Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Winter 2007

Stop the Blame Game – Part II

To read Part I, click here

Accentuate the Positive

Focusing on what is going well is a great foundation for stopping the blame game. Researchers James Pennebaker and Richard Slatcher from the University of Texas asked two groups of undergraduates to keep a journal. One group was instructed to journal about their daily activities, the other about their relationships. More of those who wrote about their relationships were still together three months later. Researchers also found a spike in words expressing positive emotions such as "happy" and "love" in the students' Instant Messages following the journal entries.

Although the researchers did not study married couples, their findings suggest that priming positives of a couple's relationship will help them focus on more positive emotions and feedback.

Catch 'Em Being Good

Because survival of the human race depended on noticing what is dangerous or wrong and taking defensive action, couples have a hard time noticing the good stuff. Given the natural tendency to find fault with our partners, it takes a bit of concentrated effort to find the positives.

Can you think of three things your spouse did yesterday that pleased you, helped you out, or contributed to the better functioning of your household? Even if you can, you probably didn't mention even one of them to your spouse. Spouses have a lot in common with lab rats and other mammals in psychology experiments: they increase behaviors that are reinforced and fade out behaviors that are not reinforced. One of Robison's Rules is: "if you don't say you like it, don't expect to see it again."

Let's say you have been complaining for months that your spouse leaves out snack plates and glasses on the kitchen counter. What would happen if there were no plates and glasses today when you walked into the kitchen? The first time, you would probably fall over in ecstasy. But after that your crazy mammalian brain would fail to notice whether things are in place or not. And guess what happens to your spouse when you fail to notice? Discouragement and decreased motivation to build better cleaning habits because the effort is not noticed anyway.

But when your partner goofs and leaves out some glasses you are on the mistake like a dog on a bone. Instead, "catch 'em being good" by noticing and mentioning what you do like.

Find time to express appreciation to your partner on a regular basis? If you are not good at expressing appreciation on the fly, establish a gratitude ritual like setting aside two minutes after dinner to express appreciation for helpful behaviors. Or you might begin your monthly Marital Sitdown by listing the positives before discussing goals and problems.

Work from Strength

...instead of from weakness. Many couples see only what is not working in their relationships and fail to notice what is working. Contrary to the common sense notion that the path to self improvement is by finding your faults and routing them out, happiness researchers such as Barbara Fredrickson have found more return on investment for broadening and deepening already existing strengths. The happiest relationships were those who had a positive to negative emotional balance of 2.9 or above.

It seems more effective for partners to call each other to greatness by accentuating what they are already doing well instead of picking at the faults. For example, a couple known for their gift of hospitality can build and broaden positive emotions by entertaining more in their home. A couple that is good with financial management might share some of their wealth with those less fortunate than they. (To discover your top five personal strengths take the VIA test on Authentic

It is still important to cut down on the poisons of relationships such as name calling, swearing, insulting, and yelling. Researcher John Gottman found that in a distressed couple, the impact of unkind words can outweigh one nice comment with a ratio of 20 to 1.

Apologies and Funeral Apologies

Couples working from strength handle their occasional slips and goofs by accepting what has happened, apologizing often and easily, and renewing their commitment to work on what makes them stronger individually and as a couple.

In spite of your efforts to treat each other respectfully, you will sometimes lose it and say or do something less than wonderful. When that happens, you owe your mate a sincere apology. The inability to apologize is a kind of defensiveness usually associated with feeling shame about the misbehavior. Saying you are sorry will get easier with practice.

Being snotty or vindictive about your partner's transgression can sink the apology and make it very difficult for your partner to gutsy up and risk losing face by apologizing in the next situation. Instead, be kind, graciously accept the apology, and take a problem-solving not person- attacking approach to figuring out how to get back on track.

More often hurt happens by accident rather than because of any misbehavior. In this case we suggest a "funeral apology," the kind you might offer to grieving friends at the funerals of loved ones, saying, "I'm sorry for your pain," without taking any responsibility for the demise of the deceased. Likewise, connect to the pain you and your partner both have around the incident or issue by saying. "I'm sorry this is hard for us. Let's see how we can resolve it," or "I'm sorry what I said came out in a hurtful way. I didn't mean to hurt you." With small bumps on the road to an extraordinary marriage, a mutual "funeral sorry" can provide a ritual for moving beyond a misunderstanding.

Acceptance: the Heart of Non-Blaming

The most elegant of solutions to the blame game is to accept each other as you are. Researchers Neil Jacobson and Andrew Christensen at the University of Washington found that nagging, cajoling, and arguing were the least effective techniques of marital change. The ability to observe who your partner really is as opposed to your idealized image of him/her gives you a starting point to discuss your ideal ways of handling your life situations and holding each other accountable for positive change.

Here is a suggestion for developing this skill: The next time your partner does something irritating, take a moment to observe the situation as though it is a scene from a movie. For just one moment you are not in the movie, you are just watching it. As Observer rather than Judger, you will see the actions of all the characters, including your own, more objectively.

If doing this exercise with your spouse seems too hard, try it while driving in traffic. Instead of judging the other drivers as idiots, try to just observe them without judging and notice how much calmer you feel. By building this observing habit, you will feel calmer in approaching problems with your spouse.


Hayes, Stephen, et al. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Brach, Tara. Radical Acceptance.

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