The Shame-Based Divorce

In an early post about winners and losers, I discussed how underlying feelings of shame often lie behind hyper-competitive and triumphant behavior. One of the less obvious ways this shows up is in relationships and marriage. Some people — usually those who tend to display other kinds of narcissistic behavior, as well — link up with partners because they believe such a bond will make them ideal. Just as some men and women want to be admired for their looks, or how much money they have or the size of their house, others want to be envied for their relationship. They look to an ideal marriage to cure underlying shame and to disprove how they feel about themselves. If I’m married to X and we have this amazing marriage, then I can;t be a total loser.

You can identify such people by the way they often make you feel. This is the couple who always draws attention to their incredible relationship — the romantic dinner they just had, the way they’re soul-mates who were meant for each other, or the fabulous vacation and all the amazing things they did together. One of them might talk a lot about how wonderful the other one is, and the thoughtful, sensitive things he or she is always doing. They will rarely mention any fights they may have had, any dissatisfaction or ongoing problems in their marriage. If you’re at all insecure or uncertain about your own relationship, the way they talk can plant seeds of doubt, make you question the worth of yourself and your own partner. I’ve been around people like this who, in the absence of the other, would make mention of their fabulous sex life. If these people happen to be especially good-looking and/or wealthy, the humiliating effect of such behavior can be toxic for listeners.

You, as audience, are meant to feel envious. While they are winners — obviously! — you must be a loser. Via the frequent display of their superior lifestyle and enviable relationship, they project their own feelings of shame into those who must witness that superiority. As with most forms narcissism, this one eventually breaks down, however. Because they’re based on idealization (of both self and other), such relationships are inherently unstable. The narcissistic gratification provided by the marriage sooner or later begins to feel less satisfying, not enough; as the defense mechanism begins to fail, the relationship becomes more real and shame threatens to return; to escape that shame, one or both partners may begin to look outside the relationship for a new narcissistic feed.

When the narcissistic couple separates, one of the more profound (unconscious) issues for them is: who will be the winner and who the loser? In fantasy, they had fused into a kind of perfect union; when they fall apart, it tends to be along polar lines: who’s up and who’s down? This particular dynamic often plays a major role in the acrimonious divorce, where a couple fights over ever little issue. Each conflict, no matter how trivial, stirs up anxieties about “losing”, letting the other one triumph over you, and feeling all the shame that has been warded off. It sometimes motivates people to attempt turning their children against the ex-wife or husband, to “win” the allegiance of those kids and to “defeat” the other parent. If both partners engage in this game, those poor kids get stuck in the middle between two people attempting to force shame back and forth between one another. You’re the loser! No, you are! I am not, I’m a winner! Ugh.

You’ve probably known divorced people like this, the ones who feel compelled to run the ex-spouse down to each and every one of their friends. Often, they may have some grounds — an affair, for instance — but the incredible energy they expend in trying to destroy the reputation of the ex betrays the unbearable shame felt at being the “loser”. Or they may go in the opposite direction and try to prove to everyone how amazing their life is now, following the divorce. They might form a new “ideal” relationship quickly, just to prove they are not the loser who has been dumped, to eradicate any possible sense of humiliation. Until they can stabilize, usually re-establishing their narcissistic defenses in one way or another, the shame and sense of “failure” can be excruciating.

Now that I’ve decided to use video on my site, I thought I’d close this post with a film clip that my colleague Marla Estes brought to my attention a while back. It’s from Woody Allen’s 1992 film, Husbands and Wives. In this scene, recently separated Sally (Judy Davis) arrives at a man’s apartment for their first date. Only moments before, she learned that her husband has already moved in with someone else. While her distress is fueled by so many additional factors — the hurt and sense of betrayal — when I watch her unravel, I see a woman drowning in shame and trying desperately not to feel like a loser.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I found healthier to be forgiven and rebuild my marriage after my bad behaviour rather than choose to be divorced. (I was generously given the choice.) It also led me to behave in different ways around the house and with my grown-up daughter.
    I’m still working on it and will be indefinitely.

