Marriage Counseling 101: Who’s to blame in your relationship?

Dr. Sue Johnson brilliantly explains how...

...couples get caught up in placing blame on one another. She coined this, “Demon Dialogue – Find the Bad Guy.” Here is an excerpt from her book, Hold Me Tight:

The purpose of Find the Bad Guy is self-protection, but the main move is mutual attack, accusation, or blame. The starting cue for this pattern of responses is that we are hurt by or feel vulnerable with our partner and become suddenly out of control. Emotional safety is lost. When we are alarmed, we use anything that promises to give us back this control. We can do this by defining our partner in a negative way, by shining a black light on him or her. We can attack in reactive anger or as a preemptive strike.

Find the Bad Guy could just as easily be called It’s Not Me, It’s You. When we feel cornered and flooded with fear, we tend to see and go with the obvious. I can see and I can feel what you just did to me. It’s much harder to see the impact of my responses on you. We concentrate on each step and how “you just stepped on me,” not the whole dance. After a while, the steps and pattern become automatic.

Once we get caught in a negative pattern, we expect it, watch for it, and react even faster when we think we see it coming. Of course this only reinforces the pattern. As Pam says, “I don’t even know what comes first anymore. I am waiting for his put-down. I have my gun ready. Maybe I pull the trigger when he isn’t even coming for me!” By being wary and anticipating being hurt, we close off all the ways out of this dead-end dance. We cannot relax with our partners, and we certainly cannot connect with or confide in them. The range of responses becomes more restricted, slowly deadening the relationship.

Jim puts it this way: “I don’t know what I feel in this relationship anymore. I am either numb or seething mad. I think I have lost touch with all kinds of feelings here. My emotional world has gotten smaller, tighter. I am so busy protecting myself.” This reaction is especially typical of men. Many partners, when they first come to see me, answer the question “What do you feel right now as you see your wife cry?” with a simple “Don’t know.” When we are attacking or counterattacking, we try to put our feelings aside. Without feelings as our compass in the territory of close relationships, we are effectively lost.

The secret to stopping the dance is to recognize that no one has to be the bad guy. The accuse/accuse pattern itself is the villain here, and the partners are the victims.

If you’d like to learn more about this, you can purchase Dr. Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a LIfetime of Love.