The Benefits of Blaming Our Partner

The Advantages of Blaming Come With A Cost.

When it comes to trying to understand our own reactions in relationship conflict there may be some important questions that don’t occur to us and may be worth thinking about. For example:

  • How do I typically handle my reactions to my partner when we start to get into it?
  • Do I find myself quickly feeling and reacting defensively?
  • How often do I rely on some form of blame or accusation to either make my point or to protect myself?

Let’s imagine that on reflection you notice that your reactions tend to be defensive and that if you are honest with yourself blame is a familiar tactic. There are any number of reasons or combination of reasons that blame and accusation come easily.

A good place to start is by thinking about what you learned about managing conflict in your family of origin. I recall a conversation a couple had in my counseling office where one partner stated that “blame” was the family middle name. “I learned that it’s better to be the hammer than the nail.” Simple complaints and requests by the other partner were perceived as criticism, a very common misperception when growing up in a family where negativity, including negative or sarcastic humor, and criticism required emotional self-preservation by never admitting mistakes.

Lessons Learned to Protect Oneself Emotionally

A while back I was speaking with a client I was working with individually, I’ll call him George (not his real name). He really struggled with his partner’s criticism and wasn’t sure what to do about it. George admitted that he could be challenging to live with and that some of the things she complained about were understandable and he could actually see her point often times.

While there are always two sides of a story, he was fairly consistent with his descriptions of how these interactions seemed to be about his “character defects”, what was wrong with him. When George would try to raise an issue his partner would typically fire back a flaming blaming response, putting it back on him. Dr. Gottman would characterize this defensive response “righteous indignation”, a counter attack.

In one of our sessions George described a recent conversation they had about something she had just heard. “I was reading something about how when you point your finger at someone that there are 3 fingers pointing back at yourself”. George felt very hopeful for the first time in a long time. Maybe the blame game could lessen with some shared responsibility with what wasn’t working and describing needs rather than describing the partner would allow them to actually make progress.

Unfortunately, this hope was short lived when she came back with, “So going forward I am going to make sure that I don’t point one finger at you, I am going to point all the fingers!”  

Advantages to blame:

Helps defend against a history of growing up in a critical family by deflecting painful feelings away from self

Disadvantages to blame:

Harmful to partner and to the relationship

 
 

Fending Off Guilt

Another advantage of blame is to fend off feelings of guilt. Sometimes there are pressing needs to feel and be perceived as perfect. It’s not surprising that when the bar is really high that we are ultimately setting ourselves up for failure. Feelings of failure can impact our self-esteem. As the old saying goes, “The best defense is a good offense”.

The concept could be summarized as, “When I feel I let you down, I feel like I am a bad person or partner, and that makes me feel guilty. If I blame you for the problem then I don’t have to feel guilty.”

Rather than taking responsibility for some aspect of the problem or concern “innocent victimhood” refers to excuse-making, a dynamic Gottman found in distressed couples.

Advantages to blame:

Helps defend against feelings of failure that lead to guilt and inadequacy

Disadvantages to blame:

Harmful to partner and to the relationship

 
 

Having Needs but Feeling Vulnerable

Finally, another function of blame is (often unconsciously) an attempt to help our partner be a better person – which really translates into “My needs are not getting met here but rather than risk stating what I want, it’s less risky to blame you and hope you finally get it”.

Another version is called a “negative bid”, an attempt to connect but it really comes out sounding negative. For example, “All you care about is work”. What is underneath is actually, “I’m feeling lonely like we have not connected in a long time. I would love it if we could take some time together and put work aside for that time.”

This is the textbook definition of criticism, one of the Four Horsemen the Gottmans write about as one of the predictors of relationship melt down (if it happens a lot and over a long period of time). What the partners see is blame and attack, what the partners really want is connection, but it comes out sideways. Asking for closeness is a vulnerable thing to do.

Advantages to blame:

Helps defend against feeling vulnerable and possible rejection

Disadvantages to blame:

Harmful to partner and to the relationship

 
 

Taking some time to understand blame and what might be underneath it is important in getting a handle on these dynamics. While there are plenty of other reasons and possibilities to explain why blame shows up in the relationship, the above ideas are a start.

The term “longing for connection” may very well be the root of some of the blame some of the times. Take some time to sort through with each other might might be at stake, both with the advantages and disadvantages of blame. The goal would be to find alternatives to the current advantages to blame and to express instead something like this: “I feel…about…I need.” 

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