  2. “the incredible energy they expend in trying to destroy the reputation of the [opponent] betrays the unbearable shame felt at being the “loser”. I just lost a caucus election to the person I had replaced for one term as town clerk, and the quote above says exactly how I’m feeling.

    So now that I’ve recognized my very unpleasant reaction for what it is, what next? Where do I put these emotions so that I can get on with things in a healthier fashion?

    Thanks, Dr. Joe, for this post and for this blog! – Julie

    1. Julie, I think the place to begin is by trying to do a little “thought stopping” — every time you notice that you’re going off on your opponent in your thoughts, try to quiet them. Just try to bear with the feelings that come up and don’t run with the rage.. Plus I expect that over time, the other aspects of your life will come to feel more important and the feeling of being a “loser” will wane. But I expect it will take a while. I’m glad you wrote in because I’ve often wondered how candidates who didn’t win in an election would cope with the feelings of being the “loser”. I think I’d have a very hard time with it.

  3. I’ve seen this in many years of working in and talking about family law. I’ve dealt with clients who could not stand to offer even the slightest concession to their exes, and heard about many more.

    Likewise, idealizing the relationship with the new partner — I’ve seen one mother go so far as to claim, in her written evidence, that her school-aged children “instantly” bonded with her new boyfriend because it was obvious how happy she was with him. I suppose this is possible, but it seems unlikely and, if true, disturbing.

    In my own relationships, I’ve usually responded to painful feelings after a break-up by cutting off contact with the former lover and discussing the relationship only with very close friends and, sometimes, therapists. I have a couple of exes whom I’m actually afraid to run into on the street, not because I believe they would harm me but because I don’t know how I would bear the feelings of shame. This is not the healthiest response either.

  4. Hello Dr. Burgo,

    Firstly, I think this is one of the most insightful blogs about psychotherapy that I’ve come across, and there are a lot of them.

    This is an unrelated question, but I wasn’t sure where to put it. You’ve said elsewhere on your blog that you’re a psychodynamic therapist, that mental health is currently dominated by CBT and psychopharmacology. Can I ask, what is your opinion of CBT? Do you think it’s a superficial palliative that doesn’t address the real issues, as some psychodynamic therapists seem to, or do you think it can be useful, for certainl individuals and certain problems, or do you think it’s generally a superior approach to psychodynamic therapy [I’m guessing not the last one, given your orientation]?


    1. Alex, I think when CBT is used alone it tends to be a “superficial palliative that doesn’t address the real issues,” as you described it. But some of its techniques are extremely valuable when used in conjunction with psychodynamic psychotherapy. Personally, I’m using what CBT refers to as “thought-stopping” every single day of my life. But for me, its usefulness depends upon my self-understanding, and knowing when a particular train of thought is a defense, or destructive in nature, based on my own time in therapy and my continuing self-exploration.

  5. Might this be an oversimplification of what can be varying divorce experiences with people who have narcissistic tendencies?

    First, it is important to recognize that just because one partner is a narcissist doesn’t mean that the other is. Oftentimes narcissists hook up with “givers”: codependents or empaths who give the narcissist their “supply.” Second, just because it might appear that a divorcing couple is going “tit for tat” in terms of seemingly running down the other doesn’t mean that there might be truth in what one of them is saying, particularly if the narcissist has psychopathic tendencies.

    I was in a relationship with a narcissist and he always talked about how we had the ideal relationship. I didn’t, but I loved him, so I didn’t try to contradict him when we were together. When he decided he was through we me, he got involved in affairs (had actually always done that, but now these were more frequent and involved people I knew and even worked with); instead of telling me things were over, he told vivid lies about me to others, claiming I was crazy, etc. As I slowly experienced social isolation in my community without knowing why and then discovered my spouse’s extensive affairs and substance abuse,, I was livid. That, of course, was the “proof” that I was crazy, even though the worst thing I’ve ever done is yelled at him a couple of times in private.

