Blame does not teach responsibility, it teaches blame.
I often see couples who engage in blaming behaviours similar to way debates happen: “This is why you’re wrong, this is why I’m right…” A sort of “one-upping.” The assumption is: if we can convince our partner that we are right and they are wrong, we will finally gain the respect, love, and affection that we deserve. Except that even when a conversation dissolves, one partner can admit they’re wrong and it will STILL be just as conflicted as before. It turns out identifying who was wrong and who was right really isn’t the antidote to resolving conflicts. Why is that? I have a few theories:
Self-esteem: Anger, frustration, and blaming are often direct descendants of low self-esteem. People who struggle with self-esteem often struggle with intense self-criticism, hence intense criticism of others. Being kind to yourself is just as important as being kind your partner; the two go hand-in-hand. Thank yourself for the little things you do well, when you make a mistake forgive yourself and remember: you are a learner, not a master.
One conflict at a time: We cannot solve future conflicts in the present. We can only create conditions that will better precipitate future conflict. However, blaming tries to find out who’s responsible and hold them accountable, so future conflicts can be avoided. It can’t happen. Many avoidable conflicts have arisen in relationships for fear of future implications, rather than working through one conflict at time. Often the solution is as simple as some kindness and creativity.
Imperfection: It’s okay and expected that things are imperfect, especially your partner. You’ll both make mistakes, forget things, and have moments of weakness. Blaming each other when something goes wrong doesn’t teach or keep anyone from making the same mistake in the future, it usually just makes someone more upset and vigilant. Instead, try comforting your partner by letting them know that you could’ve easily made that exact same mistake, since they’re probably being harder on themselves than you realize.
Responsibility: If your partner isn’t taking responsibility for their actions, that needs to addressed, but blame is not an appropriate tool for a healthy discussion. Take the time to get curious and understand what is going on for each other, there is likely some underlying emotions that have not been addressed. Making it a mutual discussion can be helpful through statements like “I know we were both upset in the situation, I would really appreciate if we could take time to sit and talk calmly to explain and understand each others reactions.” However, be aware there is such a thing as Narcissistic Personality Disorder and it is a very real condition. In such cases, there may never be reasonable compromise or discussion around accepting responsibility for actions. This is where especially strong boundaries are needed and possibly a decision about whether this is a healthy relationship or not.
Change: The first thing to know about change is that people need to be personally invested in it. If it is forced upon them or doesn’t align with their long-term desire, it is extremely difficult to achieve. People absolutely can change, but it can take more time than we think it should. What’s always been one of the most important aspects of change, for me, is how we communicate about our barriers and strengths. I am a big fan of strengths-based approaches and “real-world” results: giving yourself or your partner practical examples of behaviours. Strengths-based problem solving is a positive approach to learning that highlights and celebrates moments of success and positive change, rather than only acting through punishment and negativity. It promotes a persons strongest and most virtuous characteristics to help them overcome barriers in their life.
Next time you catch yourself or someone in your life using words like “You should’ve, could’ve, would’ve…” remember that there is more happening than what meets the eye. Most of the time people blame because they are trying to SOLVE conflict rather than start it. Responding with kind words, such as “I understand you’re trying to solve this problem, however it’s very important to me that we solve it together as a team instead of trying to punish or react negatively to each other,” can help alleviate the aggression and draw a boundary.