Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Stop the Blame Game – Part I
In a blame-oriented society our first impulse when something goes wrong is to think, “Someone caused this event.”
Why is it so easy to have such a negative focus? Because our brains are hard wired to read the environment for threats to survival. Like sentinels at the edge of an encampment we scan for what is wrong or dangerous. This attitude carries over into our relationships. By focusing on our partner’s wrong doings, we act as though our best friend, life partner, and ally has become our most dreaded enemy. We are committing what psychologists call, “an attribution error,” leaping to conclusions about causality without checking out any other possible explanations. “She is just out to get me,” or “He must stay up nights thinking up ways to annoy me.” Blaming someone for our unhappiness is quick, easy, and wrong.
Look for Alternative Explanations
In addition to taking a toll on the well being of the relationship, attributing evil motives to your partner can also take a toll on your personal well-being. Happiness researchers such as Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania have found that how people attribute cause and effect to events is a big determiner of personal happiness.
One group, the pessimists, see the arrival of negative events as representing a pervasive tendency for things not going their way and they see positive events as fleeting good luck rather than a trend that could be trusted. The other group, the optimists, expect good things to happen and think of occasional negative outcomes as representing a short term glitch in their overall successful efforts.
Have you ever wondered what it might be like if you took a more positive approach towards your partner? According to a recent study conducted by marriage researchers James Graham and Collie Conoley, couples who made positive explanations or partner-enhancing attributions of causality buffered the effect of stressful events on marital happiness. Couples who blamed their partners, however, experienced greater vulnerability to the impact of stressful events. What matters for your well-being is how you perceive the causality no matter what your partner thinks.
Better to see your partner as a complex human being who most of the time has your best interests at heart even when mistakes happen. So the next time frustrations build and you start to blame your partner, ask yourself, “Is it possible that there is a different explanation for this frustration such as unrealistic expectations, unclear communication, or even just accidental occurrences?”
Sometimes stuff just happens and it is no one’s fault. While the responsibility for causality might not be anyone’s fault, the responsibility to creatively solve the problem at hand lies with both partners.
One of the destructive communication patterns that maintains the blame game and prevents couples from being effective problem solvers is the attack/defend cycle. One partner, in an attempt to get more of what s/he needs from the relationship, criticizes the other partner who then feels it necessary to defend him/herself. As that partner gets increasingly defensive, the first partner gets increasingly frustrated and the interaction escalates into an argument far off topic to the original need expressed. Here are some ways for the attacker and defender to break out of the cycle:
Attack no more.
The partner who initiates the discussion can use more effective methods of communication than whining, complaining, cajoling, or criticizing by:
- Making sure the timing is good by asking if it is a good time to talk.
Sometimes people get defensive when they are interrupted.
- Approaching your partner with a “gentle start-up.” Instead of saying,
“That’s it, I’ve had it,” try, “I’m having a problem. Can we do talk about it?”
- Using “I” messages to state your needs in a neutral way as a request or a need.
For example, instead of, “You never want to spend time with me,” try “I would like
to spend more time with you. Can we talk about this?”
- Reassuring the partner that while you are unhappy about an issue, you love
and respect him/her and want to work out solutions with mutual satisfaction.
- Sticking to the issue instead of escalating to criticizing the person or threatening the future of the relationship.
Defend no more.
The partner who gets defensive can be more open to the interaction by:
- Requesting a discussion be deferred if the timing feels like an interruption.
- Reminding the partner to use “I” statements or requests instead of complaints.
- Listening carefully to the feedback or request and then summarizing what was
said instead of jumping to conclusions about an attack that did not happen.
- Allowing the partner who is speaking time to develop the topic. Use a gentle
interruption to summarize if the partner rambles.
- Keeping an open mind about the request or feedback by saying, “How would you
like that to work?”
- Checking on how well you are living the various aspects of your life. People who get easily defensive often don’t feel good about how they are managing.
The listener and speaker might need to switch roles so that the listener can now share some perspectives on how to solve the problem at hand.
Taking a creative problem-solving approach will get the partner’s needs met in a way that is acceptable to both people.
Some spouses don’t use their relationship power in a proactive way to get what they need. Instead of taking action, they may have habitual patterns of complaining going back to patterns learned in their family of origin. These folks need help to stay on target or they will keep snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Some spouses fail to take in the good news offered them by a positive, upbeat spouse. These folks often hear criticism when there is none and enter any discussion about the relationship with a defensive mindset. Perhaps they grew up in a family of origin where attacking was a way of life or were always in trouble or were picked on and scapegoated. They can learn to take in positive comments by being asked to attend to and summarize what they hear from their spouses.
If these self-help methods don’t break the cycle, consult a professional before the cycle escalates to increasing negativity and even violence.
In the next issue of the Love Notes newsletter we will offer additional strategies to remain positive influences in each other’s lives.
Selignman, Martin. Learned Optimism.
Copyright 2006 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information: