How to effectively respond to blame and make your marriage better at the same time
Blame may play an important role for your spouse. Because of that, he or she will be reluctant to give it up, even if it is damaging your marriage. If you can get past your own defensive reaction and take a look at what blame is doing for your spouse, you will be on the path toward a blame-free and much improved marriage.
The Symptoms of Blame
How many symptoms of blame do you have in your marriage?
- My spouse repeatedly blames me for our marriage problems.
- My spouse repeatedly blames me for his/her unhappiness.
- Both my spouse and I are dissatisfied with the marriage.
- My spouse won’t look at how he/she is contributing to our problems.
- My spouse blames me for the the way he/she thinks, talks, or behaves.
- Whenever I try to talk about our marriage with my spouse, I just end up getting blamed.
- When I am blamed by my spouse I tend to get frustrated and shut down.
- I often wonder if I really am to blame and why my spouse would want to stay with me.
The more of these symptoms that are present, the bigger the role blame plays in your marriage problems.
Why Your Spouse Blames You
Protection of self-esteem
The most basic purpose of blame is to protect our own self-esteem by making others responsible when things go wrong. If I bounce a check, I can take responsibility for not making sure there was enough money in the account or I can blame my spouse for not making me aware of the situation. If I blame my spouse, it may hurt her feelings and cause an argument. But, if I blame myself, then I will feel stupid or inadequate. For people who primarily know how to deal with problems by blaming, it is reassuring to blame others–even when it causes conflict. If they are having a lot of problems, and even if the problems have nothing to do with the marriage, the spouse may get most of the blame. For such men and women, their spouse is playing the important psychological role of the scape goat. It protects the self esteem of one spouse while damaging the marriage. The more insecure a person is, the greater is his or her need to blame others.
Blame due to habit
I believe that people generally do the best that they can. If your spouse is blaming you, he or she may not know any better way of dealing with problems. It’s not so much that he (or she) needs to protect his self esteem as it is something that he learned to do–probably from his own parents when he was a child. He may have never seen conflict dealt with in a helpful and cooperative way. If you can somehow stop such spouses from blaming (perhaps with threats of divorce), they will switch to another way of coping that is even more primitive. For example, they will emotionally shut down, rage, become depressed, or turn to drugs or alcohol. Although that would stop the blaming, it would damage the marriage even more. People without the skills to do better will always do worse when put under pressure. This is another reason why proving your spouse wrong is not likely to improve your marriage. People who blame others literally can’t tolerate taking blame on themselves.
Blame due to a desire for improvement
The nice thing about spouses who blame is that they correctly identify the existence of problems. What I mean by that is that some spouses deny that problems exist at all. Denial of problems is a more primitive response than blame and harder to work with. With people in denial, they have to be convinced that a problem exists before improvements can be made. With people who blame, they are already aware of the existence of problems. A person who blames will stop blaming if they no longer care about the relationship. It is possible to mistakenly believe that your spouse has improved and stopped blaming you, when actually all he or she has done is given up caring. Separation, divorce, or breakup may soon follow. So, if your partner is still blaming you, it means he or she still cares about the relationship and wants the relationship to be better. None-the-less, he or she is likely to see the only way to improve the marriage as your improving yourself.
Blame is Actually Self-Destructive
Unfortunately, blaming is not really effective in protecting self-esteem, solving problems, or improving relationships. The reality of our own responsibility comes back to us again and again. Students who blame their professors, continue to do poorly and may fail their classes. People who complain about their bosses, coworkers, and work conditions, are more likely to lose their job or be routinely passed over for promotion. Business owners who blame customers may end up going out of business. And, people who blame their spouses for problems may ultimately become rejected and divorced. When these things happen repeatedly to a person who blames, the evidence for personal failure is obvious. Several relationships later, this may trigger a desire to make improvements, but is more likely to result in emotional problems, physical problems, or drug or alcohol abuse. If you allow your spouse to repeatedly blame you, you will eventually emotionally reject your spouse. There is nothing loving about allowing yourself to be someone’s victim.
Spouses Who Blame Refuse Marriage Counseling
Since the purpose of blame is to protect oneself, anything that threatens to put blame back onto the blamer will be shunned. Most people who blame are aware that they could be responsible for some of the problems, although they do a good job of denying that. But, in front of a counselor, those things are likely to come out into the open. Occasionally, people who blame do want marital counseling because they want the therapist to side with them in blaming their spouse. When the therapist refuses to take sides or points out that they both have contributed to problems, the blaming spouse terminates therapy and blames the therapist. A couple may go to two or three counselors with the result being that they quit before progress can be made, the therapist being blamed each time. If you try this, without success, your next best step is to get into coaching so that the coach can help you to effectively deal with your spouse. Simply leaving the problems unresolved would eventually result in the end of your marriage.
