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.