“It feels like you blame me for just about everything that goes wrong at home. I can’t stand it. I don’t want a divorce, but I do want fairness in this marriage.” George sat, sturdy legs planted firmly in the thick carpet.
Leaning forward, he held the attention of the woman he married over 20 years ago. "I am just plain angry. How dare you hold me responsible for our son’s failure to get into Stockton College. I am hard at work every day building houses. I can’t oversee what goes on at home. Ask him why he guzzled and vaped instead of doing homework.”
Furious because of the shame he felt at being blamed for his son’s failure, George got up and left the office.
Margie looked miffed. “Now what do I do? He’ll be angry for days. I didn’t mean to blame him, but he could set a better example.”
She drifted into the blaming pattern that helped her forgive herself for mistakes she had made with her son.
I needed to take charge of the next steps or George might refuse to return to much-needed therapy. “Margie, let me talk with George for a minute.”
I walked into the waiting room and invited George to return. “I know you felt blamed, but I can help.” He looked doubtful but returned.
I sat down and turned to Margie. “Perhaps you can apologize. You blamed your husband in front of me. He is angry and embarrassed.”
Margie understood. She turned to George, looked at her knees and mumbled “Sorry.” George’s face relaxed and the work continued.
“Margie, when you blame George you attack his character. You sound insulting, which increases his stress. He hears that he never does anything right. Blaming protects you from feeling guilty but it hurts your marriage.”
I turned to both. “Let’s make it safe for you to talk about your differences.” The couple nodded.
I engaged their curiosity. “What are the dynamics of the blame game? Couples who live in blame live in shame and rage. It feels horrible to be held entirely accountable for problems involving many family members. When we blame, we hold another accountable for an error instead of asking ourselves what part each of us plays. Blaming reduces the chances of creating the results we want because it shifts a problem between people into the lap of an innocent victim.”
I turned to both of them. “I want you to move the focus from 'who’s to blame' to 'how do we solve it.' Can you do that?
“Margie, when you blame George he’s sure to explode because you’ve cornered him. Instead, I want you to talk about this mistake so each of us can manage what we’re doing wrong. This would allow both of you to maintain your good humor and would solve the concern.”
George got what I meant. “Sure. When Margie blames me, I feel bad. How can I feel better?”
I felt pleased that George wanted to shift this dangerous interpersonal cycle. “Rethink it. Instead of defending yourself, listen to what is being said. Think of a way to admit when you’re wrong but ask Margie to take responsibility for her part.”
I turned to Margie. “Margie, if George worked to talk more calmly would that help you feel more comfortable in the marriage?”
“It would make all the difference,” she said.
I turned to both. “Today you’ve learned what your body already knows. Blaming is dangerous for health because it deepens the stress cycle. It is bad for couples and parents with children because it creates a combination of anger and guilt that inhibits problem-solving.
"Let’s help you put away the blame game and use interpersonal problem solving to help you enjoy your marriage more. In interpersonal problem solving each of you takes responsibility and solves your part of the problem. You feel good about yourselves and good about each other. How does that sound?”
I looked over and saw each of them smiling at each other and knew that they were on their way.
Here are questions to ask to solve the blame game. They only look easy but are worth learning.
1. What part am I playing in keeping this nasty pattern going? Are you overlooking the harshness in your voice or the fury in your eyes?
2. Apologize for neglecting to see your own part and tell what it is… "I’m so sorry that I yell and scream when I am angry. I know this makes it hard for you.” Wait until you calm down and talk it out… each takes half the responsibility for changing.
3. Enjoy the difference.
To consider: All of us become good at the blame game at some point in life. Have you damaged any relationships by blaming someone unfairly? Have you apologized? How might it feel if you did?
To explore: The Pocket Guide to Blame. https://thesystemsthinker.com/pocket-guide-moving-from-blame-to-accountability/
ED. NOTE: Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com