“We can actually put the essence of neurosis in a single word: blaming – or damning. If you would stop, really stop, damning yourself, others, and unkind conditions, you would find it almost impossible to upset yourself emotionally – about anything. Yes, anything.”
– Dr. Albert Ellis & Aaron Harper (1961, p. 127)
Blaming others is one of mankind’s most polished skills. It’s also one of our most destructive. Not only does blame result in additional hurt for the party it’s directed at, (which gets in the way of more positive outcomes that might otherwise take place), but it’s destructive for those who shell out the blame as well. When you blame others for your misery, by default you shift responsibility over your negative emotions to the outside world, thus placing your personal wellbeing squarely in the hands of your oppressors. While this may help us feel good in the moment (it’s quite satisfying to point our fingers and say, “it’s all your fault I’m in this predicament), this temporary satisfaction comes at the expense of long-term health. (You can read more about this concept in our section, ‘The Blaming Trap,’ inside our book The Healing Mind, available on our website.)
When marriages fail, our natural tendency is to resort to what we do best, to the detriment of both ourselves and the others involved. So one of the most important steps in the recovery process is for you to stop blaming and condemning your partner for all their failures.
Why blame isn’t necessary
Accept that there does not need to be anyone to blame, any more than you would need to blame a lion for eating a gazelle. Recognize that neither of you entered the marriage with sinister motives in mind. When the marriage failed, it was due to a multitude of factors, and did not happen because one person set out to maliciously destroy the other. Throughout your marriage, each of you was merely acting according to what they thought was in their best interest, at that particular time, in the ways they knew how, and in accordance with their own internal repertoire of needs and motivations.
Distinguish blame from responsibility
“If the rush to blame were merely a search to determine who is responsible in order to correct a situation and prevent its reoccurrence, blame would be far less destructive than it is. But, in practice, blame goes way beyond attribution of responsibility. Blame includes criticism and disapproval of the blameworthy person along with a desire to punish. Blame is a poor substitute for comforting and constructive action. It is the poison created by uncomforted hurt. Blaming siphons attention and energy away from constructive change. Nothing is solved by blame. Bad situations are only aggravated.” – Psychologists Rusk & Rusk (1988, p. 145)
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you could instantly prove that every negative event which has transpired is all your spouse’s fault; that you could prove how blameworthy he or she is and what a despicable person they are being. So what? What does this accomplish? It certainly doesn’t change the situation. It doesn’t right past wrongs. In fact, the only thing it’s likely to do is feed your anger, making you more bitter than you already are.
This is why blame is so useless. There are certainly cases where one person contributes more to the divorce than the other person. One person may have been more selfish, more insecure, more unhappy, more controlling, more difficult to please, etc. But identification of who is at fault accomplishes nothing if the goal is simply to point fingers.
So be sure to separate attribution of responsibility from blame. You can certainly acknowledge that perhaps not all sides contributed equally without turning this into a mission to condemn your partner (or yourself) for these shortcomings.
Acknowledge that you both played a role
Recognize that there were destructive patterns of behavior in the relationship, and that each of you contributed to these patterns, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Whenever you find yourself condemning your partner, sit down and in a non-critical way try to pinpoint what contributions you might have made to the divorce.
Acknowledge that marriage is a complex system
Recognize that whatever particular events preceded the divorce (marital infidelity, etc.) these did not occur in isolation, but were built atop a mound of building dissatisfaction in the relationship that both parties contributed to, perhaps through no fault of their own.
Recognize that there are many influences outside our control
In the early stages of the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton was considered a sure-win for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. She held a commanding lead going into the race. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, an up-and-coming politician named Barack Obama sprung onto the scene, catapulting from obscurity and eventually overtaking her to win the nomination. The rest is history.
It’s quite possible that Hillary blames herself for “losing” the presidential nomination. But the reality is that she was more a victim of circumstance than anything else. She just happened to be running at a time when one of the most persuasive, inspiring politicians to hit the scene within the last 100 years had also entered the race. Had the relatively young Barack Obama decided to wait a few more years before running for president, Hillary would have easily grabbed the nomination and would have probably become the first female president. It’s not that Hillary necessarily did anything wrong; it’s just that circumstances beyond her control swung the balance in a different direction.
The point is that in every single aspect of life, there are always issues swaying us in one direction or another that are largely beyond our control. Yes, we can make decisions, but there is also a large amount that depends on the circumstances we’re in.
As creatures who crave control, we loathe hearing this. But the reality is that every single day we wake up amidst a sea of forces that are well outside our control, and our ability to influence these events is limited. Blame is, in a large part, an emotion born out of our willingness to overlook this difficult truth. To close our eyes to the forces we don’t always see. But acknowledge them or not, they are out there. There are forces of circumstance, of opportunity, of biology, of upbringing, of genetics – numerous hidden strings that tug us in one direction or another. Self-will allows us to fight against these forces, but only to a certain extent. And since even the strength of our personal self-will can be molded by past influences in our lives, this, too, is subject to influences beyond our control.
As a universal rule, we tend to only pay attention to the end result of actions, which is why we find it so easy to blame. The formula seems simple. So it’s important to take the time to remind yourself that whatever circumstances led to the divorce, there were many that were beyond your control.