Who’s to Blame?

blame“Is it my fault?”

This is one of those questions that seems to easily dominate conversations between people in a romantic relationship who are having trouble getting along.

It is also a question that is usually impossible to answer (who decides? what standards do you use?) and quite unhelpful.

I was talking with a recently married woman yesterday about her problems with her husband. In the middle of the conversation it occurred to me that the discussion more or less assumed that who was at fault would then determine who would have to change.

That seems “fair” somehow, but it may not make any sense. For example, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which the person who is “at fault” is not the one who is able to make a change… Someone while drinking gets severely injured and is no longer able to do the household chores that are his responsibility.

Whose fault is it is really about figuring out who is to blame for the failure of the relationship, and might be relevant or interesting in summarizing the experience after it is all over, but is quite unhelpful when the goal is trying to see if things can be made to work out.

In fact, since every relationship has rocky times, we suspect that one of the key attributes of a relationship that is going to last is the ability to focus instead on problem solving when things in the relationship get rocky.

The trouble with problem solving is that it involves risk, and a level of honesty that might seem uncomfortable. For one thing, you have to be thoughtful about what you can do to make things better, and the demands that you have of your partner that might be unrealistic. And in the heat of the moment you might prefer to adopt the stance that there is nothing that you can do…

Ultimately, though, the risk of doing that is not only that the relationship might fail, but also that you might end up convincing yourself that you are really as unable to make things better as you said you were.

In other words, you might find yourself trapped in a depressive stance (there is nothing I can do, I have to hope that I find someone who will be incredibly chivalrous and never take advantage of me, or get angry at me).

Your anger at your partner (it is all his fault, I am not going to do anything for that jerk) can morph into feeling helpless.

Problem solving might not be effective (after all there is only so much one person can do) and there is a risk of getting trapped in what has been called a “co-dependent” stance (I will do everything to make things OK for the other person).

The solution is to make sure that you have an opportunity from time to time to review whether the relationship is worth it (in other words, pause from time to time and consider whether on balance the relationship is reciprocal, the other partner is doing their part, etcetera). This review is usually best done  either on your own or with the help of someone (other than your partner) who you trust (a therapist, a really good friend).

At the end of this process you will be able to feel good about having done your best to make things work. You won’t have second thoughts about whether it could have turned out differently (if the relationship doesn’t work out). And you won’t inadvertently have placed yourself in the helpless position, fearful about any future relationship.