THREE POSSIBLE OUTCOMES WITH COUPLES THERAPY

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My last article was about how relationships are the hardest thing you will ever do, and I outlined some of the main reasons for this. In this article I want to present the ways couples therapy can help with these difficulties by discussing three possible outcomes of the work. I hope this exploration will demystify some of the “mystery”, helping readers to understand that the success of couples therapy has more to do with the couple seeking it than the therapist administering it. This is not an attempt to make a couple responsible for any failure of couples therapy, but rather to emphasize their role in its success–to up their skin in game, so to speak. 

There was a time when couples therapy was seen as the last resort for a broken marriage. Today, there continues to be more of a stigma toward couples work than individual work. Fortunately, that perception is changing over time, with many couples now seeking assistance at the beginning of their relationships, as a way to avoid issues down the road. 

However, there continue to be misconceptions about what couples therapy can actually do. What it can’t do is: 

  • “fix” your relationship
  • decide for you if you should stay together or break up (though it may help you to make a decision about this)
  • improve the sex (or re-start it) in your relationship if neither partner is willing to make some changes

Simply put, the work of a couples therapist is to help couples have difficult conversations. The main difficult conversations that couples struggle to have often concern sex, money, parenting, and respect. These conversations can be difficult to have because having them requires that we set aside defensiveness and criticism, and examine what we are willing to “give up” so that the relationship, not the individual, can “win”. This can be very challenging if a couple have opposing values in these areas, but it is not impossible! 

So let’s look at what can happen when a couple comes into therapy for help with their difficult conversations. What are the possible outcomes?

NOTHING CHANGES: Let’s start with the bad news. Simply put, change requires an action, not just an intention. Many couples truly want their relationships to improve, but then find themselves running into obstacles when they try to change their behavior. Those obstacles can come from inside or outside the individuals in a relationship, and can be so discouraging that the process is stopped before it even gets going. 

However, not all is lost when obstacles show up. They can be a sign that something is moving. Obstacles are often negative beliefs that individuals have carried for years, which they have brought into the relationship with them. Negative beliefs are shameful ways of thinking about ourselves that are either handed to us by others, institutions, or culture, or conclusions that we make about ourselves based on how the world responds to us. We are not always aware of them until they show up in relationships or when we are trying to embrace change. 

Regardless of why we resist action, without it nothing will change. This is why I want to be sure that a couple is willing to take action before working with them in therapy, because without that willingness, they will be disappointed by the lack of results and take that as a sign the relationship is hopeless and should end. 

BREAK-UP OR DIVORCE: While this is an option that many choose without coming into couple therapy, it is still an option even while working together with a therapist on your relationship. However, couples who choose to break-up or divorce after a course of couples therapy are more likely to be doing so for the right reasons, whereas most other couples end their relationships by mistake

There are two primary reasons that a couple will break-up in the course of doing couples therapy:

  1. They realize that they no longer (or perhaps never did) have shared values/goals/relationship dreams, making them a poor fit who would be better served moving on from one another.
  2. They find out that there is no longer any relationship to save.

As their therapist, I never make this decision for them–but I may ask questions about what I observe in the room. It is up to the couple do decide whether they want to stay together or not. One thing I always tell them is a phrase I got from my mentor, Dr. Walter Brakelmanns, who would tell couples “I will fight for your relationship until you give me a good reason not to.” 

Many couples break-up because of “incompatibility”. I am here to tell you that this concept is a myth! Incompatibility suggests that differences in interests divide couples, and yet the reality is that many couples have long and happy marriages while having wildly dissimilar interests. Rather, it is a wide difference in values that can signal a mismatch. 

Values signify what is important to us, and some examples are: having a family, living near parents, honesty, mutual respect, spirituality, loyalty, trustworthiness. We usually have 3-5 non-flexible values, but even those are subject to change over time, so finding someone whose values match yours is no guarantee for the long run, but it can’t hurt! Values conversations are just one more way of showing interest in your partner’s inner world, and how it may change over time. 

