Dysfunctional relationship / Toxic shame

by Beverly
(Chicago, IL)

My boyfriend and I started dating about a year ago. We are both in our upper 40’s and have adult children. We have known each other since our teen years and attended the same high school. I had always had a high opinion of him and considered him a good guy, though I knew nothing of his family life. It seemed like a good match when we accidentally ran into each other and decided to date.

He was very forthcoming about being a recovering alcoholic. He attended AA meetings and disclosed that he was also in ACoA on and off for years. I liked that he wasnt in denial and was actively participating in recovery. I understood that a relationship with a recovering alcoholic would have its challenges.

The initial problems seemed like typical new relationship issues. After a few months, his need to be right, and to PROVE he was right surfaced. This caused odd arguments. Over time I began to hear myself regularly say “I didnt say that!” He was drastically misinterpreting my words, and repeating his interpretation to me as a negative statement about himself. If I said “The sky is blue” he would respond with “So you think I’m an idiot?”. When I recognized this was happening I started being very careful with my choice of words to no avail. He began regularly pulling away, shutting down or literally running away from our arguments.

I thought it was good for him to cool down so we could come back to the issue later. But later never came. Issues were not being resolved because he avoided them or deflected them. He often stormed off because I was “bringing up the past and not letting things go”, even if the issue occurred yesterday.

One day he had a major shame spiral which shocked me. I had never seen this happen to anyone. The shame was very apparent. My initial concern was that somehow I had triggered this incident because he projected his issues as MY problem. I questioned myself, was he right? I decided to do some research which lead me to learning about Toxic Shame. After many weeks of reading and finding this site, I am sure this is the root cause of our dysfunction.

Shame spirals have become more common. I can see the physical change when they happen. His adrenaline spikes, his heart races, and he cringes away from any physical contact. I can actually see the fight or flight in his eyes as he is looking for an escape from the issue.

I would really like to continue this relationship but need to break our dysfunctional cycles before they break me. Even if our relationship doesn't survive, I think enough of him to at least try to point him in the right direction. I think his toxic shame is so extreme that he is not open to discuss it. I believe he needs professional help but I do not want him to feel persecuted if I tell him.

My questions are: Can this be done gently? Is it possible to bring him to a level of awareness where the decision to seek help might be his own? What is the best way to open a dialog without triggering an event? Does a 12 step program cover this issue?

Thank you for the assistance!

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Sep 30, 2014
by: Beverly

Well, its been several months since I posted my story. I was a little disappointed that no one commented or offered any suggestions. But, I'm not one to give up easily so I stuck with the relationship.

Many positive things have happened in the past few months. First, my boyfriend stopped drinking and went back to AA. It took a few weeks of attempts and fails but now he's been sober 90 days. In addition to the AA meetings he attends a weekly recovery group at our church. They have a "care" night with all sorts of groups.

I have started seeing a therapist weekly. I chose one who specializes in alcohol/addiction recovery and personality disorders such as borderline. Its been immensely helpful! Hopefully soon we can achieve some couples therapy but for the moment he is rather reluctant to join me. I've learned he needs time to "warm up" to these things.

The other thing I've learned is that he doesnt just have walls that need to come down. He has a maze of walls and I need to learn how to navigate them to get inside. I often hit a dead end and need to back track and chose a different path. The therapist is helping me choose better paths.

Also, my boyfriend invited me to join a group during "care" night for codependency and other relationship issues. It was like he invited me into his world. Since I joined he's much more open to discussions and addressing our issues. After our individual group meetings we spend a little time talking to each other using the meeting topic as a starting point.

We still have a long way to go but we are working on our relationship daily. Very slowly. I did introduce him to the concept of mindfulness so he's been willingly learning about it. This will be helpful when we start to address his borderline traits.

We've been together for 18 months now but it feels like we've been together for a lifetime. I mean that in a good way!

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