The Blame Game: Help Yourself Out Of It

Dad would start blaming, as if it were important to establish once and for all who was responsible for every peccadillo.” ~ Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse (ACOA/codependency expert)

Needing someone to blame whenever something goes wrong is a hallmark of a dysfunctional family. People who want to blame others do so to shift the focus onto someone and lay the responsibility for whatever went wrong squarely at someone’s feet.

It doesn’t matter if someone really IS to blame or not (sometimes stuff happens and that is life), someone WILL be blamed.

Usually the family has elected the most culpable person to the role of black sheep. This person will be blamed whether or not they had anything to do with it or whether or not ANYONE had anything to do with it. This person will be blamed for both commissions (“you did this”) or omissions (“why didn’t you do something about this?”). It doesn’t matter.

A family system based on blame and guilt is very destructive and difficult. What’s more is that it sets people up for their future relationships….dragging the corrosive behavior into relationships and by the very fact that blame is a hallmark of the relationship, the relationship is doomed from the start. Usually when blame takes center stage in a relationship two people come from backgrounds that have set them up to blame or be blamed. The couple does an awful, destructive dance where many accusations are made, tears are shed and resolution simply doesn’t exist.

It is impossible to co-exist or to have a healthy relationship when BLAME and finding someone responsible for every little thing is a large part of the relationship.

Healthy relationships simply are not about laying blame on someone’s shoulders.

In blaming, unhealthy relationships no one is allowed to be human or imperfect or there is ONE partner who is not allowed to be human or imperfect.

This partner, usually the scapegoat in their family of origin, becomes the scapegoat in the relationship. He or she then reacts in one of 3 ways: 1) try to please the partner and avoid blame (the “turn yourself inside out” response) or 2) begin to put the partner’s behavior under a microscope to assign blame to the blaming partner (a variation of “gotcha!”) or 3) rebel against the blaming partner and blow up and go their own way (the “I’ll show you response”).

Sometimes the blamed partner cycles through all 3 responses. Tries, most of the time, to please the blaming partner but when that doesn’t work go tit for tat (“you’re not perfect either”) and when that doesn’t work either just throw up the hands and escape, usually in dramatic fashion.

It takes a lot, an awful lot, to break the cycle of blame.

Both Michael and I were the black sheep in our families of origins and both had been in relationships where we were the blamed partner. It was a lot of work for both of us to not blame or assign responsibility. Whenever we heard “Well, you…………” we say, “You’re going to fall down that well…” as a code word (phrase) because we both recognized how hard it is to stop doing it even if you’ve been the victim of it.

But one of the defining moments in my first marriage (or one of the defining moments for me as to why I had to LEAVEmy first marriage) was being blamed for something I did not do.

I had been blamed, all along, for the random and strange happenings in life and had spent most of the relationship on the defensive as I had spent in my family of origin. I was always explaining and trying to avoid blame…just like at home. I would immediately go on the defensive, believing that if I offered an explanation, I would be exonerated. Wrong. Exoneration or getting to the bottom of things was NOT the agenda of the blamers. It’s just making you feel small and stupid and unworthy – so they are never going to buy what you have to say. You’re talking in apples and they’re hearing (purposely) in oranges.

I have told the story on here, many times, when – in the last year of my marriage – we were all outside and a friend of his closed the door behind him and locked us out of the house. No one had keys…not him, not me, not his brother who was staying with us, not his friend who was staying with us, not even his grandmother who lived next door and usually had a spare set. Even her set was inside our house.

I had been out walking the dog. I was probably the ONLY person in the group with a legitimate reason for being outside. The rest of them were just hanging out and talking. But I was the one he yelled out when I didn’t have keys.

He was standing there screaming at me that I should have had keys. Me. Not his friend who locked us out and had been TOLD that if you pulled the side door shut it would lock automatically. Not his brother who had keys and not his grandmother who had keys to our house in case this very event occurred. No, it was MYfault.

And not my fault in just a little way…it was apparently my fault in a big way…in a way to make him scream at me and no one else said a word. His brother climbed to the top of the second floor to go through one of the open bedroom windows and said to me, “If I fall off the roof and die, it’s your fault.” It was meant to be a joke, but I didn’t think it was funny. I had seen, too clearly, that the blame was being laid at my feet entirely too often and without any basis in fact. For the first time I wasn’t on the defensive, instead I was so angry. I could SEE, because of the insanity of the situation, what had always been going on…I was being blamed for things I shouldn’t have been blamed for.

