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Do you fight about the same thing over and over again? Do you get reactive and defensive when conflict happens? Would you like to learn how to connect with each other?

The blame game is one of the most painful and damaging defenses couples use when conflict happens. If couples stay focused on blaming each other instead of trying to understand their own hurts, frustrations and unmet needs the connection and intimacy, which is the oxygen of a relationship suffers. As a result of this behavior, anger and resentment begin to fester. Partners begin to avoid each other and what was once a loving, playful and joyful connection becomes a negative-toxic filled space. If the hurt underneath these defensive behaviors isn’t addressed the relationship will wither and die.

The following is a composite of couples who come into therapy with this issue. As you read their story see if you can relate to either partner’s position.

Sue and Al attended couples therapy expressing deep frustration and anger about the state of their relationship. When asked what bought them into counseling they stated that the main problem was simple. “It’s my partner! If only he/she would hange then we’d be fine!”  

 Sue sat at the opposite end of the couch, her body rigid, arms crossed and raditating anger and hurt she stated “If Al would only share his feelings and stop avoiding me everything would be fine! All he does is work, work, work! He never helps around the house, and never wants to go anywhere with me! I feel totally alone in this relationship! I may as well be single!”

 As soon as Sue finished talking Al was ready to defend himself. He stated, “All she does is tell me how I do everything wrong! When I try to talk to her she lectures me so I just stopped talking! Who wants to be around someone who nags all the time!” Shrugging his shoulders and sinking into the sofa he threw up his hands and yelled, “I never have any peace!”

This is a common complaint in couple’s therapy. Both partners come into the session with a laundry list of complaints about each other. The immense hurt and pain they carry prevents them from seeing how their own reactions and behaviors are contributing to the frustration, resentment and sadness that’s turning their relationship into a toxic wasteland. If allowed to stay focused on surface complaints and assigning blame this couple will stay stuck in the painful dance of disconnetion called “the blame game.”

Signs You’re Stuck in the Blame Game

Most of us know when we’re being blamed. It’s usually in the words we hear. Things like “It’s your fault!” or “You’re so irresponsible!” are clear signs of blaming. While it’s easy to hear the blame in these statements, it’s harder to know when we’re the ones doing the blaming. Part of what makes it difficult to recognize is that it’s instinctual (but not in the best interest of the relationship) to defend ourselves if we’re feeling attacked, criticized or judged. In fact, the stronger the threat, the harder we defend!

You know you are blaming when you engage in any of the following behaviors:

  1. If only you wouldn’t do _____ I wouldn’t have done that!
  2. You always make me feel _____________
  3. It’s all your fault!
  4. You never listen to me!

Blaming keeps you stuck in some of the following ways:

  • When you blame someone else it keeps you in the role of victim/matyr.
  • It leads to feelings of anger and resentment which contribute to the distance and pain and reactivity in your relationship.
  • It blocks you from getting what you want and being able to take an active role in your own life!

It’s much easier to blame someone then it is to take responsibilityfor your own reactions, choices, behaviors, thoughts, or feelings. So where does it all begin?

WE LEARN DEFENSIVE/PROTECTIVE BEHAVIORS FROM AN EARLY AGE

I love this picture! It shows how early we start learning to protect or defend ourselves! There is a valid reason for this. It is a coping skill that’s learned in order to survive in our environment.

If we grew up in homes where making mistakes weren’t tolerated and the consequences of doing so were painful (being humiliated, ridiculed or shamed) then blaming others may become a way of protecting yourself from futher wounding. Safety, after all is the key to survival. On the flip side we may have responded to blame by taking responsibility for anything and everything that went wrong. In this case it’s safer to beat ourselves up, try not to make that mistake again in order to avoid conflict and shame. Either one of these behaviors is an extreme and leads the building up defenses to cover our vulnerability. Reacting defensively doesn’t help us get what we want in relationship. It’s hard to connect with a loved one when we are protecting ourselves or engaging in defensive behaviors.

So what’s the answer? How can we change this behavior?     

THE ANTIDOTE TO BLAME

Ready to put an end to the blame game? Well there is a way out of this power struggle and it begins with you!

The key is to become aware of when you are triggered and getting defensive. See if you can listen for the hurt your partner is feeling instead of listening to the criticism. For example, in listening to Al and Sue in the beginning of this post, if you really listen with the heart, you can hear the pain of disconnection, the hurt and sadness that is coming up for both partners. If Sue were to take responsibility for her feelings and speak from the heart, she might say something like, “Al, I really miss you when you’re gone and I miss the feeling of support and connection I got when we’d work together on home projects.” Al would also move into a more connecting response by taking responsibility for his feelings. Changing you statements to I helps partner’s to shift from defensiveness to listening. Al could state his feelings by saying, “Sue, it’s really hard for me to see you upset. When I see you sad I feel helpless and I end up shutting down. I know this doesn’t help but it’s really hard for me to see you in pain.”

These small changes in the way you communicate can help de-escalate defensiveness, create connetion and helps you to understand what is happening inside your partner that is creating the defensiveness. But it doesn’t end there!You also need to learn how to to transform your response to your partner’s pain into one that is healing and connecting. One way to do this is to become aware when you are taking responsility for your partner’s pain/reactions or behaviors. Try not to take it personally and remembering that it’s normal for couples to disagree or see things differently. It’s also vital that they learn how to be compassionate and soothing towards their own pain instead of blaming their partner.

The challenge is to look at your self when conflict happens and ask, “How are my thoughts, behaviors, choices or feelings contributing to what is going on in my relationship?” or, “What am I doing to create distance and hurt?”                                                                                   

TO GET SOMETHING DIFFERENT, YOU HAVE TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Try the following exercise to help you switch from blaming to taking responsibility:

  • Make a list of the things that frustrate you about your spouse. For example, “I hate it when I have something important to share and my partner doesn’t listen to me.”
  • Become aware of the story you tell yourself about what this means. (When my partner doesn’t listen to me it means that he doesn’t care about me! 

Take responsibility for how you react or feel when this happens. Following the above example if you then get defensive and yell,  shut down and refuse to talk to your partner, then you’re defensive, protective behavior is contributing to the conflict. Instead you can do the following: 

  • Request a time to talk to your partner when you will not be distracted.
  • You can put yourself in your partner’s shoes and realize that there may be deeper issue coming up for them and they may find it difficult to talk about these sensitive issues.
  • You can invite your partner to discuss this letting them know you really want to understand and as you listen conciously set aside judgment, try to see the world from your partner’s point of view. It’s almost as if you could leave your neighborhood and enter your partner’s world understanding that they’ve had different experiences then you.

The bottom line is that you can’t change your life by blaming others. You can only change your life by taking responsibility for yourself and making healthier, empowered choices.

Cindy Ricardo is a Certified Imago Therapist and a LMHC. She has a private practice in Coral Springs, Florida where she provides individual and couples counseling. Cindy also runs workshops for Couples helping them learn how to create loving, intimate and supportive relationship. If you would like more information please contact her at 954-793-6442 or email her at acaringcounselor@yahoo.com