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How Blaming Can Destroy Intimacy

How to recognize the blaming patterns and behaviors.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

One of the most potent enemies of quality relationships is the use of blaming to win an argument. Yet, despite its predictable, poisonous effects, couples regularly blame one another during their disputes.

Free-For-All Blaming Patterns In these damaging exchanges, both partners accuse one another with righteous passion to invalidate the other’s point of view. Who is “more right” and who is “more wrong” is bandied about until the argument eventually loses its intensity, and some kind of grace period follows. These free-for-all battles most often end in some kind of reciprocal “draw.”

Both partners walk away feeling righteous in their positions, but often also sad about hurting the other. Because the partners in these conflict patterns often feel both right and wrong, they usually do not consider their disputes as cumulatively damaging, yet that often turns out to be a false assumption. With multiple repetitions of the same kinds of interactions, both partners lose confidence in any kind of true resolution and act out these patterns with little conscious awareness. Over time, they become immune to their assignments of blame accountability and are unable to come up with any kind of spontaneous or innovative solutions that will keep these repetitive conflicts from recurring.

Staggered Blaming Patterns This type of conflict pattern is more complicated and also more cumulatively dangerous. In these kinds of interactions, the same partner consistently plays the role of the blamer while the argument is happening, but once the dispute is over, they are then blamed by the other partner for the part they played during the conflict. Within these disputes, the blamer indeed appears to hold all the cards, intent and successful in dismantling and erasing the other partner’s point of view. Then when the air clears, the vanquished, seemingly accepting-of-blame partner gets even later by withholding intimacy, demanding consistent rehashing of the argument, attacking the other partner for needing to win at any cost, or martyring themselves and holding the other partner responsible for the pain inflicted. If not stopped, blaming of any kind is a dangerous sport that can cumulatively damage all involved. Nevertheless, many couples continue to participate in it regardless. When I observe these interactions in counseling sessions, I often ask questions like: “Why do you suppose you continue to be locked into this destructive pattern of needing to demonstrate who the 'bad guy' is?” “How do you think your conflicts would change if blame was never part of your conflicts again?” Do you and your partner interact in blaming conflict patterns, whether they are a free-for-all or staggered processes? Can you imagine eliminating blame from your arguments from now on?

To change these negative blaming patterns, you must both agree that you want to learn how to stop them in any future arguments. It doesn’t matter which kind of blaming role you play. It is a zero-sum game. The good news is that, in most relationships, blaming is easy to identify and erase. And most couples, once they understand its consistently negative effects, want to leave it behind.

If you and your partner are ready to stop this mutually sabotaging pattern, these are the steps to take:

1. Explore where and how your blaming behavior patterns began. 2. Become aware of the triggers that cause you to blame — or to fold in its presence.

3. Share those triggers with your partner, so that they can search for different ways to avoid them.

4. Recognize and admit accountability when you actually do something that your partner feels is hurtful, even if you did not mean to cause any harm. How Blaming Behavior Begins

The Partner Who Too Readily Accepts Blame Before you can stop automatically feeling like you are at fault, you must realize how you learned to accept that as your fate, and why you continue to do so in your current relationship.

Those who too readily accept blame are often triggered by a partner who treats them as though they do not have a right to alter the argument’s direction. They feel conflicted between how they “should” behave as a “good” person, and they feel defensive when told their thoughts or feelings are inappropriate. Because they have been emotionally sculpted as children to always behave appropriately, they are easily cowed by feeling like they are not okay in the eyes of the other, even when they are in an adult-to-adult interaction. Start at the beginning of your life when you first became aware of blame, and recall how you were forced to accept being wrong in any challenging interaction. Did your caretakers immediately invalidate your defenses? Did they withdraw their love when you didn’t measure up to their expectations?

The threat of emotional abandonment terrifies children. When faced with that possible consequence, they often become automatic acceptors of blame, behaving in whatever ways they can to be in the other's good graces again. They internalize the feeling that their caretakers were right to punish them. If you experienced these kinds of interactions when you were a child and believed that you deserved them, you are likely, as an adult, to feel as if you deserve blame from your partner. Under attack, you may try to plead for your point of view, but underneath feel defeated from the beginning.

Waiting for the conflict to end, you may reclaim your own worth by allowing yourself to feel the anger of being unfairly accused, and then look for ways to avenge that unfairness and retaliate. The Partner Who Is the Blamer When criticized or challenged, blamers tend to immediately react in an accusatory way. Perhaps fearful of being blamed, they are urgently driven to make certain that they are never wrong. They may use their physical stature to intimidate, their emotional power to dominate, or their intellectual delivery to invalidate. The accepting-of-blame partner will often attempt to stop the blaming by either rapidly capitulating, defending, disconnecting, or promising to do better. Rather than stop the blaming, those postures most often actually increase it. Once the blaming pattern has started, there is very little the other partner can do until the process ends. Go back to your origins as a child. Did you witness emotional or physical bullying of this kind when conflicts arose? Did you identify with the person who was cowering, but never wanted to be like that person? Did you vow to emulate the more powerful person, or did you identify more with the one who gave in? When you are challenged in a conflict, do you feel that you must immediately dominate, or you will lose? When your partner gives in to your need to end up on top, do you feel badly later for doing what you’ve done? Are you angry at your partner for not standing up for themselves?

Caveat: Assumed Gender Differences Many equate the most often “blamed” partner, who is exhibiting self-defeating or repressed hostility behavior, with female energy, and the self-righteous partner as having more male energy. Certainly, where there is an existing power difference that is blatant within a relationship, male energy is more competitive and hierarchical, while female energy is more directed to collaboration and harmony-seeking. In childhood environments, more adjustment, adaptation, and harmonious behavior is expected from young girls than from young boys in most families. Women who have been expected and/or rewarded to “give in” as children have to work very hard to change those behaviors as they mature. Men who were given the right to fight harder and with less compassion as boys need to work just as hard to learn humility and chivalry under attack. In reality, I have seen both genders assuming this oft-labeled wrong person role in the relationship. Men in our society are not supposed to “give in” to a fight, so the label may be more often assigned to that gender, but there are many women who fight-to-win and take no prisoners.

Triggers Whether you more often play the role of the blamer or the blamed, you are being triggered to respond by internalized memories from your past. As stated above, whichever role you find yourself living out in your current relationship, ask yourself what your partner does that triggers you to respond the way you do. These behaviors can be emotional, physical, or intellectual. This part of the healing process can be very problematic and must be entered into with the willingness of both partners to search for their own contribution to this dysfunctional pattern. When a couple has been practicing blaming behaviors for a long time, it is typical for each of them to defend their behaviors by blaming the other for causing them to behave that way. Sometimes, the partners who too readily accept blame are fearful of sharing their triggers. They need to believe that their previously blaming partners won’t use them as ammunition in future conflicts. The blaming partners are typically not as worried, and thus more willing to tell their partners what causes them to become angry. Once triggers are shared and accepted, the partners must work diligently to eliminate those automatic reactions of blame or guilt. Each relationship is unique, but intimate partners who truly want to change are eager to substitute non-triggering behaviors when they know they cause harm.

Humility and Accountability Blame, in and of itself, is always a damaging and hurtful behavior, no matter how it is expressed. There is only one way that both of the partners who are enmeshed in blaming behaviors can stop them. They must agree to replace them with reasonable and respectful requests in the moment and the willingness to accept what the other partner can offer, understanding fully that forced submission will never result in sustaining intimacy. All couples fight, And at times, it is inevitable that they wound one another. But leaving blame behind will significantly reduce those hurtful experiences.

You can begin the process of leaving blaming behavior behind if you and your partner can honor the following five agreements:

1. If either partner does something that they know breaks trust, invalidates the other’s integrity, defies agreements, undermines promised security, or knowingly hurts the other, that partner must be willing to be truly remorseful of those actions when the couple debriefs a conflict. 2. Both partners will express genuine accountability and regret if they hurt the other.

3. Instead of rehashing arguments, they will debrief them by examining how they could have been more respectful and less threatening to the other during their prior conflict.

4. When either partner is triggered, they will ask the other to stop the current dispute until that trigger is processed. They agree that an emotional cascade will sabotage any resolution and must be resolved before the conflict can proceed. 5. They continuously remind each other that they cannot resolve any disagreement when they are on opposite teams.

Most of the couples who have adopted these agreements have been very successful in eliminating their blaming behaviors. If you and your partner are willing to adopt them, you will be truly astonished at how rapidly your disagreements will transform. As a conflict-successful couple, you’ll be less likely to harm and more quick to heal.

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