“When you blame others, you give up your power to change.” ~Dr. Robert Anthony
After living alone for five years, I moved in with my girlfriend just eight months ago. I knew that I would have to make some adjustments, but I had no idea what they might be.
I expected most of the changes to be around the dynamics of our relationship and spending too much time together. I didn't foresee any personal growth coming out of it.
But that's exactly what happened. I grew, and I evolved.
What Sparks a Fight
For both me and my girlfriend, cleaning our apartment is a big issue.
Neither one of us wants to do it. And even when we do clean, we want credit for it. Or at least I do.
I remember one time I had just finished cleaning our bathroom, and I felt like I had made a significant contribution to our apartment. My girlfriend—let's just call her Mary—thanked me, but I felt like she wasn't contributing as much to our apartment.
I accused her.
Mary hadn't cleaned anything in a week, and I didn't want to do all the cleaning by myself. Now it was her turn. And she should know about it.
She didn't take it so well.
She said that she had cleaned the bathroom the last two times, in addition to the kitchen and parts of the bedroom. I told her that I had cooked the last few meals, and that she's the one who keeps dirtying the bathroom and bedroom anyway. Why should I clean her mess?
Things Get Ugly
Before I knew it, we had escalated into a full-blown fight as we got more and more upset at each other. We were blaming each other back and forth for what the other person had or hadn't done.
We were playing the “blame game.”
And this wasn't the first time either.
We had played the blame game many times before, and every time we did, it would damage our relationship in a new way. Sometimes there would still be ripple effects days later.
We would get mad at each other. We would accuse each other. We would look for reasons why one of us was right and the other was wrong.
It was a downward spiral.
Blame Awareness and The Gift of Pain
Usually before I can make any significant change in my life, I need to have a high level of awareness about it. I can't change without first knowing what change I need to make. And usually, the big alarm that tells me when something isn't working is this:
I feel pain.
It can be sadness, anger, unhappiness—basically, any emotion that feels bad is my warning sign that something’s wrong. And this time, it was my girlfriend and I being intensely angry at each other.
Pain is a gift.
Pain is a gift because it tells us that something is not right, that something isn't working and needs to be changed. Without feeling this pain, we might never know that we need to change.
This painful experience is what brought our blame game to my awareness.
I was now empowered to change.
Taking 100% Responsibility
I read somewhere that most successful people take 100% responsibility for their lives.
I thought I'd try an experiment.
What if I were to take 100% responsibility for everything in our apartment, in our relationship, in our lives?
Even though a relationship is really a 50-50 partnership, I figured I'd bite the bullet and take all the blame and responsibility—for everything—and just see what happens. (Note: If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, and your partner regularly mistreats or takes advantage of you, I would not recommend this.)
I deliberately became more aware of my tendency to blame. I was denying responsibility for things I could change.
Blame is a victim mindset, not an empowered one.
I would catch myself after I had just blamed Mary. I would catch myself while I was accusing her, or right before I was about to.
I would catch myself merely thinking the thought—that it's her fault for such-and-such. And right before I was about to blame her for something, I'd just sit in awareness of it, as if I were a Buddhist monk.
Letting go of the blame, I would instead take full responsibility for it.
Talking About It
Accusing her and blaming her only made our relationship worse. So I was taking 100% responsibility for our relationship, and I wasn't going to blame her for anything. Even if I felt certain it really was her fault.
At first, I didn't tell Mary what I was doing.
Eventually, though, I told her everything. We had been blaming each other a lot, and it was making our relationship not so good, and I was making an effort to stop. I was happy when she said that she would make an effort too.
She soon stopped blaming me.
Even when she hadn't cleaned up the mess on our table, and it was clearly her mess and her “fault,” I took responsibility for it.
Sounds crazy. Sounds dis-empowering, right?
But maybe, I had created the circumstances to allow her to leave the mess. Maybe I hadn't communicated clearly to her that I don't like clutter on our table. Maybe I hadn't done anything to encourage us to both clean up together, as a team.
In the end, I didn't become a victim either. If Mary was going to take advantage of me, this strategy would have backfired and I'd be her scapegoat. But because we're in a healthy relationship, she didn't mistreat me.
Eliminating Blame in Your Relationship
You'll notice from my experience with Mary that I took specific steps to eliminate blame in our relationship. Here are the steps you can take to do the same:
The first step is just to notice if it's an issue in your relationship. Are you fighting, getting angry with each other, playing the blame game?
Get super-aware of when you're blaming or faulting or accusing, even if you're doing it in your head. If you can catch yourself sooner, you can let it go and preempt sparking a fight.
This is the hardest part, because it's easier to find fault in others than in ourselves. We want to be right. So just do an experiment, and see if you can take complete responsibility for your life, including your relationship. See what happens. Remember, this advice applies to anyone who’s in a healthy relationship. This doesn’t mean you need to take responsibility for someone else mistreating you.
Tell your partner what's been going on, how you feel about it, and the effort you're going to make. (And if something’s really bothering you, communicate your feelings without blaming.) This will bond you together, and get you on the same team. Once you’re both making an effort, you're well on your way.
Photo by Bjorn Soderqvist