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Monday, October 10, 2011

Relationships: Moving Beyond the "Blame Game"

As a psychotherapist in NYC who sees individuals and couples, I see many clients who can't move beyond the "blame game."

What is the "Blame Game"?
What I"m referring to when I discuss the "blame game" is a dynamic in a relationship where the two people involved are so busy blaming each other and deflecting attention from their own behavior in the relationship that they end up getting caught in an endless cycle of arguments where nothing is resolved. Getting caught up in the "blame game" doesn't allow you to really listen to your partner and understand what he and she is trying to tell you and, if both people are doing this, communication suffers. This type of dynamic often becomes habitual in relationships so that, no matter what the argument is, this dynamic plays out in a destructive way.

Relationships:  Moving Beyond the "Blame Game"

The first step in overcoming the "blame game" dynamic is becoming aware that this is the a style of communication that you're caught in. Both people have to be willing to develop awareness of this dysfunctional way of communicating and be willing to change it.

The following short fictionalized vignettes are examples of this "blame game" communication cycle:

Mary and Joe:
Mary can't stand it when Joe leaves his dirty plate on the counter instead of putting it in the sink. They've had countless arguments about this. She can't understand why Joe doesn't just put the dish in the sink. When she sees the dish, she calls out to Joe, who is in the living room watching TV, "How many times have I told you not to leave dirty dishes on the counter!" Inwardly, Joe feels embarrassed that he hasn't broken out of this habit, but he's annoyed that Mary is taking a superior tone with him, so rather than saying this, he shouts back sarcastically, "Oh yeah, right--like you're such a great housekeeper." From there the argument escalates to the point where Mary and Joe stop talking for a few days, and the issue remains unresolved.

Bob and Nick:
Bob opened the American Express bill and felt a jolt in his stomach when he saw the amount owed. Just last month, he and Nick had agreed to cut back on their expenses because they were living beyond their means and Bob's position as an adjunct professor was not secure. Bob approached Nick with the credit card bill and said, "We've talked about this before--we've got to cut back on our expenses. Look at this bill." Nick took a look at the bill and noticed that they both had charged bigl ticket items, "Well, I see that you've run up the bill as much as I have, so don't blame me." Bob responded, "But you know that I had extra expenses last month and everything that's on there was necessary." Feeling increasingly annoyed, Nick snapped back, "Are you saying that your needs are more important than mine?" From there, the conversation spiraled down. Instead of having a constructive conversation about how they can work together to deal with the problem, neither of them listened to each other and each one continued to blame the other.

Susan and Betty:
Susan and Betty are expecting Susan's parents for the holidays. They both find her parents difficult to deal with. Instead of discussing how they can work together to deal with this holiday stressor, they get into an argument as soon as Betty sees the email from Susan's parents about when they plan to arrive. Betty puts on a long face when she reads the email and says, "I really wish your parents would stay home this year. Can't you make some excuse so they don't come?" Feeling defensive, Susan says, "I know they're annoying, but they're still my parents. And you don't help the situation by sulking when they're around." Betty responds, "Well, why don't you do something about it? It's your fault--you allow them to come each year." From there, rather than discussing the situation openly and trying to come up with a solution that would be mutually agreeable, they end up pointing fingers at one another.

The "Blame Game" Doesn't Work
In the three scenarios above, we see that each person is so busy accusing the other person and defending him or herself that the issue isn't addressed directly. Instead, they get caught up in blaming one another and they move further and further away from trying to work out the problem.

Very often, in longstanding relationships, couples have a long history of engaging in this type of dynamic and they can bring up other unrelated and hurtful things to get back at their partner. If this goes on long enough, it becomes the predominant pattern for communicating--to the point where each person dreads bringing up issues, knowing that the discussion will devolve quickly.

Fair Fighting: Speaking from Your Own Experience
One of the principles of fair fighting in a relationship is that each person speak from their own experience rather than blaming the other person. So, for instance, in the scenario between Susan and Betty, rather than responding to Susan's parents' email by making a face and blaming Susan, Betty could have found a quiet, calm time to speak with Susan to tell her that her parents' visits make her uncomfortable and she's anticipating that there will be problems. Since Betty would be speaking from her own experience, Susan is less likely to get defensive. She might even feel free to admit that her parents can be difficult. From there, they could talk about what they would like to do, with each of them listening to what the other has to say.

Getting Help
There are times when the "blame game" pattern of communicating is so ingrained in a relationship that it's too difficult for the couple to change on their own. They might need the help of a couples or marriage counselor to help them to overcome this problem.

If you and your partner are caught up in the "blame game," acknowledge that this is what's happening in your relationship and have a heart-to-heart talk about how this is adversely affecting your relationship. If you can't work it out on your own, seek the help of a licensed mental health professional who works with couples before it's too late.

I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist, and SE therapist in NYC. I work with individuals and couples. I have helped many couples to overcome the "blame game" dynamic in their relationship.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.