The day had only just begun and already Tom and Jan were blaming each other.
“Did you remember to call Mom yesterday about sitting for us on Saturday?” asked Tom with a slight edge to his voice. “No, I was too busy dealing with the kids to get to it” replied Jan abruptly. “But you said you would take care of it and it’s already Thursday. You know how Mom is about getting late notice” said Tom now showing his irritation. “Look if you’re so worried about it, why don’t you call her yourself!” retorted Jan defensively. “Typical!” shot back Tom, as he stood up and began leaving the room angrily. “Looser” muttered Jan rather loudly under her breath.
Tom and Jan spent the rest of the day not speaking to each other. Throughout the day each replayed that morning’s argument over and over in their minds, each time nursing their anger and resentment just a little more, each becoming surer that the other person was to blame for all problems in the marriage.
Jan went to bed alone that night. Tom went to the couch. Both lay awake, each feeling trapped, hopeless and discouraged – neither believing him or herself to be responsible for their troubled marriage or capable of fixing it.
Dr. David Burns, in his book Feeling Good Together states that there are three ideas that are the basis of Cognitive Interpersonal Therapy, which if we understand them, can change our lives. The first idea is that “we all provoke and maintain the exact relationship problems we complain about”, but don’t realize that we do this. The second idea is that “we deny our own role in the conflict because self-examination is so shocking and painful and because we are secretly rewarded by the problem we’re complaining about”… The third idea is that “we all have far more power than we think to transform troubled relationships – if we’re willing to stop blaming the other person and focus instead on changing ourselves… “. He further states that change can happen quite quickly, but that we must be “willing to work hard and experience some pain along the way…”.
Each of us plays a part in provoking and maintaining the relationship problems we complain about, primarily through our need to defend and justify ourselves. The problem with self-justification is that it tends to perpetuate the conflict by putting the other person on the defensive – they will try even harder to justify their position and in turn, so will we. What develops is an ongoing tit-for-tat pattern of score keeping and retaliation. This cycle has been termed “the blame game” because both parties take turns blaming the other person, while refusing to acknowledge any validity in what the other has said. By allowing ourselves to get caught up in this cycle of blame we provoke and maintain the very behaviours we complain about.
The blame game makes us blind to the part we play in the situation. We will often rally support for our perspective rather than reflect on any possible validity in what the other person is saying. When we receive such support in the form of sympathy, it can serve to reward our lack of acknowledgement and instead, further enmeshes us in the problem. To recognize that we are responsible for the problem and that we can even be rewarded for maintaining the situation is humbling, but it is also the essential first step in improving the situation.
Burns states that the power we have to change the problem lies in the courage to take 100% responsibility for our part of it. This taking of 100% responsibility is not the same thing as saying that we are fully to blame for creating and maintaining the whole problem. Rather, it is an assertion that in order for things to change and improve in our troubled relationships we must stop waiting for the other person to change first and begin making the change in ourselves. By taking responsibility for ourselves we build credibility in the relationship, which in turn encourages the other party to do the same. We no longer place blame on the other person but instead focus only on trying to be fully responsible for our own behaviour. It is the recognition that to deny our own responsibility and demand that the other person acknowledge theirs would only result in maintaining the status quo – i.e. continuing to play the blame game.
By having the courage to change ourselves, we change the relationship as a whole. By taking 100% personal responsibility we come to realize that though it takes two to play the blame game, it takes only one to stop it.