Shifting the Blame in a Relationship

shifting the blame in a relationship

While relationships offer some of the most meaning and joy we experience in life, they also require a significant amount of work to function well.

Every couple has their own dynamic when difficult topics, miscommunication, or disagreement arises (find yours with this assessment). It’s impossible for two people with different backgrounds, life experiences, and relationship histories to come together without some pain points from time to time.

One pattern that ends up not working in relationships is when couples resort to blame-shifting. You can probably already feel how frustrating or uncomfortable it can be to get blamed for something, or everything, in a relationship. I’m going tell you about why that habit pops up and how you can deal with it in a more effective way to experience more peace in your relationship.

shifting the blame

Blame shifting is a form of criticism, and is common in relationships. In fact, the habit is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse identified by John Gottman. The Four Horseman, blame included, are patterns that are consistently present in unhappy couples, and are absent in healthy ones.

The thing is, simply knowing that a habit is unhelpful or unhealthy is usually not enough to stop doing it. You might know that something like yelling at your partner or avoiding them when they need you isn’t going to help in the long run, and yet, you find yourself doing it anyway.

So instead of just telling you not to blame your parter, let’s talk about why it might be happening in the first place and the purpose it’s serving. From there, we can determine a more effective pattern that still gets your needs met.

Blame shifters criticize and defend. When a person shifts blame, they are only displaying the ability to look outward at their partners problems, while ignoring or refusing to address their own part in the way things are.

Relationships are dynamics that occur between more than one person. For one person to receive all of the blame isn’t only unfair, it’s inaccurate and will keep you stuck. (Note that I am not referring to physically or emotionally abusive relationships in regards to holding accountability).

Consider being on the receiving end of blame. As you can imagine, when a person feels blamed, they will defend themselves. This will lead to further unhealthy behaviors from the both partners, creating a reinforcing cycle. Sometimes, partners stay in these cycles for years on end.

In practice, blame can look like:

  • An attack on the other person
  • Attributing all of the relationship dysfunction on the other person
  • Seeing them as all bad
  • Only focusing outward and refusing accountability, avoid taking responsibility
  • Blame game (I only X because you Y) and always playing the victim

As you can imagine, these types of stances place partners on opposing sides of each other, both fighting to be heard, and inevitably missing each other.

If the largest issue with blame is the way it keeps partners stuck looking outside at one other, the first piece of the antidote involves each person looking inward.

By taking a breath and looking at our own actions, we not only have the opportunity to take accountability, but we empower ourselves to communicate in a new way.

To look inward means to pause and to consider your own triggers. This is the piece that gets to the question of “why” the blame is happening in the first place.

If you know that you blame your partner, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What happened right before you blamed them? What did they say that upset you?
  • What were you feeling physiologically and emotionally?
  • What would it mean for you to shift some of the accountability back over to yourself?
  • How does blaming the other person protect you?

Start to see if you can notice any patterns and figure out what is getting triggered in these moments.

Shifting the Blame in a Relationship

Understanding the process of emotions will help you work with your triggers more effectively. Once you uncover the trigger and the emotional response you had, you can start to uncover the underlying need.

Emotions are a communication system. They communicate our needs to ourselves and to others. The tricky part is that they can be unpleasant to experience, which leads to projecting them onto others as a defense mechanism, and missing the message entirely.

Here are some messages of need that may be hidden under intense emotions:

  • Anger: A longing to be seen, heard, understood, or valuable
  • Sadness: A longing to be connected
  • Shame: Sits right under anger, a sense of insecurity in self worth
  • Fear: The need to be accepted and important to the other

The list here is not exhaustive, but our most basic, fundamental human needs typically involve being connected to and seen by others.

See if you can identify your needs that are not getting met and resulting in unpleasant emotions and patterns of blame.

Shifting the Blame in a Relationship

Now that you’ve made sense of your triggers and your emotions (AKA needs), it’s time to share them with your partner.

It’s important here to share vulnerably and to speak from your own perspective. Instead of saying “I need you to XYZ,” you are sharing, “I am longing to feel XYZ.” This step will not be effective if partners hear the needs as further criticism.

Sharing vulnerable emotions with your partner is an opportunity to strip back the content of a fight and remember you are both human and you both fulfill extremely important needs for each other. These are the moments that motivate partners to adopt new behaviors that keep them connected instead of tear each other down.

expand your perspective

Once each partner completes steps 1-3, you are offered an entirely new view of your relationship. You not only have gained insight into your own habits and needs, but you have heard about your partner’s.

See if you notice any of the ways you communicate that invalidate the needs of one another. Determine the patterns that arise whether you are talking about cleaning dishes or managing in-law relationships. Regardless of the content, focus on the needs and the way you communicate.

Be someone who takes responsibility for their actions and communicates their needs to their partner. Once you heal the communication pattern, the solutions to the fights that you are looking for will come much more naturally.

couples therapy

It might be easy to read this post and learn an organized way of understanding blame and your emotions. It might be much harder to take these concepts into your relationship and apply them in a way that creates change. That’s completely normal.

The emotional nature and needs behind these kinds of habits makes the work to fix them nuanced and complex. A trained marriage counselor can work as a consultant to help you each understand yourselves better and to communicate in a more effective way. Having a neutral third party to organize the cycle and advocate for you both will do wonders in accelerating your progress.

Couples counseling is transformative for couples in all stages, from couples therapy for young adults to couples who have been in patterns of blame for quite some time. A healthy relationship is a crucial factor in your individual mental health.


finding a therapist

Emotion-focused therapy is a clinical model that blends non- judgmental approach, systemic thinking, and attachment theory as a framework. This is the model I recommend for healing communication patterns.

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