We see it creep into our language at an early age, tend to notice it in others more than ourselves and, though it takes on many forms, at one point or another we’ve all done it… So what is it exactly that makes our tendency to blame others for our poor behavior so tempting?
A quick survey of the first few chapters of Genesis shows us that the problem of blame can be traced to the origin of man – literally! Not long after God created everything, including man, and set them all in perfect relationship with one another, mankind opted to declare independence from God by choosing to believe the serpent over God and disobeying the one rule of Eden. This is known as the Fall of Mankind – when sin entered the world. One of the immediate, destructive results of sin on relationships was displayed when God questioned Adam and Eve about their rebellion. Adam’s response to God was, “Eve gave me the fruit,” and Eve’s response was, “The serpent deceived me.” Neither was willing to take personal responsibility for their choice to disobey and, instead, decided to point fingers at everyone else involved.
As a marriage counselor, I often hear some version of the message, “If my spouse wouldn’t ___________ (yell, drink, work so much, ignore me, etc.), then I wouldn’t __________ (give the silent treatment, throw things, go over budget, nag, etc.).” So, essentially, “Because I believe my spouse is in the wrong, I am perfectly justified in my ugly reaction.” Sound familiar?
When we blame others for our behavior it has at least two incredibly harmful consequences. First, it communicates to the other person, “You are the main problem here.” It is an accusation that puts the blamer in a position of superiority, essentially saying, “I am better than you and would never have done that if it weren’t for you.” Blame is a form of contempt and nearly always incites defensiveness in the one being blamed. Researchers have identified this cycle of contempt and defensiveness as the single most destructive communication pattern in relationships.
We often justify blame by telling ourselves that in order to help our partner understand the significance of the problem, we must point out all of the ways they went wrong in a particular situation. However, because it puts the accused on the defensive, it rarely produces the desired result. It is incredibly difficult to stay calm and think critically when someone we love sends us the message that they’re only willing to look at our flaws and ignore their own. We instinctively want to point out their weaknesses as well or convince them that they’ve misjudged our character, which only fuels the destructive cycle.
The second harmful consequence of blame is that it sabotages personal growth. Blame is tempting because it is an easy alternative to the hard and often painful work of humbly looking in the mirror and taking stock of our own shortcomings. If we are unwilling to honestly take accountability for our actions, then it is nearly impossible to learn from our mistakes. The only way to become more of the person we each desire to be is to honestly admit where we’ve fallen short and make daily course corrections.
At this point, you may be asking, “What do these course corrections look like in the midst of relationships?” The following are a few strategies to help you avoid the blame trap and spur you on toward personal and relational development.
1 – Begin by admitting your part in the conflict. This is not about “taking the high road,” which again is a position of superiority. The goal is to genuinely acknowledge where your thinking or behavior may have contributed to the overall problem. It may sound something like, “I’m really sorry for the way I began our conversation, I can see how you would have felt ambushed by my comments.”
2 – Find common ground. Instead of focusing on the perception that the other person is being unreasonable or immature, the best way out of the contempt-defensiveness cycle is to look for the understandable part in what the other person is saying. Relationship research strongly supports the principle that if we want to receive understanding, we must first give understanding.
3 – Offer assurance and affirmation. The best way to repair some of the damage left by past accusations is to reassure the other person that you are not looking at them through a judgmental lens. For example, saying something like, “I’m not questioning you because I don’t trust your judgment; I truly want to understand your thought process and need your help with that.”
4 – Prioritize mutual respect. The goal is not to ignore or minimize your own feelings or desires but to give each person equal regard. This involves a willingness to listen to both sides even when you strongly disagree. This mutual respect reassures each person that we are not willing to win the argument at the expense of the relationship.
If you go on to read the rest of the story that began in Genesis, you’ll see that God’s plan for redemption was to send His perfect son, Jesus, to redeem mankind. When Jesus walked on the earth He displayed all of the attributes necessary for healthy relationships. When accused, Jesus did not blame others but was willing to humbly speak the truth in love. Not surprisingly, when we look at the relationship research, it points to the very same behavior patterns. Instead of blaming others, the best thing we can do is acknowledge our part in the problem and commit to be part of the solution.