Though relationships work best when they share key values, it is not an automatic deal-breaker with they don’t. It all comes down to respect–and the willingness to be curious about each other rather than judgmental or critical. Values can change over time, but that does not mean that a relationship has to end–it can change too. 

***

The second reason that couples might break-up in couples therapy is because they come to realize that the relationship is already dead. What lets us know this? Lack of interest. 

When I notice that one partner is sharing a painful emotion or event, and I see a lack of empathic response from the other partner, I start to worry about the relationship. Lack of response can show up for many reasons, but if it is happening because the person no longer cares about how their partner is suffering, then the relationship has lost its emotional connection. There is no relationship for me to save. This happens not because one partner is a cold, uncaring person, but because they no longer care about their partner’s inner life. This can happen for a number of reasons, and often happens over a period of time. 

This will present as a couple who come in because the relationship is still alive for one, but not for the other. This can be very painful, but it is even more painful to stay in with someone who no longer has interest in you. I think it is easier to survive a break-up than a bad marriage. These couples can still do work in couples therapy, but the focus shifts from connecting them to problem-solving–what do they need to figure out in order to move on from one another?

What makes a relationship lose its connection? Well, the main causes I see are unresolved resentments that have turned into contempt, breaches of trust that are seen as “unforgivable”, lack of mutual respect and understanding, and certainly undiagnosed mental illness, domestic violence, or substance abuse. The loss can occur over a long period of time or in response to a specific breach, but it is up to each individual to choose to work toward reconnection, otherwise the relationship will start to disconnect and die. 

Couples therapy can help couples to set aside blame and reflect on the role they each had in their relationship getting to this place, while also helping to create new understanding about each other’s actions, leading to greater understanding. This understanding it the beginning of empathy, rebuilt trust, and reconnection. 

DO THE WORK: To round out our exploration of the three outcomes of couples therapy, let’s look at the optimal outcome–doing the work! The reality is that this option is really the only thing that brings about change in a couples relationship. It does not matter how brilliant or skilled the therapist is, if the couple does not take the work home and into their interactions, nothing will change. 

So what is the work? Well, in my office I first get the couples’ agreement that I can do my job–which is to guide them to having more successful difficult conversations. Sometimes that means that I need to interrupt what they are trying to say–and that can be a challenge for some. The work in this instant is for the client to regulate themselves and “set aside” whatever feelings are coming up for them in the moment. This is harder than it sounds! But without this willingness, the conversation will be derailed and nothing will change. 

Secondly, the couple has to change what they are doing at home. This can entail a whole list of things, or perhaps just a couple adjustments, but without some action towards practicing the skills at home, again, nothing will change. Couples don’t have to turn the  whole house upside down–John Gottman says that it is more important that we do “small things often” as a way to keep the engine of relationship connection running on idle, rather than having to restart it each time we need to communicate. 

Another action that can help a great deal is when the individuals pursue their own work with an individual therapist. As we reveal the vulnerabilities that each partner brought into the relationship, it is up to each partner to attend to these rather than holding the other responsible for “fixing” them. Individual therapy can be a great adjunct to couples work so that in the couples session, the focus can be on the relationship instead of the individual. 

I get some pushback from couples when I tell them that there is work involved in having a healthy relationship. I can understand why. We are raised to believe that love does not take work–that it is some sort of magic glue that sustains itself, and that is absolutely not true unless you are speaking of the love a parent has for a child. Real love take effort to sustain, because it is effort that indicates caring and interest in another, not passivity. Real love is a verb, not a noun! It is caring in action. And when couples embrace that framing of effort, they see it as a romantic gesture rather than an obligation or duty. 

The bottom line is that it works. So do the work!

***

Anytime a person wants to improve or change their life, some action and effort is required, even if that action or effort is to do less. And for those who do not know what actions to take, it is considered wise to seek out an expert for guidance and support. This is what a couples therapist can offer, but a good therapist will also assess whether or not a couple is ready and willing to do the work, in the same way a personal trainer will evaluate your commitment to an exercise program. 

