What We've Learned: Spousal Embarrassment

November 12, 2013

Psychologists have long recognized the importance of embarrassment as a human emotion—its anticipation alone can moderate social behavior. Why, then, are spouses so quick to make each other blush? Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of Duke’s social psychology program, outlines four categories of embarrassment to explain why the feeling arises in marriages and how it can be a source of potential conflict.

1. Empathetic: Your spouse alone carries the embarrassment of his or her mishap, but by virtue of your relationship, you empathize a little. He stubs his toe, and you feel for him—as you try to hold back a laugh. Empathetic embarrassment is harmless and short-lived, Leary says. Unfortunately, it’s also the least-common type of embarrassment found in relationships.  

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2. Reflective: You get embarrassed when your spouse behaves in a way that might reflect poorly on you. After all, Leary says, you see your spouse as your other half. During a night out with friends, your husband regales the dinner table with a crude story or two. You sense your otherwise clean image has taken a hit. 

3. One-sided: As the term suggests, you feel embarrassed by the action of your spouse, who apparently lives without shame. She spots a celebrity in public and doesn’t hesitate to request a photo. Meanwhile, you do your best to keep a safe distance. Clearly, you and your partner differ on what constitutes embarrassing behavior. 

4. Targeted: Generally the most damaging of the four types, targeted embarrassment occurs when your partner, intentionally or inadvertently, embarrasses you and you alone. She lets slip to a friend a personal detail you would have rather kept private. You cringe and try to shift the discussion. Later, she tells you to get over it, but secretly, you feel your trust has been violated. If left unaddressed, Leary warns, these incidents can fester into serious relationship problems.