    My estranged husband has gotten involved with a high level official in my work place and told lies about me in that organization; it has affected my reputation, employment and well-being. He has has lied about and ruined the reputation of my teen daughter who had the courage to speak up about his drinking and driving when children were in the car. People talk about her as if she is schizophrenic.

    In order to try to separate and get away from the drama, I attempted to move away to a nearby metropolitan area, but he hired the “the best” attorney in the area, told lies about me in court and has managed to put off signing a child and spousal support order for over a year so I was cash strapped and unable to pay for an attorney. Because courts in my state are so overburdened right now, he’s gotten away with all of this.

    Please consider that there are often good reasons as to why there are high conflict divorces; a personality disorder is one of them. If you consider the frequency of personality disorders in the population, it is reasonable to assume that many of the high conflict divorces one observes might be due to personality disorders.

    I hope all readers will consider this possibility when observing high conflict divorces and either refrain from making judgements based on a peripheral understanding of the situation or attempt to offer compassion to the parties involved.

    (Thank you for giving me a space to be heard, Dr. Joe.)

    1. No discussion of any issue can cover all the possibilities, and in writing this post, I didn’t intend to offer a blanket description of every marriage that involves one person who suffers from serious narcissistic issues.. I was talking about a type of relationship in which BOTH partners share in the idealizing process. It sounds as if you were in a very different type of marriage … and I’m really sorry to hear about your awful experience!

  6. I think I dated a person like that – I’m not sure if he wanted an ideal relationship, but before we got together he was always talking about how his parents were already married when they were his age, and he just wants to settle down and have a “normal” life, et cetera. He complained about women who were noncommittal a lot. I only went on about three dates with him but it felt like we were already married somehow – like he just clung to me so that he could feel like a normal person for being in a serious relationship, but it wasn’t really about his feelings for me specifically. It made me really uncomfortable, like I could be anyone and it wouldn’t matter – like I was just a prop in the background of his life. When I broke up with him he was furious and demanded a reason. I gave him lots of different reasons but none of them were good enough – I told him I just didn’t feel the chemistry, that he was a great guy but I was having other problems, etc. I guess none of them were the “real” reason, but I didn’t feel completely aware of the dynamic at the time, only that I felt uncomfortable somehow but I couldn’t pinpoint why. Instead of accepting what I told him, he kept asking, “No, what’s WRONG WITH ME?! There has to be something wrong with WHAT I DID!!!” I wonder if maybe his refusal to believe that he was actually an okay person was a function of a type of narcissism similar to what you’re talking about, but instead of an ideal relationship, maybe about an ideal life trajectory – get a girlfriend, get married, have kids. I think he thought that if he wasn’t married by a certain time, then there had to be something fundamentally wrong with him.

    Also, if you have a minute, look up “Kids in the Hall – Perfect Couple” on YouTube.

    1. Your description reminds me of a post I wrote early on, called ‘Your Plan for a Person’. Some people who can’t bear the shame of their own damage try to create a plan for the ideal person they’d like to be, where everything looks perfect on the outside to deny the damage within.

  7. I’m presently getting divorced with a woman whom, I am now convinced, is a genuine full bore Narcissist. It is very painful. I do feel like a failure. It touches upon my unresolved feelings of shame. I have an intense fear of her ability to sabotage me. She lies better than I tell the truth. I have given up on all our mutual friends because it is hard for anyone to believe the real her that I know from actual experience. She likes to lie, steal and cheat but you won’t know that if you are dealing with her facade which comes from her upper class family. I had been the homemaker, she the bread winner. With the roles reversed I was made to feel that my contribution, raising our two sons, was worthless. Nothing that I did ever was considered as valuable as the things she did. She traveled a lot for her job. She needed me to perform tasks for her to enable her life. Childcare, cleaning, cooking, driving, etc. I was made to feel like an object, rather than a human being. After sex she would roll over and give me her back. She never talked about making love, she always wanted dirty sex. She would never talk about loving me during sex but only about how glad she was that I had a big c—, and how it filled her. I felt like a piece of meat. It has been a struggle for me to realize that I am the victim. Being the man has made that hard. I did a lot of good therapy work in the last year where I got inside a lot of the truly horrible feelings I had from being sexually abused as a child. I realize now that I had developed defenses that allowed me to survive abuse and that I was using them to survive my marriage. I believe one aspect of that is self-blame. She would blame me, I would accept the blame. I believe that I did that to provide myself with the illusion that I had some control in a situation where I had none. Doing so allowed me to avoid the despair that failing at my marriage causes me to feel. I think I’ve got some pretty toxic shame there, where I feel like it is all my fault. I know it isn’t rational. I’m trying to get out in one piece.