Therapists can guide your progress, but the couple has to start the engine, and this is why I present these three choices to every couple that comes into my office–I want to invite them to work as hard as I will to improve their relationship. 

Which choice will you choose? 

DOES YOUR RELATIONSHIP MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON?

Do you like who you are in your relationship?

I ask this question because, despite what many think, relationships rarely end because we fall out of love with the person we are with–more often breakups happen because we don’t love who we are in the relationship. What makes us fall out of love with ourselves at times in our lives? For our purposes I want to focus on the words, thoughts, and actions that can work against our values. 

When we engage in behaviors that don’t align with how we prefer to be in the world, we become unsettled, and the easiest way out is to look for someone to blame for this unpleasantness. Guess who usually gets the blame? When something happens in the world that keeps us close to our partners for long periods of time, unsettled feelings can get triggered and magnetized. What do we do with them? How do we talk to our partners about what we are feeling without projecting blame? When do we know if talking will help, or if we should just break up?

Believe it or not, the most helpful approach to answering these questions begins with looking at yourself, not your partner. This is because our responses and reactions tell us a lot about how we experience the world, and if we are not satisfied with the results of that perspective, then we have an opportunity to change it. There is a greater chance for success with changing the self than there is with changing someone else! The challenge is that changing the self is hard and sometimes more painful than trying to get someone else to change, but it is the only way I know that works for the long run. So let’s look at how we determine where the change needs to happen: in us or in the state of our relationship…

FOR BETTER OR WORSE: As I wrote above, we often break up because we no longer love who we are in our relationship, meaning that we don’t like how we are responding to what we don’t like in the other. When we say that we promise to stay together “for better or worse”, we are actually talking about the future state of the other, the relationship, and ourselves.

In the courtship phase it is easy to imagine sticking with someone for the long run because the version of that person in the moment is quite enjoyable. This makes it easy for us to show up as caring and kind to the other–we are our best self. We love our relationship most when we feel like a better version of ourselves in it–not so much when we feel like a worse version! 

What factors into these opposing experiences of the self? It is not difficult to be a better version of ourselves when the relationship is humming along nicely. Not so easy when going through a rough patch. Why is this? Often it is because rough patches trigger our fears, vulnerabilities, and in worst case scenarios, our negative beliefs about ourselves. When this happens, our better self, the one who acts lovingly toward our partner, disappears, and our priority shifts to protecting ourselves at any cost. We stop loving and instead attack, defend, or retreat, intent on survival. 

How do you have access to your better self regardless of what is going on in your relationship?

THE FUNERAL EXERCISE: The ability to have consistent access to our better self is dependent on these key steps:

    • a strong and appealing vision of our better self and how our relationship would benefit from us showing up as that
    • awareness of the cost of leaving our better self, both to us and to our partner
    • ability to self-regulate ourselves and/or be co-regulated by our partner
    • ideally, a partner who is willing and enthusiastic about teaming up with you to support you being your better self

You might be wondering how you even figure out what your better self looks like. Let me tell you a story…

Many years ago I participated in a series of workshops that could be categorized as “self-actualization” workshops. It was the 90’s! I remember that one night the group of participants were gathered, and we embarked on an exercise that is sometimes called “The Funeral Exercise”. Over the course of the evening, we all had the opportunity to lay on the floor of the room and pretend that we were dead and buried. We were then instructed to imagine that our loved ones were above us, attending our funeral, and we were told to think about what they might be saying about us and the life we lived. 

This exercise changed my life, because at the time the conversations I imagined happening above my buried body were not flattering! There was a lot of “He was so closed off” and “He lived so carefully”, and I remember imagining that my mother was there, crying because I had kept her at arm’s distance. In other words, I realized that I was not living my best life, I was not being my better self. I was letting fear influence me to protect myself from being hurt, which resulted in me keeping out love along the way. 

Today, I no longer prefer protecting myself to feeling alive and in relationship to others. 

