Do you find yourself always taking the blame for everything? I mean, not so much in the sense that your spouse won’t accept any, but that you just find that YOU blame yourself for everything? Even your spouse thinks you take too much responsibility for things?
Last week we discussed differentiation. Remember, differentiation is the process of learning to simultaneously separate from and connect with a loved one.
If you find yourself always taking the blame and never taking the risk of putting yourself out there and defending your position, you may be challenged with this idea of differentiation. Or, if you find yourself NEVER willing to take responsibility but you just state the facts, explain everything very rationally, and point out logically what is right or wrong, you’re also challenged with differentiation.
Now, we don’t want to be creating a bunch of fights where spouses think they need to stand up for their own rights fully, 100% of the time, and never back down… No, this is for those of us who are always ready to take the blame (you know who you are) or who are NEVER willing to take any blame (you know who you are too!).
There are two categories here, so let’s go through them.
The Self-Blamer, in its extreme form, looks like an abused and battered woman who has experienced physical violence in an intimate relationship. These women report the highest levels of self-blame and lowest levels of perceived control, tending to say, “It’s all my fault, I’ll try to better next time.” (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2000)
Reich et all (2014) found that the higher our self-blame, the lower our self-esteem.
If this is you, you’re probably blaming yourself for having low self-esteem – that’s what is so hard about this! Your recovery starts when you say “I deserve to be treated with respect! I am going to make a plan, and execute it, to take myself (and kids) to a safe place where we will be treated respectfully.”
Listen to me. No one EVER deserves to be abused. You deserve love and respect! Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently!
A more mild form of self-blame looks like the spouse who is always apologizing and taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong. This can happen in relatively happy marriages. What is NOT working here, however, is the differentiation piece.
Self-blame actually lowers anxiety in the short term as it reduces risk – you can control all of the accommodating that needs doing by doing it all yourself. Instead, you should be saying, “Well, this is my part and I own that, but I need you to do this part differently.” State your needs and wants, and give your spouse the opportunity to adjust rather than just take the blame yourself because it feels safer.
How can you do this? Try slicing it a little thinner! Look at the situation this way. When something currently happens, you’re taking the whole situation and putting it on your plate (basically saying, “This is my slab of meat, I am to blame”). What you need to do is slice it a little thinner and genuinely own what is your fault, but then put back on the other person what is theirs. (Take your slice of meat, but leave what is their fault/issue on the plate for them to deal with).
If you’re in an abusive situation, this is going to create more abuse. So, your first step in slicing things a little thinner is realizing that your ‘part’ is accepting that you have accepted the role of an abused spouse and then choose to no longer be accepting of that. And get yourself to a safe place. Make a plan. Know what you’re going to do, and when, and how. Find out the resources available to you – there are a lot of them. Then execute the plan!
For those that aren’t in this extreme situation, you’ll want to learn to pause and stop yourself from taking the easy way out. Own what is truly yours; where you have genuinely misbehaved, or misspoken or wronged your spouse, but leave the rest on the table. Your spouse doesn’t actually want you taking the blame all the time because things don’t get settled that way!
Think of the word mutuality – that’s give and take. You both contribute to the problem – you both take responsibility for the problem. You both contribute to the loving moments in your marriage – you both take responsibility for that!
A better phrase for the No-Blamer is having a “super-reasonable stance” which the famous family therapist, Virgina Satir, discussed a lot.
This looks like a person who hides his or her feelings behind an aura of control, logic, and fact-finding. Super-reasonable – as in unflappable. “Feed me your emotionality, your personal garbage, your over-reactive nonsense and I will deliver you back some good calm, sterile, facts – solutions to your silly problem.“
No matter what level of emotionality your spouse throws at you, you are like a computer. This is just information which needs to be processed.
Here’s why it doesn’t work: it impedes open and honest communication because the super-reasonable person is fundamentally unwilling to be vulnerable which doesn’t let the spouse in to see the real person. They’re insulated from true feelings and downplay the feelings of others.
I know this sounds harsh – and if this is you and you’re reading – please read carefully and don’t rationalize this away. You have the same core wound as the self-blamer; low self-esteem and self-worth. You’ve just learned to cover your messy and painful emotional because you don’t feel permitted to be yourself. You have learned that you can feel safe at a distance and rely on your intellect to keep yourself from feeling and from being vulnerable.
The next time you find yourself being factual and cutting your emotions off at the neck, try stopping the conversation. Just pause… then say, “I feel vulnerable”. You will totally floor your spouse!
Your spouse is probably attacking when you go into the super-reasonable mode, but the one thing he or she most deeply wants is to see that little wounded boy inside you – or that scared wee girl you’ve got hiding behind all the logic. Your spouse wants to give that little one a hug and tell him it’s going to be ok – she wasn’t mad at him, she was just afraid she’d never see him.
Maybe you’ve identified yourself as a no-blamer. Now, how do you work with yourself on this?
Really, there are two parts to this: an elevated sense of self (compensating for low self-worth) and a negative, untrustworthy sense of others. This comes from your own unmet needs for love and validation (which sadly, and ironically, this coping stance perpetrates), and a failing to release self-defeating beliefs and perceived criticisms from self and others.
The way out of this is through this. Give voice to your needs, soothe yourself through it, identify healthy core feelings in response to this and allow those healthy needs to transform the unmet, maladaptive stuck feelings.
Yes, that’s a lot of therapy in couples sentences… “The goal here is to allow yourself to become a connected person who can hold him or herself in close physical and emotional contact with your spouse and other important people in your life.” (Schnarch)
We all carry some of these features in our interactions with our spouse. Healthy differentiation is about being willing to allow yourself to experience that without going and hiding behind your own anxiety. Think rather, “I want to be with you but not overwhelmed by you”.
When we are in that healthy place, we are optimally positioned to comfort and be present with our spouse.