Tools for Couples Happiness — 26 May 2014
Replace Blaming with Compassion

Human beings are other-dependent from birth. We know from infancy that displeasing our caregivers is hazardous to our wellbeing and thus adapt to pleasing behaviors. We also learn early to deflect responsibility for disapproved conduct or other failings by blaming others such as our pets, siblings, teachers, friends or even our parents. Regrettably, this “survival” mode ceases to serve us well as we mature and is very damaging to our love relationships.

The sense of worthiness is essential to our psychological wellbeing. We need to know that we are well regarded, respected and liked by others to feel secure. Being treated as valued employees safeguards our economic stability and boosts our sense of competence. Friendships validate our social desirability and family and love relationships provide the most secure sources of personal worth and emotional security.

The resistance to admitting our weaknesses, mistakes or wrongdoing is propelled by our need to preserve our self-esteem. Thus, we deflect blame by assigning it to others. Abraham Maslow, the creator of Humanistic Psychology said, “One can spend a lifetime assigning blame, find the cause ‘out there’ for all the troubles that exist.”

Professors Nathanael Fast of USC Marshall School of Business, and Larissa Tiedens of Stanford reported, “Blaming becomes common when people are worried about their safety in an organization, “The spread of a self-image protection was the mechanism by which blame spreads AND that self-affirmation moderates the blame contagion effect.”

In love relationships the risk of being poorly viewed by a mate is particularly threatening. To fend off this threat, many individuals resort to blaming the mate for any discomfort they feel or conceal revealing their own failing. Blaming statements like, “You are the one who started this argument”, “If you only told me in advance, I would have taken care of this”, “You yell at the kids all the time and now you blame me for doing this?” only deepens the relationship divide and causes both partners to feel negatively about themselves and each other.

In “Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams” Amy Edmonson of Harvard University found that “A climate of safety and supportiveness enabled team members to embrace error.” In order for mates to take personal responsibility for their errors, they must feel secure enough in their partner’s positive regard for them. Healthy pairs excuse and normalize each other’s mistakes by saying, “I know that you care about being home early to be with the kids and I can imagine how difficult it is for you to be late due to your job demands.” Or, “I also get frustrated sometimes and don’t speak kindly enough.”

Validating your mate regularly will provide a safer environment for your partner to be more forthcoming about his/her errors and create a more solid bond between you.

To avoid blaming:

  • Never start a message with the word “You” unless it is followed by an appreciation.
  • Validate your partner often and minimize the impact of any errors he/she makes.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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