Quitting the Blame Game
Although blaming appears to deliver a winner, ultimately everyone loses.
(Posted on Feb. 26, 2018)
If you love games, we definitely have something in common.
Clue? My all-time favorite. Monopoly? Bring it. Uno? When and where? But you and I both know that not all games are equal. Amidst the amusing ones, some others can be uninteresting or even awkward. And in my work with couples, I have a front-row seat to one of the most painful games of all: The blame game.
“You’re the one who never listens!”
“If you would start being just a little more romantic, we wouldn’t even need to be in therapy!”
“You always forget to text me when you’ll be home late, and you should know better. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“You’re always telling me what I do wrong, but you’re the one who__________! (fill in the blank with a list of past mistakes)”
“Ugh! You’re so inconsiderate!”
And if you’re cringing right now as you remember saying something along these lines, let up on yourself and take heart in knowing that the rest of the human race stands beside you. Virtually everyone has blamed their partner at some point.
Besides, the blame game is an all too easy trap to fall into. We have potent filters over our eyes that influence how we see our partner, ourselves, and our relationship. For instance, when partners in one study disagreed with each other, not only did they struggle to see the situation from one another’s viewpoint, each partner thought they were the ones talking about the matter in a more productive way. And the blame game is especially seductive when you consider the alternative. It’s so much easier to look outward and highlight a partner’s blunders and lapses than it is to spotlight one’s own. It delivers a buffering layer of self-protection as each partner more comfortably views themselves as the one who’s in the right, rather than daring to glimpse how they might have taken a wrong turn.
And that is where the cruel irony of this game comes in. Even as blaming offers a shield with one hand, it ultimately wounds with the other. When someone blames their partner, even if they don't actually come out and say it, this forecasts less happiness in the relationship over time.
So how can you resist the pitfall of blame? Consider these strategies:
1. Lift your spirits
Whether you relish taking a walk with your dog, watching a comedy, enjoying lunch with friends, or listening to music that puts you in a happier frame of mind, find simple ways to brighten your mood. Partners who feel better are less inclined to blame each other.
2. Re-think blame
If your partner makes a blaming and critical remark, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re going to feel defensive and will be tempted, at least for a moment, to hurl blame right back. And that’s okay—you’re human. You can use this knowledge to your advantage by making a plan for what you’ll do when the feeling strikes. Perhaps you’ll take slow breaths or silently count to 30. Or you might recall a funny joke, a scene from a comedy, or an enjoyable memory. Whatever you choose, try also reminding yourself that blame is highly unlikely to help you get you what you want. Blame will not, in all probability, convince your partner to listen, to drop their defenses, to communicate more lovingly, to cooperate with you, to change, to be more honest and open, or to stop blaming you. If anything, it will probably give you the opposite. And when we can truly acknowledge and understand that blame isn’t merely ineffective, but that it ultimately works against us, we’ve arguably taken the most important step in lessening our inclination to pick it up as a tool.
3. Practice Self-Compassion
When you’re self-compassionate, you speak to yourself in a considerate, caring manner. You recognize that you have your fair share of shortcomings and missteps, and you grant yourself permission to be an imperfect person rather than beat up on yourself for it. And when you’re more forgiving of yourself for your foibles and errors, you might not need to blame your partner to protect yourself. A study found that when people viewed themselves in a more compassionate way, they were able to recognize how they contributed to a problem without having to grapple with intensely distressing feelings. And if you’re not quite sure how you talk to yourself, here’s a little thought experiment I like to invite people to try. Imagine that someone followed you around all day long saying the exact same things to you that you say to yourself. How would you react? If you’d want to yell at that person or run away, you’re in good company. That is, by far, the most common response I hear. One way to start changing your inner voice is to imagine how you would talk to a close friend, and then try talking to yourself in the same way. Fair warning, it may feel clunky and unfamiliar at first, but with practice, you'll get better at it. See if you can transform that voice into one that’s a bit more comforting and soothing to hear. You deserve it.