    1. Ouch. I’m glad to hear you’ve got some good therapy and you’re talking about shame. The combination you describe — one shame-ridden partner and another narcissistic blamer — is especially toxic. Maybe it would help to look at the ways you were trying to escape from your shame — say, by marrying someone from an “upper class family.” Sometimes it’s not that we’ve failed in any real way that torments us, but that we have fallen short of our ideal self. Your wife may be giving voice to some cruel, perfectionistic part of yourself that sees you as a “loser” because of your damage and because you didn’t measure up to ideal.

  8. Thanks. I think your feedback has validity. I think that it can be hard to admit to one’s self the degree of hurt one has. I’ve struggle with it for a long time, and the last year does seem to have brought some real break through s for me. I’ve lived a long time in what I knew was partial denial. I knew I’d been abused and yet emotionally doubted my own belief. I had lots of PTSD symptoms: flashbacks, body memory, vivid nightmares, etc. But my family of origin, particularly my mom, acted as if “it was all in my head”. I think this is part of what set me up to accept it when my wife, doing what narcissists do so well, preyed upon my insecurity to tell me that her aggression upon me was, in matter of fact, a failure upon my part. That is crazy making. I blamed myself as if I were abusing her (by asking her to not abuse me). I’m in the slow process of deprogramming myself. I believe that there is real danger in adopting a victim identity that makes me “right” by having been “wronged”. I think that your advice to face the actual feelings that are at the core rather than fight with present circumstances is the only wise choice. It is hard to realize that who we “are” (just as the language we speak) is largely not chosen by we ourselves. It is struggle to accommodate one’s self to this reality. I tease my therapist to “give me the pill” that fixes everything. Rather than having to slog through the long hard work. Sliding back, making mistakes, picking myself up, and trying again. I used the book “Passionate Marriage” during the last year of my marriage as a touchstone. It advises you to seek your developmental task in whatever problem you encounter in your marriage, and rather than trying to fix it in your partner, to work on it in yourself. That was good advice. It was also unbelievably painful to practice.

    My wife, once, in my presence, got close to her own internal shame and pain, and backed out and ran away as fast as she could. She made it plainly known that she would never do that again. I got to see what her narcissism is protecting. But I kept doing it over and over again. Touching the pain, the despair, the unbelievable nature of the reality of my childhood, and it was utterly overwhelming. But worth the doing.

  9. I have been going through a cruel and brutal divorce for the last 2 years from a Vindictive Narcissist.
    This is my 3rd attempt to divorce my husband after a 30 year marriage. He comes from an abusive, broken family and suffers from both alcohol and sex addiction. I had no idea the depths of his dark other life that he admits to being active for our entire marriage.
    He has had me and my son removed from our home and business because I had a criminal order of protection against him. And with no evidence, convinced an elderly judge to apply a gag order. In addition my husband has brought me back to court 32 times attempting to have me placed in jail. He is hell bent on destroying me and my son, because I finally said enough!
    I am open to any suggestions as to how to stop this relentless courtroom circus that seems to be feeding the venomous, reptilian, fury that is promoted by the lawyers and judge.
    I would appreciate any concrete advice as to how to end this nightmare. I am very scared, but fighting for my rights!

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