After the workshop, things did not turn around immediately in my life, but they did begin to shift. And what helps to bring my better self to relationships more consistently today is the desire to live a life that is a celebration while I am living it, and celebrated after it is over. The motivation to do this is simple: I want to feel more love and less pain. I realized that by avoiding pain at all cost, I was also avoiding love, which then reinforced the pain. A very vicious cycle.

TURNING PAIN INTO MOVEMENT: What is the turning point for most people–that time when they decide to make changes in how they are living live and relating to others? In the popular play A Christmas Carol, the change happens overnight for the main character, but we can’t all have the benefit of a set of ghostly visits to spark us into action! I have observed that turning points often come when the pain becomes unbearable–when the balance between what we gain and what we lose is tipped toward loss. 

This is the time that most people seek out therapy. How can therapy help? Ideally, it does not give you the answers, it instead leads to better questions. These questions hopefully influence your relationship to yourself, others, and your values. This process can also increase awareness in one’s own choices, bringing recognition that we are making choices more often than we think! 

Mindfulness, as this awareness if often called, invites us to live intentionally rather than reactional. Intentional living has a greater chance of leading you to your better self, since you can not only accept or reject painful choices, you can also adjust your response to pain by being aware of how you are thinking about it. This is what is known as taking accountability not for what life is, but for how you experience it–becoming the author of your own life. 

(Read more about becoming the author of your life HERE.)

Our better selves don’t just fall into our laps–we realize them by first identifying what that will look and feel like, and then surrounding ourselves with those who support our movement in that direction. This is why it is critical to choose a partner who supports your vision of your better self–a partner who even inspires that vision. 

Peter Pearson, Ph.D. of the Couples Institute says that we have been measuring success in relationships all wrong. He says that rather than defining success by the amount of positive change in our partners, we should define it by the amount of positive change in ourselves. Meaning: Are you a better person today in your relationship than you were yesterday? 

This is a powerful question, because it requires that you accept accountability for your life, and that you take responsibility for whether you are enjoying it or not. It does not mean that you can’t seek change in others, just that you realize the path to that change is through influence, not demands. We influence our partner to be better by being better ourselves. If this does not happen, then there may be other issues at play, but at least we won’t blame the other for how our life is turning out. It is more likely that at our funeral our loved ones will celebrate who we have been instead of mourning who we could have been. 

***

Philosophers have been exploring what makes a good life for centuries now, and fortunately we have the benefit of their musings, but it takes more than reading a book to have a good life. We have to live it. The motivation to do so comes from imagining what it would feel like to live a good life–we are driven by our emotions, not our thoughts–thoughts may spark feelings but they rarely motivate on their own (try “thinking” your way to exercise!). 

The reason to live a good life, your better life, is pretty simple: it feels good! A better life is not about being “good”, it is about being better, and you get to decide what that looks like for you. Rather than figuring this out on your own, you can use your relationships as a guide–noticing what works and what doesn’t with others and exploring how each of those feel to you. (For example, we may not hold “honesty” as an element of our better self until we are lied to and we experience the pain of that.)

And every evening before you go to sleep, you can ask yourself, “Was I better today than I was yesterday?” If not, you can adjust course tomorrow, ensuring that your focus is on changing what you actually have control over. When you are a better version of yourself, you will naturally become a better partner, which will aid them in being a better person, and so it goes. Now that is a cycle I can get behind!

CALM DOWN! THE IMPORTANCE OF REGULATION

My previous article talked about the “problems” that show up in relationships and how there is a difference between solvable and unsolvable problems. In both cases, the solution to finding out if the problem is a deal-breaker is to talk through it, with the goal being greater understanding. 

Understanding must come before solutions, because without understanding, problem-solving can miss the mark–addressing only the symptoms but not the cause. This can leave partners feeling resentful toward one another. Successful discussions about problems can eliminate resentments and bring couples closer. Additionally, they make it easier to accept, or learn to live with, differences. 

Why then is it so hard for couples to have these helpful conversations? Why do they more often resort to arguments and fights rather than healthy conflict? In this part two of my articles on problems I want to address what gets in the way of successfully talking through it. 