The WORST kind of blame is when someone is blaming YOU for their bad behavior. I was so convinced everything was my fault (his cheating/his abuse) I told my therapist I had created a monster. It was my bad behavior that made him abusive, that had made him a cheater and a liar. My therapist said, “You cannot create a monster who does not want to be created.” WHAT? How many times had I heard it was MY fault he cheated, he was physical, he didn’t come home, he didn’t act like a husband, he didn’t want me. How many times?

According to him, I was to blame for his behavior. And because of how I was raised, I believed it. It was AMAZING to hear that he owned his behavior and that nothing I did was an excuse to cheat or hit. He had the option of leaving but did not have the option of being unfaithful or abusive. That was news to me. I had been raised and conditioned to believe I caused all of this.

After we broke up about 6 months after the keys incident, I had to work hard to break out of my “blamed victim” mode. I had to learn what Iwas responsible for and what I wasn’t responsible for. I had been blamed, all my life, for things I didn’t do. My mother would accuse me of doing (“Look what you did.”) and not doing (“you just sat there while I swept the floor and you knew I had a bad back”). But other family members seemed to blame me in some weird non-confrontational way. My brother would stop speaking to me and I would have to guess what I did wrong. He was angry with me when my mother was ill because I didn’t clean the cat box “right” (we were taking turns caring for her animals) and his way of showing me was to walk out of the hospital room where my mother was when I walked in. My sister once sent me a birthday card for my birthday in November that said, “I had gall bladder surgery in September and you didn’t even know about it.” That was her passive aggressive way of telling me I had not been sufficiently in touch. Unfortunately for her I had been in recovery several years at the time and thought, “If you wanted me to know you can pick up the phone too.” I was working full time and going to school and had 3 kids. She was just working with no kids. But of course it was my role to call her. WRONG. When I received the birthday card with the zinger in it, my first reaction was “F U”. Seriously. I thought how dysfunctional is this? A birthday card with a zinger in it. Screw this.

Our relationship eventually severed by lack of communication but I’ve assumed all these years that her phone had buttons on it too. I assumed her phone doesn’t JUST receive incoming calls. I had also had it with my brother’s “guess what you did wrong?” nonsense and his passive aggressive triangulation of other family members against me. I had enough. No more.

If you want me to know something, tell me. Otherwise go pound sand.

Life is not a game of 20 questions so don’t act like it is.

There are so many different way to blame people and put them in a no-win situation. You can do what my family liked to do and WAIT until the person has failed to respond in the correct way to let them know or you can do what my ex husband did and blame someone for everything that happens whether it’s their fault or not. Blame takes many different forms. Most of them corrosive and destructive.

Responsibility is a BIG factor in keeping blame at bay. Each person must work hard to keep their side of the street clean and be responsible for that. Other times it is necessary to say, “No one is at fault here.” or “Shit happens.” Even when someone is absolutely to blame many times it’s enough to talk about it and discuss how to prevent that from happening in the future. Many times miscommunication is at the bottom of the issue. Stepping away from having to defend yourself or being busy blaming or being blamed is important to resolve it. Screaming and blaming and defending and explaining isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

It is VERY tempting when you’ve been blame a lot to try to get out of responsibility for everything. You’ve been conditioned to be on the defensive, to make up excuses, to figure out a defense on the fly and on the spot….you’ve been GROOMED to try to wiggle away from taking blame because you’ve been blamed for EVERYTHING. But you must start taking RESPONSIBILITYfor what you really do.

I LOVE being able to say, “Oh that’s my fault, I’m sorry…” because it means I’m out of “knee jerk reaction” mode.

Saying “It’s my fault” and the sky doesn’t fall is healthy, loving, and real life.

Getting out of the blame game is very hard but not impossible. It takes constant vigilance. But it’s possible. Don’t let people blame you for stupid small things or not accept that you are human and you make mistakes. At the same time don’t keep score and constantly try to assign blame to someone for something. Just tackle the problem, not each other. If you’re with someone who must blame you for things going wrong, you might want to rethink the relationship. It’s not worth it and it doesn’t usually change.

Take care of you. Part of taking care of you is to not be a victim or perpetrator in the blame game. Stop blaming…stop taking blame….start healing.

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3 Responses to The Blame Game: Help Yourself Out Of It

  1. tara001 says:

    Susan, this is a great post – thank you! I, too, grew up in a house with lots of blaming (and I was the scapegoat, being the middle spunky child who fought back against it and would then get super-whammed for fighting back). I, too, have pulled the plug on my family, the ones who are still alive, and am much better off for that.

