How to Play the Blame Game More Effectively

As a Couples’ therapist, I see a fair amount of blame. Some unrealistic, some fair.  Who’s kidding who? No one enters a relationship out of a vacuum, but from an array of past relationships, much of which gets projected like crazy on their present ones. Given this, when partners express hurt, feeling unloved, or treated unfairly by their partners, it comes across as, and I’m using for shorthand, blame. It’s understandable though. If  their partner is the only other person in the relationship, who else would they blame? Obviously themselves—I’m not blind. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if partners didn’t need to blame? About as wonderful as their partners being able to recognize their need to blame as a potentially misplaced reaction to feeling hurt. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible. One doesn’t necessarily have accept or immediately respond to a partner’s blame. It isn’t so crucial that you convince them their blame is inaccurate, but whether a show of their work does.

When I see someone in a couple blaming their partner, I first wait to see how their partner will respond. If their immediate response is to defend themselves, I ask  if they really think their partner is suddenly going to just accept their correction? Correcting anyone, especially after they’ve expressed how they feel (even if it is complaining), comes across as dismissive, and likely invoke feeling invalidated. They’re either going to stew with resentment or attack their partner’s points.

Basically, blame is assigning responsibility for an act, usually perceived as wrong, another has committed. However, blame only implies responsibility, it doesn’t necessarily prove, or establish it. Being wrongfully blamed by partner becomes problematic when it’s personalized because the person who believes you’re capable of the wrong, is the same person who’s supposed to think the best of you. It’s hurtful, while at the same time makes one  indignant, and because of this, difficult to integrate. Yet this effects both in ways which can potentially entrench them more. When one blames another they risk not only of being wrong, and wronging another, but put their ability to read others at stake. Being blamed though the person’s character is at stake, and naturally spurns reaction. Again, couples blame one another because there’s no one else in the relationship to blame. Still, whether innocent or guilty, being blamed or accused of a wrong by anyone causes reaction. When Shakespeare said, “The lady doth protest too much,” the lady’s protest may not necessarily imply guilt. However, while jumping to blame straight out of the shoots obviously isn’t good, this doesn’t mean the urge to do so hasn’t some objective basis. It’s likely to have subjectively been building up. Blame becomes a dynamic pattern the more a partner’s underlying, subjectively influenced, blame is met with immediate, flat-out, incredulity, because they’ve learned to anticipate resistance. If so, any defensive response, potentially reinforces that resistance will occur. Dynamically, if a partner wants to deliver a message, but it’s getting blocked, blame is a means of increasing it’s momentum. Unfortunately the only thing that increases is going back and forth with the rapidity of ping pong. In no time, partners are locked in argument, the original issue morphed, becoming oblong in the momentum. “You don’t seem to want to spend time with me,” becomes, “You never want to be around me.” Or what previously was called, an occasional night out with a friend, now bears the accusal of being a preference. And the more proportionally accurate nights at home are, if not over looked, assumed as pure misery on the other’s part. Never mind reality when reasoning with hyperbole.

So, let’s agree; automatically correcting your partner’s rarely results in their reconsidering their accuracy, but usually, if not in their feeling invalidated, certainly their reacting, and potentially with increased momentum. Assuming you agree, What would you say if I told you, “Two plus two is five?”

You’d probably say, “No, it’s four.”

Imagine my having a perplexed look. “Huh? It’s obviously five.”

Imagine our continuing to go back and forth with this. You continue asserting, being convinced two plus two is 4, and me continuing to not budge from my believing it’s five. How could you get me to see it accurately, at least according to you? You could point it out, or show me, but what if I’m still not convinced? Well, you could ask me to show my work.

If I counted two fingers on one hand, but in counting two fingers on the other, unintentionally (or even unconsciously), include my semi-curled pinkie, it would clearly show how I mistakenly arrived at my previous answer. But without you’re having made, or proved, me wrong. Now, imagine that instead of two plus two is four, it’s the inaccuracy of a partner’s blame. Rather than taking on proving them wrong, ask your partner to “show their work.” By doing so, in addition to killing several relationship birds with just one stone, you are letting them be heard, giving importance, but also ownership, for what they say. Not to mention, giving yourself the opportunity to check whether you heard what they said previously—because you may not have. If they were inaccurate—or wrong, hopefully they’ll see and understand how, and be aware of this going forward. And so can you—but for them. By understanding how a partner see things, especially when upset, can lessen personalizing, or immediately go to automatically defending yourself. Learning to recognize what’s emotional reaction verses actual reaction, can make the difference in being able to stay open and shutting down. Just doing this a few times can alter and improve a blame dynamic. Since avoiding conflict is unrealistic, you can at least make it productive.

Ideally neither partner should be singled out for being wrong, however the reality is that sometimes one partner is clearly wrong, and the other right. Even if just by the reasoning, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” This isn’t to suggest there be a winner/loser dynamic, yet to ignore basic  right and wrong risks creating a dynamic in which neither partner is accountable for their actions, or respecting the other’s limits. Depending on how it’s handled, there’s nothing unhealthy about acknowledging a partner’s this, their apologizing, learning from it, and expecting the same from the other. I know if my partner can acknowledge when they’re wrong, I’ll have a much easier time acknowledging when I am. Why is this important? So neither partner has to hold onto feeling wronged by the other, or carry resentment because something’s unresolved, but pending the next conflict. Typically it’s the little shit, right? But because it goes unacknowledged or isn’t repaired, this little shit grows, but at such a rate, partners begin to need tally sheets to keep track.

In therapy school we were taught to “treat” couples as if a single unit, and I think that is why therapists won’t typically work with partners individually.  I’ve  though found that changes in a couple’s relationship begins with one partner individually deciding to act on trust, and firmly taking the higher ground. They aren’t though out of the woods just yet. There’s still the potential reality that the other won’t acknowledge, or ignore their partner’s offer. But my suggestion to the partner holding the higher ground is they may just have to hold it, not get pulled back in, but let the other wear themselves out trying. Because each unsuccessful try continues to confirm how solid the ground is. For the other,

Because relationship patterns are often emotionally, or ego driven, they are hard to change. By giving a partner’s emotions leeway, they will settle. It’s typically because we fight them that they escalate. Where a partner’s ego is involved, I ask them to consider, Who really comes out ahead? If you’re wrong and your partner is right, but they’re choosing to be in a relationship with you, who actually comes out ahead? What would you rather say, I have a partner who is right? or one that is wrong?

All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.