4 Ways to Shift Away from Blame
Couples that are struggling in their marriage often come into a meeting with a mentor and blame and criticize each other. A typical conversation goes something like this:
She (angrily) : He doesn’t spend any time with me. He comes home from work, grunts, and then goes off to watch TV. I know that we have to spend time in order to build up our relationship, but he doesn’t do it. When I ask him to come and talk to me, he just makes an excuse.
He (defensively) : She just doesn’t let up. I need a break when I come home. She’s been working too and I don’t understand why she doesn’t watch TV with me. Instead, she’ll come in and shut off the TV. Then, she throws a bunch of guilt at about how we don’t spend any time together. After that, why would I want to?
Mentor: You both sound pretty angry.
He and she continue to criticize and blame each other…
How do we, as mentors, respond?
I used to try to understand what they were fighting about then help to mediate or resolve their conflict. So, in the example above, I might have had them talk through how they can set aside time for each other. The problem is that the couple would often agree when I met with them, but they would come back and one of them wouldn’t follow through. So, the criticism and defensiveness would continue.
One time I was working with a couple that were trying to agree on how much time they would spend at an event they were going to. One of them wanted to stay longer and the other wanted to leave early. I got them to both agree to within 15 minutes. Neither would move more further. All of sudden, it occurred to me that this disagree had nothing to do with how long they were going to stay at the event. It was far deeper than that.
I have learned that, usually, the emotions that couples express have to do with protecting their own vulnerabilities. So, each partner reacts in anger, criticism, blame, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling, etc. In reality, these emotions are usually on top of more vulnerable emotions like hurt, fear, shame, feeling inadequate, feeling attacked, feeling dismissed, etc. When the person feels a deeper vulnerability, like feeling dismissed, the person reacts to that injustice of that. The person might become angry and start to attack and criticize.
The primary emotion is feeling dismissed, the emotion that is expressed is anger.
Dr. Sue Johnson has five techniques that help couples to feel understood.
Reflection is where the mentor reflects back the person’s emotion. This is not just paraphrasing back the words, but working on empathically understanding the person’s experience. The person may have a lot to say and the mentor needs to continue to stay with the person to let them express their anger. When this is done well, the person feels seen and acknowledged. Often, the person will then be able to access their deeper, more vulnerable emotions.
Validation is similar to refection, but it communicates that each partner’s experience is valid and that each partner is free to have their emotions and responses. The important skill is to explicitly state the person’s experience. The validation helps each partner to feel understood and it lowers defense mechanisms. The person begins to feel understood, accepted, and respected.
When the mentor allows the person to share their negative perceptions, the mentor is able to act as a container for the emotions. The mentor is not overwhelmed by the person’s anger or feelings of abandonment. This allows the person to explore more deeply.
Evocative responding is a focus on the tentative, unclear, or emerging aspects of the partner’s experience. The mentor might extend what is actually said in order to go deeper.
For example, the mentor could say, “I’m unclear here. I think that you are saying that when your wife says something in a harsh tone, you feel like you want to leave the room. Is that it?”
It could be that they haven’t said that, but the mentor can add in additional information in a tentative way that helps to connect with feelings that are under the surface.
Heightening is when the mentor highlights or intensifies a particular response. This could be done by repeating a phrase. The mentor could lower their voice when heightening a vulnerable response or raise their voice with an assertive response. The mentor might want to continue to ask questions and draw the client out on this particular point and not allow the conversation to shift.
I frequently do this when I hear a vulnerable response. I’m looking for the softer emotions that are under the harsher emotions. When I hear fear, abandonment, hurt, or shame, I want to asked about those emotions. Usually, partners are far more empathetic and understanding to the softer emotions than to harsh anger and criticism. I’m also looking for longings for connection for their partner.
Both partners need to have a chance to be listened to. Mentors need to listen to both sides. Often, when one partner is expressing their anger to me, the other partner is also getting angry or they are shutting down. As a mentor, I want both partners to experience a place where it is safe for them to express their emotions. Often, it can take some time for both partners to be able to feel understood enough that they are able to access their more vulnerable emotions.
Tips for Marriage Mentors:
- Hang in there – Hearing anger and blame is difficult to do at times. However, this is part of what needs to be expressed in order to work through the harsh emotions to find the vulnerable emotions.
- Reflect, validate, and keep listening – Provide a safe place by letting people know it is safe to express themselves.
- Listen for the vulnerable emotions and the longings – the softer emotions build connection. When you hear them, pause and focus on drawing out those feelings.
Johnson, S. M. (2004). The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (2nd ed.). Routledge.