How I Am Combatting the Stress-Shame Cycle in My Marriage


Scrabble letters spelling the word "shame" on a red background.

There’s no use crying over spilled milk.

Those seven words have been a life’s goal of mine. I have tried my hardest to not let the small stresses of life impact my mood. But try as we might, my husband and I can’t get out of what I call the Stress-Shame Cycle.

Here’s how it goes: something stressful happens, like a gallon of milk exploding all over the floor or a car tire going flat. Despite our best intentions, the situation gets the better of my husband and me and it devolves into us bickering.

Sound familiar?

In one of the first episodes of Glennon Doyle’s podcast, she shares a similar story. In “Fighting Well,” she and her wife, Abby Wambach, talk about the same five fights they have as a couple and how the conflict is really always about one big thing that ties back to their childhoods. I listened to the episode, reflected, and then promptly forgot about it until a session with my therapist this week.

I am currently preparing for EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a psychotherapy process used in the treatment of PTSD. At each session, my therapist and I have worked on building the skills needed for the EMDR process. This week, we didn’t do that. My therapist could tell something was on my mind and asked if I wanted to sort through that instead.

She was correct. Something happened the night before that I couldn’t shake.

Because this therapist is new to me, I started with the brief version of my backstory: my husband and I have been together for 15 years and married for seven. We consider ourselves great communicators, genuinely like each other and enjoy spending time together, and are best friends as well as partners. We are not afraid of having challenging conversations. But something started to happen when we had kids that we can’t move past.

A couple holding hands against a green leafy background that is out of focus.

We talk about it. We come up with tools to do differently next time. We even came up with a bickering rip-cord, a safe word someone can use if they see the cycle start. (It’s “banana phone,” if you’re curious). But still, we can’t get out of the Stress-Shame Cycle.

I needed to figure out why.

I used the previous night’s events as an example. Our daughter wasn’t finished with her juice, so I let her bring it up to bathtime. As four-year-olds are known to do, she slipped and dropped the glass on the tile floor, causing it to shatter. To keep her safe and cranberry juice from dyeing the nearby carpet pink, I threw a towel over the mess. After making sure she was okay, I scooted the children into their bedroom and began to work on the mess. I used the towel to scoop up the glass. My husband came with some supplies to help, and asked plainly, “What’s the plan for the towel?”

I looked up at him from my crouched position and snapped, “I don’t know, Stephen, okay? There aren’t any paper towels in here and I was trying to keep the juice from spreading.” He went and fetched some paper towels. But I continued to fume. Now that I think of it, I probably resembled a seething Gollum-like creature, hissing up at him. Yikes.

Jokes aside, there it was, the Stress-Shame Cycle, back for another loop.

After the dust settled I felt frustrated and disappointed. This cycle seems never-ending. No matter how many conversations we have about it and plans we make to cut off the loop, stressful situations where we used to be able to work together usually tend to become fuel for the fight.

I explained all of this to my therapist, ending with, “I know that I can’t control other people’s behaviors or emotions. I don’t have any interest in that. But I do want to get to the root of my own contributions to this cycle we’re stuck in. There has to be a reason why I can’t look at the person I love and adore with gratitude and empathy during times like this.”

So, we talked about the interactions and got to the root of why I said what I said. In the example of the broken glass, I know that my husband is big on safety. He has a particular way he cleans up shattered glassware so as to minimize any injuries. I was certain that my use of the towel was wrong, that I shouldn’t have given the four-year-old a glass cup in the first place, and that now my husband was mad at me for it. Even worse, that he saw this whole situation as my fault and was judging me for it.

But he didn’t say any of that. He simply asked what was going to happen to the towel that was now covered in glass shards.

I should have said “I’ll throw the towel away. Probably wasn’t the ideal choice to clean this up with, but it’s what was here. Can you grab more paper towels for the bathroom?”

It’s never that easy though, is it? Why is it so hard for me to take what someone says in a stressful situation at face value?

My therapist said,

Your behavior is a self-protection mechanism. You’re judging yourself before someone else can, so you can take the sting out of it. This makes it predictable for you. Because of past experiences, you’re trying to get the burn over with and beat them to it. But when you do that, you’re not giving him a chance to be the supportive and loving partner you just described to me.

There it was… my one big thing. Our five fights rolled into one, as Glennon calls it.

My project until my next therapy appointment is to notice how I talk to myself. I will try remembering that when a glass breaks, my husband is there to help and not judge or shame me. When life gets messy, no one thinks it’s my fault. My goal is to notice when I have made an entire story from my mind a reality when that’s not what is happening around me.

There are two people in this relationship, but we can’t be responsible for anyone’s behavior beyond our own. So, I am starting with me and taking the first step in stopping the Stress-Shame Cycle in my marriage and identifying where it starts for me.


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