“Ugh it’s so dark down here.” You share as yet again you both are back in that space.
“Yea…” She mumbles back at you.
How does this always happen, you think to yourself as your new Steve Madden’s squish into the soft, clammy dirt. You know if she would have just listened to me when I said this hole was here and that we SHOULD have come out during the day instead of right when we got off work, then we probably wouldn’t have fallen in here again.
“Why do we literally always have to do things step by step? There is more than one way to get things done…” She says.
You squint in the dark at her, “Honey, I am just saying that I knew this hole was out here, and I tried a million times to draw the map so you can see it. I thought that was helpful but of course you never listen…”
“OH. IIII NEVER LISTEN?!” She yells.
“Seriously, you don…” She interrupts before you can finish, “Do not tell me I never listen. I do! It’s just if things aren’t done exactly how you want, in exactly the right amount of time then of course we end up here again because I cannot keep doing this.”
As a couple’s therapist, this is what I call “That Blame Game”. I see it often; this becomes their stuck place. A place they can’t seem to avoid and always end up falling back into. If you are a couple reading this and this sounds familiar stay with me. I intend to show you a way out.
“That Blame Game will leave a couple to fall in the hole over and over again.”
“I hate this place.” She says.
“I do too hon… I really do.” You respond quietly.
This is the moment we have all been waiting for! As I sit in the therapy chair and have been watching this dance go on and on for the couple. Watching them step on each other’s toes, while the three of us have been tracing the dance.
They slowly show through a pause that they do want the same thing and they can relate for a moment. They can have common ground. They are now looking up at me from that hole and saying “What can we do? This happens all the time and its always been this way.” I look down into the hole and ask a few pointed questions.
“Do you want this marriage?”
They look one to another and then back at me with a “Well, yes. Why would we even be here if not.” I nod with understanding.
“What do you need?” I ask.
With raised eye brows he quickly responds, “To get out of this hole!” He chuckles a little after. She doesn’t move a muscle. I look to her. “And you, what is it that you need?”
She’s quiet as her gaze falls away from him and to the floor. “I need him to listen…but…” I ask her to pause a moment and look back at him. “Can you listen to her?” And of course, he says yes as he puts his arm around her. He’s our pursuer.
I smile in response and give her a reassuring glance that she doesn’t have to say it all in this moment. She smiles for the first time. She’s our withdrawer. He looks and asks, “What do we do…?”
“What do you have down there that can get you out?” I call down to them.
“It’s only us.” He says.
“Well and there is also you now…” She says a little louder to me.
“Honey, I wonder if we can get out of here if I boost you up first and she helps us out up there?” He says. “Ok, I think we can try that.” She responds.
“I really think you can do this on your own, but I did bring this rope.” I call back. I’d rather not get triangulated incase this goes awry. It’s their first attempt out of the hole while I am here.
“Ok…well you hoist me up, then I will figure out the rope with her and drop it down for you.” She says with a little bit more confidence than I have seen before.
“Sounds great honey!” He exclaims with a big grin.
He struggles to lift her due to exhaustion, but with her upper body strength and his leverage she gets out. She looks up at me with dirt in her hair and a few scratches on her hands and legs. She takes a deep breath. I offer the rope and she grabs it gladly.
She whispers, “Do you think you could hold the end and help me pull him out, I really can’t do it by myself.” This is a moment where I will help. She finally is being needy and trusting me to help as she leads us, so I take the rope and wait for her instruction.
“Ok, I’m throwing the rope down and when you get a good grip tell me and we can start lifting you up.” She yells down to him. He yells back, “I’m kinda worried you’ll drop me, what if you can’t lift me up…maybe we need to call my brother.”
I hear her let out a heavy sigh. “Can you please just trust me with this!” She exclaims.
He yells back, “Fine… I am ready.”
When he comes up to us his hair is in disarray and he has a few rips in his shirt. Dust follows him out. They both sigh and look at one another while laughing with relief. As they hand the rope back to me, I smile, open the door and tell them I’ll see them next week.
The Blame Game will leave a couple to fall in the hole over and over again.
It’s part of an unhealthy connection or communication cycle that couples get caught in. It’s often easier than slowing down, taking a breath and asking more emotionally intimate questions of one another. Or, possibly harder, being vulnerable about your own feelings.
As I think of what walked them into That Blame Game again, there are three aspects that come to mind:
First, when they blame they do not listen. Blame is setting us up to look straight past the person we love and only see their faults, as well as ours. That’s the key to insight. Part of blame is really about you, the blamer.
Either you could actually be wrong in the argument and you refuse to be wrong, or maybe you really are right and they never listen. It’s time to prove you are right! You feel it’s finally your chance. That’s an unhealthy communication issue, not that we all don’t get caught in wanting to prove we are right from time to time.
But you can change this by simply taking a deep breath and shifting to connection instead of blame. Blame will absolutely never connect you; you can count on that. It will always push you farther away from your partner.
Second, this couple did not know their own strengths. I had to ask what they had with them and offer some different tools they didn’t bring. Showing a couple their own strength builds some resilience and hope in them.
They realize they CAN change this; they do not have to be stuck. Suddenly they have a choice. Choices are powerful for people. They bring freedom and hope. It leads them to continue to ask for help and guidance, which implies they have wisdom as well. Another incredible strength they weren’t tapping into before.
Last, they aren’t in a space where they can connect vulnerably. That is a hard one to get to when they aren’t de-escalated at all during conflict.
Escalated conflict causes distrust, and no one feels safe so of course, their guard goes up AND cue That Blame Game.
If they can slow down and use “I” statements instead of “you” statements that immediately shifts the cycle. In just one word they can begin to de-escalate and build safety again.
“I” statements sound like “I feel overwhelmed and hurt when we get here. I feel stuck and scared to be honest.”
While “you” statements sound like, “You ALWAYS say that! You SHOULD have already done that. I don’t understand why you procrastinate so much!”
I cringe just writing those statements because I have seen one too many partners shift away from the partner laying that shame down in my office.
To lean in with your partner means to be patient and vulnerable with them, but you both have to try. If not its only one person carrying the relationship, instead of the strength of two to pull you out.
*EFT therapy is what guides the view for this article.