    One of the things that is most insidious, especially to us who were constantly blamed, is the shaming that goes along with it. The blaming is what they do to us, by throwing off their responsibility onto us and making it “our” fault. (I was blamed, and I kid you not, for the lightbulb blowing out in the kitchen; I was also blamed when Mom’s mean dog ran over and bit me, and no, I wasn’t teasing the dog). But the shaming? That’s what we do to ourselves. We internalize that blame, and believe it. Then we self-shame, and continue that self-shaming into adulthood.

    Blaming is the action of other people. Shaming is the feeling that comes from unjustified blaming.

    It took many years, and understanding this painful dynamic through the work of John Bradshaw, to come to grips with the fact that 99% of the stuff I was blamed for, that I felt shamed for, had nothing to do with me. (OK, I did scratch my initials in a desk with a safety pin when I was 6 — I was correctly blamed for that!)

    What Susan says about knowing what is ours, and what is other peoples’ stuff, is so right on. Learning the separation between “Why did he doooooooo that?” whining, and “I don’t give a damn WHY he did it; that’s disrespectful, and I don’t tolerate being treated like that.” It took a long time and I still have trouble with it as a codependent. My codep reactions tend to kick in quickly, even now. I do better when I take the time to look at the action, and then …… to not do anything. To not blame myself. To not believe what I’ve heard right away on its face. To react with anger. To do anything. I’ not always successful, and sometimes I snap back, or walk away. But when I can do nothing at all other than give myself space, then I counteract my codep tendencies, my codep “default,” to immediately strike back out of pain, or — worse — to internalize other peoples’ nonsense as self-shaming.

    One of my meditation instructors, a guy I highly respect who runs meditation in NYC that I attend while I’m there, called this pause, between the wounding comment (or the frustrating occurrence, perhaps when someone shoves you in the supermarket or cuts in front of you in traffic or whatever) and our response, as “the sacred pause.” That moment or three when we can just do nothing before we respond, with a nasty comment or with anger / frustration / self-shaming. I’m working on this now.

    Shaming another person is a horrible thing to do. Adults do it to one another all the time, if we let them. If we let them. But it’s much, much worse when a parent does it to a kid, when that self-shaming habit can take strong roots that require a lot of work to pull out as an adult. And shame comes from blame. Either from another person blaming us, or us having learned — all too well, unfortunately — how to blame ourselves.

    Taking responsibility for what is mine, and what is not mine, is an ongoing process. I’m getting better at it. This article was well-timed for me!

  2. Susan J. Elliott says:

    My family did shunning. My therapist called it “unadopting” and she was furious about it. Whenever I didn’t do what was expected or didn’t perform “well enough” I was shunned or told I was like my biological mother. I was shunned or un-adopted.

    When my adoptive mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was somewhat new to recovery (first 2 years) and when I went to the hospital my siblings and my cousins would walk out of the room. I was being shunned and didn’t know what I had done. I was staying at my mother’s with my kids and my dog and cat. I was so uncomfortable with the shunning, I left and didn’t come back.

    My sister called me at my boyfriend’s house and told me she was opening the door and letting my dog out because of the way I was treating HER mother (the implication being that she wasn’t my mother). She was hysterical and screaming at me (to this day I have no idea what else she was saying.) I was so upset and though we reconciled later and she apologized, I never trusted her again.

    So in the face of her hysterics, I went back to the hospital. I got there and once again was shunned so I stopped going. I went to my mother’s and they complained about the way I left things (they who didn’t live there or have kids or a commute – I worked over an hour from my mother’s house). My head was spinning – damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.

    I retreated and then blamed for that.

    My mother went through chemo and radiation and I moved closer to my job. When she relapsed I was 3 more years into codependency/ACOA recovery. This time was going to be different. When I went to the hospital and I planted myself near her bed. The cousins/siblings walked out and I put my feet up on my mother’s bed. I had a laptop which most people didn’t (it was early 90s) and I also crocheted. So I would sit there and play on my computer or crochet while they cooled their heels in the hallway. The shunning wasn’t working this time, folks. Too bad, so sad for you.

    My mother complained that my brother complained that I didn’t clean the cat boxes “right.” Instead of apologizing, explaining, swearing to do better, fleeing or whatever, I calmly said, “Look, I live an hour north of here. Your house is 20 minutes south of here. I have a job, 3 kids, a house and pets. I am chipping in to help take care of your house and pets. They don’t have kids. She stays at your house when she comes. He lives here. If he doesn’t like the way I do it, I won’t do it. Period. End of story.”

    The next day I came and visited and my mother announced that she told my brother to leave me alone. Of course he left me alone by not talking to me but I was serious about not helping in her house if I was criticized again. And she knew it.

    I shut that down. I don’t care. If you don’t like the way I do it, DO IT YOURSELF.