What I notice is that it is not lack of caring or desire that keep us from wanting to understand each other, instead it is our brain’s natural defenses. When our partner is upset with us, the brain senses a threat and reacts by limiting blood flow to the rational brain, or left brain; the result can be amygdala hijacking. We become less able to listen, learn, or care–focused instead on protecting ourselves from harm.  

This is on major reason why it is hard to have conversations around greater understanding. But all is not lost–the trick is to learn how to hijack the hijacking! Below I lay out what happens when our brains sense a threat from our partners, and how to reverse the process so that we can lean in and listen. 

TWO TYPES OF DYSREGULATION: What is dysregulation? Basically it is when your left brain, or rational brain, is deprived of oxygen and shut down, leaving your right brain, or emotional brain, to react and run the show. Dysregulation can go one of two directions–either up or down. When our response escalates quickly into agitation it is called hyper-arousal, and when it shuts down into numbness it is called hypo-arousal. You can think of it as your brain either stepping on the gas, or stepping on the brake, respectively.

It is not necessary to memorize these emotional states, but it is important to be able to recognize when they are happening in you or in your partner. This is because in either state, talking and listening cannot happen! When the left brain is shut down, we cannot listen, learn, or care about another–our main objective is to care about how we are being treated in the moment

Why do we become dysregulated? Though it can cause problems today, we would not have survived without this process. Dysregulation happens when our brain senses a threat, either real or imagined. Our left brain is “slower” than our right, and that is why we evolved to shut it down, because historically when facing danger, we had to act fast! Commonly known as our “freeze, fight, or flee” response, our amygdala evaluates the threat and decides in a split second which course of action is best for our survival. 

So how do we control this process in our relationships?

SELF-REGULATION: Although many of our brain processes are automatic, we do have some ability to control and influence them. The whole Mindfulness movement is one approach to doing this–and even Buddhist philosophy (from which Mindfulness emerged) talks about how we cannot control what happens, only our response to it

Modern life works against mindfulness by offering endless distractions to what is happening in the moment with us and in our environment. No wonder we feel more reactive than responsive! Responsiveness only happens when we are present in our bodies and in the moment–a skill that takes practice and intention. Responsiveness is the act of choosing what our brain does with what is happening, not just reacting to it. 

Responsiveness in relationships is practiced through regular self-regulation–being aware of what your brain is sensing and using your left brain to influence that interpretation to match reality. Self-regulation is difficult, but not impossible. It involves a few key steps:

  • recognizing when we are either up-regulating or down-regulating by noticing what happens in our bodies (increased heart rate, hot face, shaking, numbness)
  • using our mindfulness tools to interrupt the process and keep our left brain “online”: taking deep, slow breaths; grounding ourselves, drinking some water or chewing something, doing something with our hands
  • using the left brain to make a choice about how we are thinking about what is happening (responsiveness rather than reactivity)

Trauma can interfere with self-regulation because it can result in stuck painful memories that keep us in a heightened state of arousal, even when there is no current threat. If you suffer from trauma, there are several approaches that can help to process it so that painful events remain in your past and not in your present. 

Fortunately, we do not have to always self-regulate ourselves completely–we can ask for help. 

CO-REGULATION: You are 100% responsible for your actions and your reactions. This can be a difficult idea to accept, because it suggests that others have no responsibility for upsetting us, but the truth is that they don’t! They do, however, trigger us and our vulnerabilities, so they are not off the hook for their behavior, just our for our reaction. We are the ones who choose our response, based on how we think about what has happened. In other words, while the pain is inevitable, our suffering is optional because suffering is based on our interpretations, perceptions, and how we make meaning of things. 

Co-regulation is when another person helps you bring your left brain back online so that you can talk or be comforted. The challenge for many is that one of the best candidates for co-regulating us is the person who upset us in the first place. This is because co-regulating actions can be reparative, and also a “corrective experience” that is different from what we have received before. As a therapist, I often use co-regulation in the room to give clients an experience of caring that is new to them. This can be very healing!

