, individuals create a temporary shield against their own shame, albeit at the expense of their relationship's harmony and intimacy.

Proving Worthiness: Power Struggles as Validation Quests

Power struggles can serve as a platform for individuals to prove their worthiness and value. When someone feels shame about their perceived inadequacies, engaging in power struggles becomes a way to demonstrate superiority or competence. Power struggles can become a way for individuals to prove their worthiness and value, especially if they feel shame about their perceived inadequacies. By asserting power over their partner, they attempt to counteract their feelings of shame and gain a fleeting sense of self-worth. For example, a spouse who feels ashamed about being recently unemployed may engage in power struggles with their partner by insisting on making all financial decisions and disregarding their contributions to the household. This behavior may provide them with a momentary sense of validation and control, but it ultimately damages their relationship and perpetuates his underlying shame.

Avoidance Strategies: Power Struggles as Shields from Shame

Power struggles are commonly used as distractions or avoidance strategies to divert attention away from underlying shame feelings or shame triggers like fear of failure, rejection, or inadequacy. The individual will engage in ancillary power struggles. A spouse who is self-conscious about their cooking abilities, for example, may engage in power struggles with their partner by refusing to let them cook or insisting on taking over in the kitchen. This behavior may temporarily alleviate their shame and anxiety, but it ultimately hinders their ability to learn and grow in the culinary realm, as well as negatively impacting the relationship dynamic. Instead of confronting their own shame, individuals may focus on winning the power struggle or proving themselves right. This avoidance perpetuates the power struggle itself and hampers the resolution of the deeper issues at hand. By sidestepping the shame triggers, they momentarily escape the discomfort without realizing that it only perpetuates the cycle of conflict and disconnection.

Corrosive Comparisons: Externalized Shame and Competitive Power Struggles

Externalized shame frequently involves unfavorable comparisons to others. Partners in power struggles may engage in competitive behavior, constantly comparing themselves to one another and striving for dominance. This constant comparison stems from feelings of shame and a deep desire to prove oneself superior or more deserving. For example, a couple may constantly battle over who has the more successful career or who makes more money, with each partner feeling the need to prove their worth. However, such corrosive comparisons breed additional insecurity and erode the relationship's foundation of trust and intimacy.

Strategies for Healing and Growth in Relationships

Recognizing the link between externalized shame and power struggles is an important step toward building healthier relationships. Externalized shame is a complex psychological phenomenon, and its manifestation in power struggles varies depending on individual experiences and dynamics. There are, however, strategies for addressing these challenges and strengthening connections:

  1. Develop Self-awareness: Individuals must investigate and comprehend their own shame triggers as well as how they affect their behaviors and relationships. Individuals who develop self-awareness are able to recognize when externalized shame influences their actions and are able to make conscious choices that align with their values.

  2. Foster Emotional Healing: Addressing externalized shame requires the healing of past wounds and unresolved traumas. Engaging in emotional well-being practices such as therapy, mindfulness, or journaling can aid in healing and promote a healthier self-image.

  3. Communicate Openly: Effective communication is essential in navigating power struggles. Partners should create a safe space where they can express their needs, concerns, and vulnerabilities without fear of being judged or retaliated against. Empathy and active listening are critical to fostering understanding and resolving conflicts.

  4. Seek Professional Help: Couples therapy or relationship counseling can provide a safe space for dealing with power struggles and externalized shame. A trained therapist can assist individuals and couples in navigating these difficulties, identifying harmful patterns, and developing healthier relationship dynamics.

  5. Cultivate Empathy and Compassion: Developing empathy for oneself and one's partner is critical to breaking the cycle of externalized shame and power struggles. Recognizing that individuals may be experiencing insecurities and fears allows for greater understanding and a more compassionate approach to conflict resolution.

In conclusion, externalized shame and power struggles often intertwine in relationships, hindering intimacy and causing distress. Blame, criticism, the need for control, the assertion of worthiness, the avoidance of shame triggers, and insecurity can all contribute to this dynamic. Understanding the complex interplay between externalized shame and power struggles provides insights into fostering healthier relationships. By fostering self-awareness, practicing open communication, seeking professional support, and cultivating empathy and compassion, individuals can navigate the challenges and create stronger, more fulfilling connections.

A reflective look inward

  1. How do I perceive power struggles in my relationships, and what emotions do they evoke within me?

  2. Have I ever engaged in externalized shame as a coping mechanism in my relationships? If so, how did it manifest, and what impact did it have?

  3. What underlying insecurities or feelings of inadequacy might be fueling my desire for control or dominance in my relationships?

  4. How have power struggles affected the trust and communication in my intimate relationships?

  5. Do I find myself engaging in unhealthy comparisons with my partner or seeking external validation to alleviate my own feelings of shame?

  6. How does my fear of vulnerability and abandonment influence my behavior in power struggles?

  7. Have I ever used power struggles as a means to prove my worthiness or competence? If so, what underlying shame or insecurities might be driving this need?

  8. In what ways do I avoid confronting my own shame and instead focus on winning power struggles or proving myself right?

  9. How have corrosive comparisons to others impacted my relationships and my sense of self-worth?

  10. What steps can I take to cultivate self-awareness, heal past wounds, and foster healthier dynamics in my relationships, free from externalized shame and power struggles?


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