Hardly a day ever goes by when I don’t hear someone blaming someone for something. It is one of the most common–and one of the most frustrating patterns that confront couples and families. Blame can destroy a good marriage, wreak havoc on our friendships, and put innocent kids in the middle of their parents’ arguments.
Not only are families besieged by this destructive pattern, the whole culture is mired in it. We blame the President; the Democrats blame the Republicans and vice versa; women blame men; consumers blame companies; patients blame their doctors. The dance goes on and on all around us. Is there any way to break through the blame barrier and why should we even attempt to do so?
- “You never listen to me. If you had just listened, you would have remembered what time we were meeting.”
- “You started that whole thing with your brother. One of you always gets hurt when you rough house like that.”
- “If you stopped nagging me all the time, I would want to ask you for a date night.”
So Why Do We Blame Others?
We actually believe that we are right. Since the time human beings lived together in tribes and villages, there had to be laws to govern our behavior. Rules and laws are typically black and white with a right and a wrong answer. You are guilty or not guilty of a crime. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, we simply apply this black and white reasoning (whether or not it is helpful or endearing) to our partner or child’s behavior.
We are blind to our side of an interaction. Most all of us are trained to see the world in a linear sequence: A causes B. In order to survive, we had to learn about the nature of cause and effect. If I poke the dog, he will bite me. If you put your finger in the fire, it will burn you. In our relationships, we see the other person as causing our behavior or reaction. We can be fully unaware of the look on our face that pushed the other person’s button. The blame game is a circular sequence. Both people are simultaneously the cause and the effect of the destructive pattern.
We know that we are part of the problem but are too scared, hurt or angry to admit it. Although we all know the expression “It takes two to tango,” it takes strength and courage to admit when we have messed up. Sometimes people continue to blame because they do not feel safe being vulnerable and open.
We have gotten into a bad habit which we have practiced for years. We have all seen so much blame tossed around in our culture and endlessly modeled in the media, that it is a wonder that anyone knows how to break through the blame barrier. On top of this, if we grew up in a household with lots of criticism or shaming, then the habit of criticism and defensiveness, attack and counterattack, looks normal.
“We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change you’re the one who has got to change.” -Katherine Hepburn
Even if you somehow imagine that the blame game is working for you, your partner or child might tell you otherwise. Here are some of the reasons to stop and desist before blame erodes the positive feelings in your family…
You can feel close again. Although I certainly understand the desire to be close AND be right, they happen to be mutually exclusive options. When I hold on to the belief that I am right (and you are wrong), my self-righteousness is readily apparent to my loved one whether I know it or not.
You can move from the role of victim to the role of lead actor or actress in your life saga. As Kathryn Hepburn so wisely pointed out, the only part of the dance that we can change is our part. This is the often dreaded fourth step in 12-step programs (taking your own inventory not someone else’s) and is step one in breaking the blame barrier.
When you blame someone else, it casts you in the role of their victim. It is far more self-empowering to take responsibility for your part in the deadly sequence. (Here’s a blog about the downside of trying to change your partner instead of yourself).
You can learn much more about yourself and your loved ones. If you remain convinced that you are right and he is wrong then you are unlikely to be open to discovering what lies behind the hurtful behavior. If you move off of blame, you can become more like a detective and less like a judge.
“Better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” -Chinese Proverb
If you want to stop this destructive pattern, the first step is to make it your clear intention to do so. Ideally, you and your partner will agree to work towards this goal together. If not, you can still change your part (remembering it takes two to tango). The longer the pattern has persisted, the more time and practice it will take to break the habit so be patient. (More tips on changing habits here).
When you notice that you are starting to criticize and blame, here are some things to remember:
Tip #2: Give your partner or child the benefit of the doubt. Imagine the other person is doing their best and isn’t trying to hurt you or do or say the wrong thing.
Tip #3: Cultivate curiosity rather than assuming what someone else is thinking or feeling. Inquire about what might be going on for the other person that is causing them to respond in such a manner.
Tip #4: Be quiet and take a few deep breaths so that you don’t get reactive.
Tip #5: Take a break from the discussion. Have a word that you both use when one of you notices the blame game creeping up on you.
Tip #6: Remember that you love each other. To err is so very human. Practice apologizing and forgiving over and over as long as it takes to get good at it.
One of my favorite mantras comes from the peace activists, Thich Nhat Hanh, who breaks the barrier peacefully and with great compassion. His advice is: “No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”