How to Overcome the Blame and Shame Game

As a couple’s therapist, I get to see a lot of relationships that have gone bad.  All bad relationships share a single common fallacy.  The misconception is that you can somehow change your partner my blaming them and shaming them for what you don’t like about their behavior.  Unfortunately, the truth is that blame and shame never work the way you want them to.   After all, have you ever told a romantic partner how they are totally wrong about something, and their response was, “Yes, I see it now!  Thank you for showing me the errors of my ways.”   That’s not gonna happen—ever.  So why do so many couples continue to use the “blame and shame game” to try to get their mate to change?  Because they don’t know of another alternative.  In this culture, that’s what we’ve learned.  Fortunately, there are three simple methods that can help you overcome blame and shame and get back to the love and connection you really desire.

Positive Intention

One way to let go of blame and shame is to tune into your partner’s “positive intention.” A positive intention is the ultimate positive reason your partner is pursuing a certain behavior. For example, if your partner complains a lot, you probably don’t like that behavior. However, you can tune into the positive intention motivating it. The positive reason someone complains may be a desire for more comfort or pleasure, or to feel better. Those are all fine things to want. The problem is that your partner’s strategy for obtaining them may be counterproductive in the long term. Trying to figure out what your partner ultimately wants from his or her “irritating” actions can be a major step in establishing empathy.

When couples in my office are critical of each other, I often ask them: “What do you think is the positive intention of your partner’s behavior?” This question can quickly put a stop to their blaming. Try it for yourself right now. Think of a behavior your partner does that you don’t like. Stop reading for a moment and really do this. Now ask yourself: “What could the positive intention be behind that behavior?” If you can imagine your partner’s positive intention, it will help you let go of judgment and allow you to be more accepting. Such acceptance is often the first step in helping your partner find a more effective method for achieving what he or she really wants.

When I saw Kevin and Jen in my office, they were dealing with intense jealousy issues. Whenever Kevin mentioned female friends in his life, Jen got very upset. After a while, Kevin was hesitant to say anything about his interactions with his female friends. This led Jen to accuse him of being dishonest and sneaky. So I asked Jen: “What could Kevin’s positive intention be for not ever talking about his interactions with women?” A light seemed to go off in her head. She realized he was just trying to feel safety and ease. Coincidently, these were the same desires she was longing for. Once she saw that Kevin was just trying to feel safe and avoid conflict by not talking about his female friends, it softened Jen’s heart. Soon, she found herself feeling compassion for Kevin, and that led to the two of them being more intimate than ever before.                                                                        

Knowing What You Really Want

Knowing your partner’s positive intention is a great way to let go of blame and shame, but so is knowing your own positive intention.  What are you really after by trying to blame, shame, or change your partner?   In other words, if your partner changed in all the ways you wanted them to, what would you have that you don’t have now?  Usually, we are ultimately trying to experience a different feeling with our lover, such as more love, safety, trust, intimacy, or belonging.  Unfortunately, blaming and shaming one’s partner never leads to the feelings we really want.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to come up with a new strategy for getting what you really want.  I suggest to my clients they ask themselves, “What is a new way I can interact with my partner that is likely to lead to the feelings I truly desire?”  Try to answer this question as specifically as you can.

There is no single right answer to the previous question, yet if you ponder it for a bit, some answers will likely emerge.  For example, you might realize that if you do small acts of kindness for your partner, or frequently say what you appreciate about him or her, it could lead to more intimacy, safety, or trust.  In my book, “More Love, Less Conflict” I give dozens of easy ways couples can instantly create a deeper connection.  Just the simple act of no longer blaming and shaming your partner is likely to lead to a positive change in the relationship.  Yet, there are many other ways to create the connection you desire—as long as you focus on what you ultimately want and are willing to let go of old, unproductive habits.

Just Like Me

A final approach to overcoming the blame and shame game is to be able to quickly let go of the judgments we have about our partner. When we judge our partners, we express a belief that they shouldn’t be the way they are. I confess that sometimes I get judgmental about my wife’s behavior. Occasionally, I see that her strategy for satisfying her desires is ineffective, or even opposed to her ultimate goal. Then, I fall into a feeling of self-righteousness and superiority.  At such times, I say three magical words to put a quick halt to my judgements.  Those three magical words are: “Just like me.”

The words “just like me” are a very effective antidote to the blame and shame game. After all, I often behave in ways that don’t lead to the intimacy I desire, so when I see this behavior in others, it invokes a feeling of compassion. We’re all human, and we all let our past conditioning influence our actions in detrimental ways from time to time. When you see something you don’t like in your mate and you want to let go of your judgments quickly, try thinking the words “just like me,” and notice how it makes you feel. For me, it often brings up a feeling of compassion—or, at the very least, it helps me to let go of my judgments quickly.

Blaming and shaming are like a cancer in a relationship.  If they are allowed to live and spread, the entire relationship can slowly wither away and die.   By focusing on the three ideas presented here, a whole new way of dealing with the inevitable frustrations in a partnership can be born.  Yet, it takes practice.  Due to no fault of our own, we’ve been taught to blame and shame each other despite the fact that such behavior doesn’t get us what we want.  Yet, there’s good news.  Once you learn the key ways to get past blame and shame, your partner will likely reward you with a lot more love and a lot less conflict.

  • Positive intention—what are they really wanting
  • What are you really wanting
  • Just like me

Jonathan Robinson, M.A., M.F.T. is the author of the book “More Love, Less Conflict,” and the founder of FindingHappiness.com

About Jonathan Robinson

Jonathan Robinson is a psychotherapist, a bestselling author of "More Love Less Conflict," and 11 other books, and has been a frequent guest on Oprah and CNN. He can be reached at: iamjonr@aol.com or his website: FindingHappiness.com

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