    I was tired of the shunning, the blaming, the “you’re in/you’re out” bs that went on.

    But I was too healthy to deal with it anymore.

    More, much more, stuff went on while my mother was terminally ill and passing. I stood my ground on unpopular things several times. I even stood up to my mother who liked playing the “I’m dying” card. It might seem insensitive to say but if you’re a drama/sympathy queen and you are dying, all the world is your stage and my mother played it to the hilt until I shut that down too. At some point my sister meekly said she agreed with me (we were being bulldozed by other family members in a way we shouldn’t have been and I was the only one who stood up and said ‘oh no you didn’t’). My mother was having a conniption. She said, “I’m DYING!” and I said, “Yes, but I’m not and I have to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow for the decisions I make today and I’m not losing self-respect for anyone at anytime.” End of story.

    My mother’s 70th birthday was in April. My brother hosted it at his house and my sister and I were going to chip in for the dinner. When I got there my brother wasn’t speaking to me because he said we didn’t pay him for the food. I had not been asked for a set amount. Once again, I was supposed to be a mind-reader. I had no idea why he wasn’t talking to me but roughly half my cousins were also not speaking to me. He had, as usual, bad-mouthed me to them before I showed up. He wasn’t speaking to me or my sister but most of my cousins were not shunning my sister, only me. On my mother’s last birthday (we all knew it was the last one).

    When my mother passed, the repast after the funeral was at my brother’s house. We had been speaking during the wake and funeral but when I left a cousin of mine (that I liked and who had never shunned me) said to me, “We’re never going to see you again, are we?” And I just gave her a half smile. Of course you weren’t. Not her but I wanted to announce, “YOU ALL SUCK.” The cousin who asked and two of her three kids didn’t suck but the rest of them? Puleese. Good riddance to bad bad rubbish. Toodles!

    When you step out of the scapegoat / blamed persona, it’s really freedom. Hard to do and very uncomfortable at first, but freeing like nothing else.

  3. MovingOn6305 says:

    Thank you so much for the insightful post. This is so relevant to my Life Inventory as I’m going to work on it.

    My parents blamed each other in front of children. My father blamed my mother for not having dinner ready, meals not good, and it became worse when he got drunk. My mother blamed him for not helping with chores and of course drinking. I remember she blamed him for starting a family when I was in high school. That was a revelation. I thought that was true, at the same time, it made me feel guilty – they must have been happier without children and I shouldn’t have been there.
    She even blamed someone who couldn’t refute – her late father – for accepting the request from my father’s mother to marry them. (She insisted it was arranged by the parents of both side). In my late teens, when they fought almost every night, I often went to my grandfather’s grave site and asked him why he did that.

    My father took ultimate responsibility for drinking. He got what he wished for. So I feel numb about it. He was always angry when he was drunk at night and I really didn’t get a chance to talk with him except one time when he agreed me to go to college.
    My mother never took responsibility for anything – she complained and blamed – but never took any action to turn around her complaints.

    For the long time I was feeling I was worthless and shouldn’t have been born. There was no love and affection in the house. I see this is a root cause I have a low self esteem. I longed for it but haven’t gotten.

    My mother blamed me for not thanking them for allowing me to go to high school and college instead of forcing me to get a job and financially give back to the family. How could I thank them if they were not showing gratitude each other – for earning money and for supporting family each other.

    However at this age, I shouldn’t be blaming my parents for not being a good role model. There must be a meaning I was born into the world and there must be something I can give back, if not my family, but to the society.

    Since I saw my parents didn’t thank each other, when I was determined to make the last relationship work, I used to say “thank you for spending the weekend with me” “thank you for having me”, etc. to the BH. I thought I expressed my gratitude. I told him I was so lucky to have you and he said the same. I don’t know if he was authentic at least then or even lying. In that argument in December I didn’t blame him for making an irrational decision. I told him to take care of any issue on his own. He never told me specifically what he was not happy about, if it was that argument, and what drove him to the new hottie. I don’t know why I attracted that change artist (he made the initial move) who hid many things (perhaps simply because I didn’t probe?) and switched over all of sudden. Or perhaps he sensed I had a low self esteem and easy to use.

    As to my recovery, I read “Seven Choices” book up to “The Turn” over the weekend. I love this book and have a more positive outlook, feeling better longer. I went to the island where I went with the BH every year, on my own. There were some triggers, but I didn’t break down. I did a few adventures I had never done. A good friend was there too and she listened to my story. I’m glad I went there and had a good time. I’m grateful the island is still there in spite of the change I’m going through, and will remain the same beautiful welcoming place, so I will be able to go back and feel refreshed.

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