Dealing with Blaming
Dealing with blame is a skill like any other. The more you practice, the better you become. Books such as Connecting Through “Yes!” are useful for getting you started with practical examples of effectively dealing with blame. It is important to realize that people who blame also have other destructive behaviors. Blaming is how they avoid taking responsibility for those relationship damaging behaviors. In coaching, I teach my clients that effectively dealing with blame cannot be done in one step. If you have ever tackled your spouse’s blame in one step, you will know why. Trying single step approaches results in a backlash of defensiveness and conflict. It is necessary to combine loving with behaviors with firm boundaries so as not create more distance as you end the blaming. Using this method, my clients are able to completely put a stop to their spouse’s blaming. Following are some key principles you can put to use in ending blaming.
Principle 1: Don’t use emotional pressure to try to stop the blaming directly
Because blaming is the best that your spouse knows how to do, directly trying to take away the blaming will cause more problems. You don’t want your partner to stop blaming only to become aggressively angry, depressed, or end the relationship, for example. It’s the one leg he (or she) has to stand on, so kicking it out from under him is not going to help. And, if you succeed in getting your spouse to stop blaming you, but have no way to deal with the problems he cares about, he will continue to mentally and silently blame you.
Principle 2: Rebuild respect
Just as you can’t stop blaming by blaming back, you also won’t stop blaming by being passive. All that will get you is disrespect when what you need to do is to start building respect. Spouses who blame a lot have little or no respect. You can start to earn respect by putting boundaries around any kind of verbal abuse. The boundaries will do nothing to threaten or harm your spouse, but will make his or her blaming self-defeating. There will no longer be any payoff in blaming you.
Principle 3: Balance boundaries with more positive communication
Although boundaries do not damage a relationship, they will feel tough and unfair to your spouse. That will create more distance in your marriage if you don’t also increase your positive communication. There is a tendency for some people to emotionally withdraw when they are being tough, but that is ultimately self-defeating. It’s important to be a loving spouse who just won’t put up with disrespect. Being all loving will get you disrespect; being too tough will create distance. Combining loving communication with good boundaries will change the way you both communicate while improving your spouse’s behaviors.
Principle 4: Use blame as a starting point for better communication
After rebuilding respect comes rebuilding communication. The goal of communication with a blaming spouse should be to get cooperation. Damage is stopped with the building of respect, but becoming close happens when people start working together. Once respect has been built, you can use your spouse’s blaming to start a more productive dialogue–not only solving your problems but also creating a little more closeness with your spouse. Each incident of blaming creates another opportunity for getting to cooperation and closeness.
Your husband, Mr. Alwaysright, blames you for overspending. You have all the facts and figures to prove him wrong, but at best that will only shut him up until his next complaint. It’s a game you are tired of playing. So, instead of attempting to prove him wrong, you agree with him that the way you spend money is an important issue.
Husband: “You just can’t control yourself, can you?”
You: “What do you mean?”
Husband: “The instant you get to the store you have to start spending money like it’s going out of style.”
You: “I’m glad you brought that up. The way I spend money is an important subject.”
Husband: “Well, it would be fine if you didn’t buy a bunch of junk we don’t need.”
You: “Here honey. Sit down and help me figure out how to be more helpful with expenses.”
Husband: (Sits down hesitantly. Doesn’t know what to expect or what to do. Continued blaming only gets agreement and quickly takes the energy out of his anger).
You: (Use a problem solving method to define the problem and come up with solutions together. After that, you both feel a little closer. Your husband feels good about himself because he was able to help you).
In this example, you did not defend yourself, nor did you agree that you are out of control or spend too much. Instead, you used his blame as an opportunity for working together. By being more focused on the outcome of your discussion than on the blaming, you were able to start to help him learn a better way of working on problems. You would not have had that chance if you just defended yourself, shut up, or blamed back. (If you don’t have a positive problem solving method you like to use, you can find a chapter on this in Connecting Through Yes! ).
See the Opportunity, Not Just the Problem
The important thing to understand is that you are not stuck between two choices–whether to put up with the blaming or end the relationship. There are many things that you can do to rebuild respect, communication, love, attraction, and partnership in your marriage. There are no instant ways, but there are steady, positive, and sure ways. Who is right and who is wrong ultimately is not the issue. The real issue is what you can do to increase the love and connection between you and your spouse.