One undeniable fact about human nature; we are wired to avoid pain whenever possible. Including the pain-emotional or physical-that may come with admitting mistakes or faults. I suppose this starts as a child, when mom yells “Who broke the lamp?!” and it’s easy to guess what will happen if we say, “I did it”. As much as the confession is to be admired, it’s doubtful that parental praise will follow the admission of guilt.
As adults in intimate relationships other motivations for not taking responsibility creep in:
- A fear that if we admit to a mistake or fault in our relationship, we’ll be letting our partners off the hook for their mistakes and faults (which we’ve already decided are worse than ours).
- The concern that whatever we reveal can and will be used against us by our partner at the next available opportunity.
- The knowledge that by admitting to wrongdoing, we’ll be making an implicit promise to change, to improve, to work on ourselves. All by ourselves. And it will probably be hard.
For these reasons, when the majority of couples first come in to counseling they spend their time trying to convince the therapist of the faults of the other; they are “Other-Blamers”. They act like siblings arguing with a parent “I didn’t do anything wrong-it’s all his fault. Punish her, I’m innocent!” Sometimes a couple will present in a different way- both spouses agree that one of them is to blame for everything. Usually this person, the “Self-Blamer”, characteristically accepts fault for things that go wrong in his/her life. Maybe this contrition technique worked in childhood as a defense against severe punishment, and is still being used today. For example, imagine the wife who says, month after month, “I know it’s my fault the checking account is overdrawn, but it’s just the way I am, you know I’m no good with money.” She’s a Self-Blamer, but she takes no real responsibility for her irresponsible behavior. And her Other-Blamer partner doesn’t have to take responsibility for anything either; he can just complain about her and wait for her to do something to fix the problem, which she’ll probably never do.
Self-Blamers and Other-Blamers always end up stuck. Whether it’s a relationship of two Other-Blamers or a Self-Blamer and an Other-Blamer*, they end up going around and around the problem, but rarely focus on solutions because that would entail taking responsibility, which really doesn’t involve blame at all. Responsibility involves an understanding and admission of what one has been doing to perpetuate a problem and what can be done by the individual to change it.
*(Two Self-Blamers rarely end up together. This is probably because they’d never get anything done.)