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The blame game

Do you instinctively think it’s your partner’s fault when things go wrong, or do you take too much responsibility? Many of us are prone to one or the other, reveals Caroline Buchanan

by Psychologies

You’ve had a big argument with your partner and you’re both feeling pretty wounded, and keeping your distance from each other. Do you feel it’s time to think seriously about ending the relationship? Tell him you’re ready to talk when he is? Or, feel awful about some of the things you said? Of course, there is no right or wrong answer – it depends on where you’re coming from. You might jump from one answer to another but, deep down, one of the choices will feel more ‘familiar’ to you than the others.

It dawned on me a few years ago that many people fall into the category of blaming other people for everything (blamers) or, conversely, blaming themselves – I call these the ‘blamees’. Either can switch in a second from one position to the other, before settling into the place that feels like home.

Of course, there are the ‘balanced’ people who take full responsibility for their mistakes, but don’t take on everyone else’s to boot. The question here is – how do you get to this point?

Self-awareness has got to help enormously. Now you’ve answered the question, you may know which camp you fall into. Then again, you may not.

An imperfect match

Have another think. Is there anyone you’re blaming for something? What are you blaming yourself for? Write a list if it helps. As a Relate-trained couples counsellor, I learned about marital ‘fits’– when two people get together because consciously, and/or unconsciously, they ‘recognise’ each other, perhaps even before they know whether they take sugar in their tea.

Blamers and blamees tend to be subconsciously attracted to each other. Why wouldn’t they be? It suits a blamer to have someone on whom he or she can blame everything that goes wrong – and it fits in with the blamee, who is (unconsciously) used to taking the blame for everything that’s not right. It’s neat and tidy on the surface, but a horrendous mess underneath.

The root of the behaviour, for both Blamers and Blamees (B&Bs from now on), will undoubtedly go back to their upbringing. And, with a bit of detective work, it doesn’t take long to locate the problem.

Until recently, I fell into the blamee category. If something was wrong, then it must be my fault. I can see where it started but at last I know it in my heart, as well as in my head. A tragic fact of life is that children often blame themselves when their parents split up, unless it is handled with intelligence, knowledge and great sensitivity. My father left the family home when I was two years old and, up until that time, he’d been a doting parent. One minute, he was there and I had a safe, loving and secure home, then, suddenly, he was gone.

Sadly, he wasn’t good at visiting and then, when I was six years old, my little brother and I were sent to live with him and his new family for a year because our mother was ill. We barely knew him when we arrived, and I was traumatised over being separated from my mother. I’d lost one parent at the age of two, and had to go through it again at the age of six.

When I knew that my brother and I were finally going home to Mum, I was blissfully happy. However, I didn’t want Dad to know that, because I couldn’t bear to hurt his feelings. I realise now that I protected my parents from my anger. As an innocent child, who was given no proper explanation for these abandonments, it had to be my fault! If you lose one parent, and then another, in an insecure child’s world, what other reason could there possibly be?

Time to break free

I feel sad for the children who are still blaming themselves for their parents’ mistakes. Blamees will have low self-worth; they will always feel that they are not good enough and they will often feel downright bad. None of these are good ingredients in relationships.

I find that people who take the blame for everything are often highly sensitive and have a tendency to be overly responsible. It’s an exhausting way to live: heaping layer upon layer of blame upon themselves. Blamees carry so much unnecessary heavy baggage around with them.

On the other hand, many blamers have also been traumatised as children – but they choose the flip side of the coin to express it. Blamers may struggle to accept certain things that have happened in their lives. It’s simply too scary for them to look at themselves, so it has to be someone else’s fault. They can’t admit their failures and haven’t learned to take responsibility for their actions. They are self-appointed ‘victims’ of other people’s behaviour, and they often feel helpless and out of control.

Both B&Bs may have emotional neglect in their backgrounds but the way forward is to acknowledge this, as uncomfortable as it may be to face it, and make the decision that, as an adult, you will choose to treat yourself with love and care. No more neglect.

Blamers need to take back their projections, and see the benefits of taking their fair share of responsibility. The next time they find themselves blaming someone else, they should try to remember that they will get so much more from calming down, and assessing the situation with honesty.

Look at the part you played in what is upsetting you. Stop your automatic reaction of blaming the other person and look instead at what led to what. Which bits are you responsible for?

Fight the auto-response

Blamees should aim to be realistic and offload inappropriate responsibility. When you’re upset, halt your automatic reaction to take all the responsibility. Work out who is culpable for what. Own your part, but look at how others might have contributed. A couple of years ago, I was telling my older sister that I felt guilty that I’d asked our mother not to marry a man who had proposed to her. I was about 10 at the time. ‘That’s not why she didn’t marry him,’ she replied. ‘You’re not that powerful!’ She was right.

B&Bs have both had difficulties in accepting their powerlessness as children and, consequently, went into survival mode. At some level, a blamer may be frightened of ‘annihilation’ if he or she owns up to anything, and a blamee can’t face the horror that someone they love has caused them pain. But we’re mature now and we need to shed outdated, unhelpful coping mechanisms. In fact, we need to stop blaming altogether – others and ourselves. Let’s look at responsibility instead, and make decisions with our adult heads to heal our child hearts.

As M Scott Peck says in Meditations From The Road (Ebury Publishing, £9.99): ‘To be free people, we must assume total responsibility for ourselves but, in doing so, we must possess the capacity to reject responsibility that is not truly ours.’

The rewards are many: growth, insight and better relationships with others and yourself. You’ll become unstuck, and move forward in life. You’ll undoubtedly be happier which will have a positive, knock-on effect on others. Oh, I do like a happy ending!

Photograph: iStock