Co-regulation is also an example of accountability–acknowledging that you played a role in what the other person is feeling. Remember that even though you didn’t cause it, you did trigger it! Often the triggering is unintentional–it is just partners being themselves. This is why it is so important to be curious about the other’s past hurts, soft spots, and vulnerabilities, because with this information you are less likely to trip on those trigger wires. Co-regulation lets someone know that you care about them and how they are affected by you. 

GOAL: THE WINDOW OF TOLERANCE: I mention above that regulation involves bringing the left brain back online. What does that mean? Our left brain (pre-frontal cortex) is the seat of rational thought, while our right brain (limbic system) is the source of our emotions. The left brain is “slower” than the right because it deals with interpretations while the right brain focuses on reactions, so when we get upset, our left brain is deprived of oxygen so that we can respond quickly and protect ourselves. 

This is great if we are facing a tiger in the woods, but not so great if we are facing an upset partner who needs to be responded to! In order to have healthy conflict we have to be able to keep both our right and left brains online so that they can work together. This does not mean that we have to be calm as a cucumber, instead we need to be able to feel what we feel and still talk about it. This is called the Window of Tolerance, and the size of the window is based on our past experiences. Trauma can shrink it and make it harder to stay regulated, but a caring response can enlarge the window

When we are able to talk to, and respond to, each other from within our respective windows of tolerance, then conflict can bring us closer by making the relationship safe for vulnerability.

HOW TO GET THERE AND STAY THERE: Getting to regulation takes work, but what kind of work? Ultimately if you want to get somewhere new you first have to first know where you are. This is where mindfulness comes in–it is the ability to have awareness of our emotional life so that we can be in relationship with it and exert influence when needed. 

Remember that dysregulation is the brain/body responding to a real or imagined threat, so it is up to our rational brain to distinguish between the two. The left brain can be thought of as the “navigator” of our emotions–the right brain chooses a course and the left brain decides if that is a good course to pursue. But we can’t access the aid of the left brain if the blood supply is cut off from it! Mindfulness of what we are feeling in our body can help us to notice if we are moving toward dysregulation–and then interrupt it if we don’t really need that level of response.

Many experts recommend meditation as a way to increase mindfulness, but we can also work on it by minimizing distractions, slowing down our conversations, using breathwork, and “unplugging” at the end of the day.  In relationships, we can ask our partner to help us out, by allowing them to comment when they notice us getting dysregulated. This can be as simple as agreeing on a “code word” or hand gesture, so that the comment itself does not trigger greater upset. 

Once you have experienced choosing your response, and the connection it fosters, it is hard to go back to reactivity! Fortunately, doing this work regularly also lessens the need to become dysregulated during conflict–we are strengthening the safety of our relationship, and our brain recognizes this. A safe and trusting relationship gives your brain the message that it does not need to “panic” when there is conflict.

Maintaining our emotional regulation requires good self-care and supportive relationships. But you also have to want it. If you feel that your life and relationship(s) would benefit from a calmer response, if you think that by being present you could make choices that lead you to the life you want to live, then set your goal on regulation as a step in that direction. Living your life means feeling it, not letting it drag you around. Being regulated shows that you are ready to do that as a functional, responsive adult!

HOW TO STOP BLAME

I wish that blame worked–I really do. It would be so nice to just point the finger at another person and make them responsible for all our problems and woes, wouldn’t it? I find it interesting that blame is the basic premise of many religions and most politics, and yet if you look into it carefully you will find that it does not really accomplish anything, other than making people feel badly about themselves. Blaming another is like pushing the dirt around the house–it moves the problem around but does not get rid of it.

So why do so many couples continue to use blame when difficulties come up in a relationship? Why do we continue to rely on something that so clearly does not work? 

In order to answer these questions we need to look to the brain and understand how it works to keep us safe in the world. If we can understand more about why we engage in behaviors that do not work, then we have a chance of stopping them and making new choices. But first we have to explore why we blame in the first place…

WHY WE BLAME: We often feel threatened when our partner is upset with us. Their upset sends a message to our brain that something is wrong and that we need to protect ourselves. But do we? The reality is that in any relationship partners will get upset with one another. The helpful response when this happens, which I often have to teach couples, is to show interest in what is bothering the other, curiosity at what role, if any, we have played in generating the upset, and empathy towards their feelings. 

What we usually do instead is defend against what they are telling us, or counter-attack to negate their right to be upset at us. Naturally, neither of those responses work, and yet couples do them all the time! They do them because they do work in one way: they create distance between us and the person who is upset with us. 

This is what couples need to know about the brain–it seeks to protect itself from threats. When it detects them, it often activates the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain within the temporal lobe, that among other tasks is in charge of deciding what to do when we are threatened. The amygdala has three responses to choose from: fight, flee, or freeze, and you don’t need me to tell you how these don’t work during conflict!

Blaming the other for our upset, or as a response to one’s upset, is a way to protect ourselves. This is why we do it. 

WHY BLAME DOES NOT WORK: The problem is that blaming the other does not work. And the reason it does not work is because it creates distance from our partner, when closeness is what is needed when we are upset. (Conflict is one of the most important elements in healthy relationships, because when done well it results in greater closeness.) Closeness heals emotional wounds, while distance just covers them up. 

Blame does more than just create distance, however. It can also cause the internalization of shame. When we blame someone for something, we are making them the cause of it, not just the trigger. And when someone feels as though they caused harm to a loved one, they naturally feel bad–but when blamed they feel badly about themselves rather than the behavior.

When blamed, we internalize the shame of behaving poorly and this gets in the way of repairing the damage–in fact the opposite usually happens where we avoid repair. Our goal at this time is to distance ourselves in any way from the bad feelings we have for ourselves. 

Additionally this pattern of blame creates and strengthens unhealthy boundaries in the relationship, where we either make the other responsible for what we feel, or take responsibility for another’s feelings. Either version leads to resentment and guilt. 

DO THIS INSTEAD–BE ACCOUNTABLE: What’s the difference between blame and accountability? Sometimes small adjustments in our way of thinking about things can result in big changes in how we live. Fortunately, the distinction between blame and accountability is in how we think about responsibility in our minds. Let’s look at the difference.

Accountability inspires action, blame inspires denial and shame. This is because accountability is about one’s behavior, while blame is about one’s character. Accountability works with what you can control (what you do or say), while blame assumes that you cannot change who you are. Accountability is looking for a description of how things came to be, while blame is looking for a cause of why things happened. 

When the focus is on description, we have a chance of understanding the underlying factors in our behavior and choices, whereas when we are made the cause, the exploration hits a dead end. If you are labeled “bad”, there is little that can be done–this is why blame is useless if your goal is change. We all behave badly at times, but that does not make us a bad person any more than good behavior makes us “good”. We are complex beings who behave in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons, and if we want to have some choice in how we behave then it helps to look deeper, even if that is painful. 

Accountability works in relationship because it keeps the focus on our own behavior (what we can control) rather than our partner’s (what we can’t control). It allows us the chance to regularly check in with our values and see if our behavior is aligned with them. And finally, since accountability avoids shame, we stand a better chance at repairing the situation with the person who was hurt by our behavior. When you feel badly about yourself you avoid repair. When you feel badly about your behavior you seek it out.

***

There is an old saying that whenever you find yourself pointing your finger at another person, turn it back around toward yourself. There is good intention in that saying, but it is misguided in that you want to avoid blaming yourself as much as others. Instead, when you point the finger at yourself, think of it as turning blame around. Ask yourself, “What was my contribution to the problem?”, and “What was the effect of my actions?”

Questions like these will go a long way toward changing the way we think about behavior that hurts another, and a long way toward how we think about repair. And as your way of thinking and your behavior changes, you might just start to notice that conflicts with a loved one result in both a better feeling about yourself, and feeling closer to each other. Instead of you both losing when blame is assigned, accountability offers you both a win-win.