Some people get it right away, the thing about blame. It’s either everyone’s to blame (yuck) or no one’s to blame (yay). If you’re one of those people who really wants to put people on trial, then try to pay attention. We’ll take it slow.

There’s a child rearing universal that children need to learn to take responsibility for what they do, not lie about their behavior. Which makes sense, right? Yet that owning implies blame—if you cause a problem, you’re to blame.

But we’ve been stressing systems thinking on this blog. There’s a homeostasis to behavioral patterns. We take responsibility for our part in a problem, but there are other things happening that triggered our responses.

Since there are so many people involved (past influences from family, friends, work) and so many triggers, family therapists do not like to assign blame. We like to look at what happened and search for a nice solution or ten.

Here’s an example of blame assignment that helps no one:

Barbie calls up her brother Bill to ask him for money. She needs a hundred dollars. Because she’s out of work, she does a lot for their mother.

Bill is used to her asking him for money and would much rather she worked, but he does like that she’s free to take Mom to the doctor. Still, Barbie never pays him back.

Because Nancy, his wife, has been telling him to set a limit, he tells Barbie he doesn’t like “lending” her money because she never pays him back. She gets angry, hangs up on him. Bill calls her back and says “Fine, I’ll lend you the money.”

Barbie is happy. Bill hangs up the phone. Nancy, Bill’s wife, says a little angrily, “I thought you said we were saving money and you weren’t going to do that!”

Bill tells her that he wanted to but he really has trouble saying no to his sister. Barbie has “issues.” He thinks she’ll grow out of them.

Nancy says, “Actually, Barbie will always have issues. We really need to save to buy a house. Call Barbie back and tell her you can’t do it!”

Bill calls Barbie back and tells her he doesn’t have the money right now. She says, “Well, then I don’t have time tomorrow to take Mom to the doctor. YOU take her,” and hangs up.

Now Bill is angry at Nancy. He blames her for what happened.

But is Nancy really to blame? Is Barbie? Is Bill to blame for having enabled Barbie to manipulate him for so long? What should they do?

Nancy tells Bill, “I’m not to blame. This is your problem, buddy.”

Bill says, sarcastically, “Nice to know I can count on you when I have problems.”

Is she right? Is it his problem? Is Nancy wrong for making him fix it on his own?

I’d say that if one partner has a problem, the other one does, too.

So her saying it’s his problem doesn’t exactly fly. And I’d also say that yes, Bill did create the problem with Barbie— to an extent. But Nancy never put her foot down until recently. So she co-created the problem. Then booked.

They need to sit down and strategize together on this one.

AND they need to stop finger pointing. It is very difficult to find the beginning of a relationship problem. They’re usually interactional, no beginning, no end, always one person acting a certain way because the other (or someone else) did something to trigger the response. But that was triggered by something else. And that was triggered by something else. Eventually the pattern will emerge. It takes resolve to find it.

But if you examine these behavioral sequences carefully you may begin to see how there are interactional patterns, feedback loops, that repeat in relationships. When you find the loop you can then begin to insert interventions, CHANGES, to resolve the problem. The pattern suggests that there are really MANY solutions to relationship problems, not just one.

From our example we don’t know what those solutions might be—we haven’t got enough information. All we know is that by assigning blame, we’re not closer to a solution.

There is a post in the archives about “blood being thicker than water.” It is an expression commonly used to mean that the opinions and needs of siblings and parents (the blood) have more sway, more influence on a person (and theoretically should, according to its adherents) than those of a spouse or a partner (the water).

Family therapists profoundly disagree. At the end of the day it is your spouse/partner you need to live with, sleep with, and resolve issues with. The other blood relatives go home to their own partners/spouses or selves. The only exception here is where there’s abuse.

Perhaps it’s time we got to talking about that. THAT’S where I’ll allow blame. No one makes a mature individual hurt another, no matter what the provocation. The responsibility for abuse remains squarely upon the perpetrator. Always.

Another time.

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc