Whose Fault is it Anyway?

May 13, 2021
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Forget the Newlywed Game. All we need is a video camera, a judge, and legal entrance into any couple occupied home for the next hit reality show, Whose Fault is it Anyway! Picture this, John comes into the living room, plops himself down on the couch and turns on the TV. A few minutes later, Nancy comes into the room and finding John comfortably situated on the couch, gently says, “John, I thought we agreed that you’d do the grocery run this morning.” At which point, the following conversation occurs:

John (nonchalantly): Oh yeah, sure, I’ll do it in a bit.
Nancy (with a hint of irritation): In a bit we have to go to Samantha’s softball game and then we have that family picnic tonight with my parents.
John (strained annoyance): I thought the picnic with your family was next weekend?
Nancy (in a soft, but condescending tone): No, J-o-h-n, it’s today. We talked about the time change last week!
John (clear irritation): Umm, ok, I don’t remember that conversation at all. Maybe this is another example of you thinking we talked about something when we really didn’t!
Nancy (ticked, with voice rising): Or maybe it’s another example of you not listening when we talk!
John (nearly shouting): Or maybe this is another example of you making plans on your own and then blaming everyone else for not reading your mind!
Nancy (shouting back): Oh sure, blame me for your self-absorption!
John (Gets up and walks out of the room)

Sound familiar? This is probably a rather tame version of how it usually goes, no?By the time we finish playing the blame game the conversation has escalated to the point where we lose our civility, get a little nasty, and in the process the best version of our self is nowhere to be found.

I know, I know. If I only knew your partner, I would understand. It’s not me, it’s my partner!I’vesaid this myself, numerous times.As famed couples and sex therapist David Schnarch likes to say, “Marriage is where you realize you are living with a ruthless sadistic terrorist. And then there’s your partner to deal with too!”1Yikes!

So, if you are tired of playing Whose Fault is it Anyway and are open to thinking about your part in the process, consider the following:

  1. Recognize the Blame Game is not Productive: How many of these arguments have gotten you anywhere but miserable? When have they resolved differences or led to greater understanding? Never? Rarely? Acknowledging the futility of these types of blame-blame interactions is the first step.
  2. Stop Taking Your Partner’s Challenges Personally: Easier said than done, but hear me out. For most of us, when our partner challenges our view of an event, contradicts us, or tells us we are wrong, our first response is to defend our position. This rarely, if ever, goes well. For most of us, this leads to us going on the offensive, which only escalates the conflict and quite often leads to ugly things being said and to hurt feelings. Why do we do this? We do this because many of us depend on agreementand validation from our partners (and others) to feel good about ourselves—this is called a reflected sense of self. When others agree with us and validate our positions we feel good, when they don’t, we get touchy and defensive.We all benefit from validation and encouragement, but when we are dependent on our partners providing this for us, when we have a hard time validating ourselves, and when we need our partners to see us the way we want to be seen, we take it personally when they challenge us, question us, or disagree with us. On the other hand, the more solid your sense of self—the clearer you are about who you are and what you value—the more settled you are and the more open you can be to the ideas of others and the less reactive to their challenges and critiques.
  3. Learn to Better Self-Soothe: You are going to get riled up and triggered. It’s what happens in relationships. But, learning to catch yourself before it is too late and settling yourself down will go a long way towards changing the dynamics in your relationship. What do you notice first about yourself? Tone of voice? Tight jaw? Crossed arms? Snarky comments? Be a detective on your own process. Once you notice yourself falling into the defensive trap of the blame game, take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders. Unclench your jaw. Get a hold of yourself and ask for a redo of the conversation. If you are unable to get ahold of yourself because you are too amped up, ask to take a time-out and come back to the conversation later—suggest an alternate time as a way to keep from using the time-out as an excuse to avoid the conversation.
  4. Take Responsibility for Your Part: We all get triggered and unleash word vomit onto our partners from time to time or attempt to freeze them out. You can’t blame this on your partner, even if they’ve done the same thing to you. Even ifthey started it. You don’t let your kids get away with that logic! Own your own behavior and words. Take responsibility for your part in the process. Even when your partner doesn’t. If as a result of catching yourself, self-soothing, and starting over, the current conversation can be turned around, great! But, it takes two so if you hold onto yourself and your partner continues to lose it you’ve done your part and it may be best to pick back up another time.
  5. Try to Do Better Next Time: Lucky for you, if you and your partner locked horns and melted down today, there will be another opportunity to do better next week, or maybe even tomorrow! That’s the beauty of relationships! Maybe next time you get mid-argument you can ask for a timeout, coming back the next day when calmer to finish the discussion. After that, maybe you’re able to soothe yourself enough to stick with the conversation, but with a different tone and approach. The point being, you’re human. Change is hard and at times, slow. But, the goal is to get just a little bit worse at the blame game each time you play it.

For a free, research-informed assessment of your relationship, take our Relationship Quiz here. Based on your answers to 20 questions, we will provide you with a brief assessment of your relationship across four areas.

1Schnarch, D. (2009). Intimacy & desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship (pg. 213). New York: Beaufort.


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