When you are in an unhappy relationship, you have 3 choices.
- Maintain status quo
- End the relationship
- Make it better
That’s it. 3.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) most unhappy people choose Option 1. It feels strange to think most of us would choose – or at least accept – unhappiness as our relationship fate, but the truth is to make things better requires a boldness not everyone is prepared to fully embrace. Maintaining ‘status quo’ is the safe choice. It generally requires smallest emotional and financial risk and the least amount of effort from us. But there’s no upside. You are still left with an unhappy relationship. Change requires risk but the resulting reward can be immeasurable.
Choosing to make it better
For those with the emotional fortitude to choose Option 3 and want to work on making their relationship better, I think you have 3 choices as well. You can:
- Wait for the other person to change (See above “maintain status quo”)
- Try to change the other person
- Focus on changing yourself
You can probably see where I’m going with this. The key to making your relationship better is focusing on yourself; however, without some deliberate effort or professional guidance, our human nature will try to divert our attention to our partner. Instead of looking inward (the toughest but most productive work), we focus on our partner and attempt to change or blame them. Our marriage would be so much better if she would only do this. ……If he would only do that. Again, it comes down to avoiding the effort and emotional risk required to really look at ourselves.
Now let me say, your partner may have some huge work of their own to do. They may even own the lion’s share of the reasons for the breakdown in your relationship. But even so, focusing your energy on blaming your partner will render you powerless, leave you frustrated, out of control, and ultimately STUCK.
Sometimes we see couples who say they are committed to making their relationship better but get stuck focused on how their spouse is or isn’t showing up for them in the relationship.
Here are some signs you may be stuck in a cycle of blame:
- Your thoughts are often focused on what your partner is or is not doing.
- You are feeling angry, resentful, hurt, frustrated, irritated, hopeless, helpless
- You argue and become defensive, often justifying your behavior because of your partner’s behavior
- You withdraw, pout, become defiant, or sarcastic
- You are stuck in a cycle of endless blame, bitterness and disconnection.
Conversely, taking personal responsibility for what you deliver to the relationship looks like this:
- You can receive criticism without getting angry or falling apart from shame. Instead, you look for any truth in the criticism and appreciate your partner for taking the risk to share this truth with you.
- You remain objective and non-judgmental. You look for ways you could have handled the situation differently and take steps to resolve the conflict.
- You ask questions to try and understand why your partner is experiencing you in a certain way. You express your feelings and thoughts calmly and respectfully even when those feelings are anger, disappointment or sadness.
- You provide a safe space for your spouse to share hard or uncomfortable things with you.
Why blame is so tempting
The truth about blame is that it’s incredibly hard to give up. Blaming others is a shield. It keeps you from having to do the hard work of looking at yourself and being honest about what you see. We are all guilty of it at times, but some truly don’t want to let go of it. I think this is true for a couple of reasons:
- They have very fragile egos. If they look at themselves and don’t like what they see, they feel very unworthy and unlovable. Facing their own failings creates painful feelings of shame and ultimately, depression. I see this often in people who have experienced significant childhood trauma.
- Blame = anger and anger = energy. Being angry is energizing. It empowers us. People with fragile egos often swap between feelings of intense shame and intense anger. Anger feels better than shame, so they stick to blame.
The toughest clients to deal with in therapy are the ones who cannot see they are stuck in a cycle of blame. They may give lip service to their own contributions to the marriage, but their real focus is on their partner’s contributions, or lack thereof.
Here is a case story of Mark & Ellen
Ellen was beyond frustrated with their marriage because Mark would never open up and be vulnerable with her. She felt like it was pulling teeth to get Mark to share anything. She was tired of feeling lonely and disconnected and wanted a marriage where she felt loved and cherished. They came into therapy because Ellen was thinking of separating. Mark didn’t want the marriage to end, but he sat quietly while Ellen ran through her list of his flaws. Once I could get Ellen calm enough to turn my attention to Mark, I asked him to tell me what he felt the problem was in their marriage. He shrugged his shoulders but stayed quiet. “See!”, said Ellen. “He can’t even answer a simple question!” I ignored Ellen for the time being and asked Mark again what he thought the main issue was in their marriage. This time Mark answered. He turned to Ellen and said “You want me to express my feelings, but if I say something you don’t like you get really upset and we end up in a fight that can last for days. I’ve learned that it’s better to stay quiet”. And then the kicker, he added “I’ll show up when you shut up.”. Ellen was livid. Livid. “I knew you were going to come in here and make me the bad guy. The truth is you are emotionally crippled and if I get angry, it’s because I’ve lived with this for the past 20 years.”
Can you see how both Mark and Ellen were stuck in a cycle of blame? Ellen was the much tougher client of the two because she used a big wall of anger as a shield, but both were avoiding intimacy. Mark was avoiding intimacy by staying quiet and not revealing himself, sometimes using his silence as a punishment. Ellen was walling off with her strong emotions and keeping everyone on tiptoes. Both blamed the other for their behavior and felt justified.
Clients like Mark and Ellen often get a rude awakening in my office. Ellen couldn’t let go of the idea that it was Mark who now needed to change. She minimized her actions and justified her behavior with Mark’s stonewalling. Mark justified his stonewalling with her anger. For their therapy to be successful, one or both must be willing to keep their focus on changing their own behavior, regardless of what their partner does or doesn’t do.
If Ellen stopped the angry tirades and constant criticism, it is likely Mark will begin to open up more with her. If she became truly open to how she shuts Mark down in other ways, she becomes a safe place for him to explore why sharing himself is so hard for him. Her compassion and empathy for him will help him blossom.
If Ellen changed nothing, but Mark took the risk of respectfully sharing with Ellen when her criticisms were hurtful, he, too, would have a better chance of changing the dynamic of their relationship.
“Into Me You See”
Blame is a powerful adversary. It lets you play the role of victim and then leaves you exhausted, resentful and alone.
Even more powerful, however, is the reward for couples who end the blame game. It’s called real intimacy…. ‘Into me you see’…. Not just a physical closeness, but an emotional closeness we are wired to want and need.
The next time you find yourself looking at your partner as the source of your issues, take a step back and say, “What can I do differently to improve my situation?”
Until next time,