Whose Fault is It? How Blame Sabotages Relationships
"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame."
When I first see couples for counseling, they feel stuck. I hear things like, "He doesn't do his share." "She blows up over nothing." "He's not even trying." "She doesn't care."
It doesn't feel good to be blamed, and most people fight back: "You don't notice how much I do." "I blow up because you provoke me." "I work harder than you do." "I do too care!" The conversation goes around and around, and both people feel frustrated.
Blame makes us feel like we're alone, like somehow we can't measure up. Blame is so hard on relationships that marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman describes it as one of his "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" -- the four behaviors that cause the most trouble in relationships. I see it in my office all the time: each person sees the problem as the other person's doing.
It's not always easy to get people to see that blame is most often part of an infinite loop they get stuck in, and that the antidote is really curiosity, connection and feeling.
But feeling bad and feeling stuck aren't the worst of it.
The Real Problem with Blame
The biggest problem is how it affects the person who blames. Blame affects people in many ways. Research shows that people who blame others lose status, learn less, and perform worse relative to others. In particular...Blame creates inaction. When someone blames, it's as if they're handing over control of the situation. "I can't change until you do," is the implicit message. The solution is in their partner's hands.
Blame separates people from your values, beliefs, and commitment. If the problem belongs to someone else, then you have a reason to dig in your heels. You miss an opportunity to grow, to stretch, to challenge yourself. You might miss a chance to change the way you think or act, or a chance to be deeply honest: by sharing your fear, or disappointment, or sadness in a heartfelt way.
Blame holds back real change. Blame feels global and ongoing. If you see your partner as unconcerned, you don't notice the small moments of caring she offers. If you see him as indifferent, you don't see small gestures of affection and respect. If you see your partner as lazy, you don't see their efforts - however sporadic - to do the task well. And if you don't see the caring, the respect, and the efforts, you can't acknowledge them. And without acknowledgment, they begin to fade.
Why We Blame
Blaming seems to be part of how we think. In social psychology, there is a phenomenon called "fundamental attribution error. In everyday language, this means when someone is behaving in a way we don't like, we tend to attribute their behavior to bad will rather than bad circumstances.
Let's say your partner is late for dinner. Research shows that you're more likely to think, "She doesn't care" than "traffic must have been awful ". Or imagine that when you get home after a hard day's work, and the house is a mess. Statistics say that you're more likely to think, "He's not trying" than "The kids must have kept him busy today."
When I started working with Joan and Andrew, Andrew was depressed and spent a lot of time watching TV. Joan was afraid that they were drifting apart, and was working hard to reconnect. But she got angry when she felt ignored. "I can't believe how hard it is to get his attention," she said. "He must not care."
Andrew cared very much, and TV was how he stayed calm. When he heard Joan's raised voice he felt bad. He got emotionally "flooded," and watched more TV. "I can't talk to her when she's mad," he said, "but then she gets mad when I wait for things to calm down. Nothing I do is right."
They were caught in a negative cycle of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and blame was a good part of what was keeping them there.
How to Stay Out of Blame
I helped Joan and Andrew get curious about how they were caught, and their conversations changed. Joan got a better sense of Andrew's depression, and became more patient. As Andrew started to realize how much he mattered to Joan, they talked more. They found more comfort in each other.
There are many ways to step out of the blame cycle. Some of the things I helped Joan and Andrew do were to own a small part of the problem, get comfortable with apologies, and ask oneself challenging questions.
1. Own some part of the problem. When you feel criticized, take a few minutes to acknowledge your part of the problem, however small. If "he doesn't do his share," can you acknowledge how bringing it up every day contributes to his digging in his feet? If she "blows up over nothing," can you see how a small comment you made helped set off the spark? (1)
2. An apology can be incredibly effective and disarming. "If that's how you see it, I can understand why you would be upset. I'm sorry it happened that way." When you can stretch and see your partner's point of view, the mood softens. There is more room for conversation, feelings, new ideas. And ironically, you're much more likely to get your way.
3. Ask yourself challenging questions. I help my clients "try on" new ways of thinking. I challenge their explanations ("He doesn't care/She won't listen) and investigate new possibilities ("Maybe he does care. Maybe she will listen.").
The next time you feel stuck in a conversation, try asking yourself these questions. They can help you change your perspective, step out of the infinite negative loop, and take a new kind of action. Below are some challenging questions to use as a guide:
- What action can I take that doesn't depend on what my partner says or does?
- Can I talk about my own experience without blaming my partner?
- Can I get curious about my partner's experience, even when I don't agree?
- Can I let go of the need to be right?
"Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future."
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
(1) Note: if your safety is threatened, the strategies suggested in this article don't apply. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233)
"Scapegoat for Hire" - Laura Brighwood - Oct 13th 2010
Fault...is the leading cause of earthquakes.
Love your article and insights....connected them to my FBPage:
Come check it out and join the dialogue agains blame and for accountablity.
Letting Go of Blame - Heather Whistler - Oct 4th 2010
Great article! I love your point about blame leading to inaction. I have definitely experienced this in my life. As a teenager, I struggled with binge eating and bulimia. I blamed my parents for my problems. It wasn't until the behavior started to literally ruin my life that I was moved to find an effective solution. (I turned to the Twelve Steps.) Funny thing was, as soon as I found a solution that worked, I let go of the blame. I didn't need it anymore.
What I find really sad is when people stay stuck in bad relationships for years and years because of this blame phenomenon. My in-laws are a classic example. My mother-in-law was an alcoholic, and she blamed her drinking on my father-in-law. Her drinking made him unhappy, so he blamed her for that. Neither of them took any action to kick the alcohol or the co-dependency, and they had a bad, blame-filled relationship with each other until the day she died (of liver failure).
I'm really grateful that when my husband had a psychotic breakdown, I stayed out of the blame game and focused instead on what I could do to help him. Didn't matter why it had happened, what mattered was how we dealt with it. Living in the solution makes me much happier than living in blame!
I share a bit about what I've learned as a result of my husband's illness (as well as my own) on my blog: http://heatherwhistler.wordpress.com/
I'd love to hear your thoughts if you get a chance to stop by!