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Beyond Blame

How to break the negative cycle and remove blame from our relationships

W

e routinely blame both ourselves and others. Blaming seems ordinary, natural, and even necessary.

I blame my mother for ruining my marriage.

I blame the doctor for missing the diagnosis.

I blame the school for destroying my child.

We’ve been harmed and victimized, rendered helpless and powerless. We hate those who’ve put us in this position. We find a culprit and hold him or her responsible for the undesirable outcome.

But there’s a flaw in our thinking. Can one’s mother really be fully responsible for ruining one’s marriage? Is it a doctor who determines who will live and who will die? Does a school make or break a human being?

Of course, mothers, doctors, and schools have serious impacts on the lives they touch, but the story of human development and life and death itself is much more complicated. There are many factors that play a role in every outcome, including genes, a multitude of external influences, and above all, Hashem’s Divine Providence.

We all know this, yet we still prefer to place blame on a simple, single factor, and often, a single person or group.


Factors at Play

My social worker convinced me I was innocent in the collapse of my marriage. She told me that my husband’s behavior was unhealthy and that it wasn’t my fault at all. Her explanation comforted me at first. But there was always this niggling feeling that there was more to the story than that.

I knew, for example, that I hadn’t reacted well to his behavior. I do blame him for causing our divorce, but lately, I also look at my immature responses as a contributing factor.

This woman was able to cut through the simplistic story woven by her social worker to see a bit of the complexity of real-life events. She had the courage to examine her own role to see where her own behavior had been a factor in the events that subsequently unfolded. She came to the point where she blames both herself and her partner for the dissolution of the relationship.

Nonetheless, hers is still a straightforward tale of blame. It’s not an accurate rendition of reality.

Digging deeper, for example, the woman might’ve found that her husband was a victim of abusive parenting. He never had the opportunity to learn conflict-resolution skills because his parents never demonstrated any. They were abusive to each other and to him. He was an innocent child who didn’t know how to put feelings into words, copying the yelling, door slamming, and threatening he’d witnessed all his life.

He didn’t have an emotional regulation disorder or any mental health condition that caused uncontrollable rage; he’d learned his dysfunctional behavior. Perhaps blaming his parents for the failed marriage would have made more sense.

But why stop there? Perhaps they had an emotional disorder that rendered them unable to control their outbursts. Having been born with this, they themselves would be victims of a disorder created by Hashem. Why not blame Hashem for the failed marriage?

Of course, with the right treatment, it’s possible that the young man may’ve been able to heal and become a healthy marriage partner. Perhaps the social worker’s failure to direct the couple to resources for assessment and treatment, combined with her own straightforward assignment of blame to the husband, was what ended the marriage. Why not blame the social worker for the failed marriage?

But of course, the social worker’s perspective was something acquired at the feet of her teachers. Perhaps the school of social work should be blamed?

And so on. We haven’t even begun to unravel the true possible causes of this one divorce, but we’ve seen that a single assignment of blame just doesn’t reflect reality. It’s never that simple.

The Aim of Blame

So why are we fans of blaming?

One reason is that simple explanations provide some measure of solace. The “bad guys did it” is a convenient hook to hang our hat upon, a neat, easy way to understand a story.

Moreover, it’s a more palatable story than one that points the finger at ourselves, a loved one, or even Hashem. Victimization is a tolerable explanation, albeit not a pretty one. It can feel preferable to examining our own role in negative events or the role of loved ones.

Even when we blame ourselves, we may do so because it’s easier than truly examining the situation in depth. For example, a mother might prefer to think that she failed her child rather than accept the fact that her child made bad choices of his own free will. Guilt and self-blame can sometimes save us from even more painful emotions such as grief and loss.

There are even “practical” or useful reasons for blaming. For instance, we may use blame as a teaching tool. Who broke this cup? Was it you, Yaakov? Haven’t I told you a thousand times not to touch this cup? Now look what you did!

Mom has identified the culprit and, with her harsh reprimand, has shrunk him down to size.

But again, we see the oversimplification that characterizes blaming behaviors. Why blame little Yaakov? Maybe he was playing with that cup because she’s such a poor teacher (telling a child something a thousand times isn’t actually a good teaching technique) or because of his inborn impulse disorder that runs his brain against his own will. And yet, we find Mom blaming and shaming, intending these bad feelings to act as an educational deterrent, a strategy to get her son to be more careful in the future.

Lastly, blame is somewhat empowering: I’m good, you’re bad; I’m innocent, you’re guilty; I’m the judge and you’re the condemned. Basically, blame pulls us up while it puts someone else down, and even though we make no sense, being right always feels better than being wrong.

And so we blame.

Better than Blame

We’ve seen that blaming is a way of fooling ourselves: a shortcut to pretending to understanding oneself, the behavior of others, and the events that occur in our lives.

But blame is even more problematic than that: It’s toxic communication characterized by judgment, anger, self-righteousness, and self-delusion. When we sit in our anger and resentment — whether we direct it toward ourselves or another person — we poison our bodies and minds. Chronic judgment has been found to be a factor contributing to impaired physical, mental, and emotional functioning. Blaming distorts and disturbs our relationships and can turn us into victims of senseless suffering filling us with fear, mistrust, anger, and hurt.

Even self-blame is harmful as it can erode our sense of goodness, competency, and worthiness. I should’ve known better. I was so stupid. I lost so much money because of it, and it was so avoidable. I can’t forgive myself. Like the blame we put on others, the blame we lay on ourselves lacks understanding, wisdom, and most of all, compassion.

While we need to be able to accept responsibility, there’s no need to destroy ourselves in the process. We actually can learn lessons without torturing ourselves with endless recrimination. Similarly, others can improve their ways without being crushed by our blame.

So what should we do when we or our loved ones make big mistakes? How should we look at these events, and how should we respond to them?

Well to begin with, we can replace blame with humility. Notice how the mother in the following example incorrectly takes credit for her daughter’s situation. I blamed myself for my daughter’s suffering. After all, I was the one who looked into this shidduch and agreed to it. I was the one who encouraged her to continue to work on the marriage even when she told me she was struggling. It’s my fault that she’s now a divorcée with three children. I’ve ruined her life.

This woman’s sadness for her daughter is understandable, but her conclusions about her own role are wrong. Yes, she agreed to the shidduch — just like parents everywhere agree to such things. She did all the normal research and gave the go-ahead just as anyone else would’ve done. Man acts; Hashem decides the outcome.

Absolutely no one is brilliant enough to pick the right partner for his or her child. No one has all the information, can see far enough into the future, can know the inner worlds and the souls of the children involved — no one except Hashem. No young person after a few days, weeks, or months of dating can know for sure that this person is safe, healthy, or otherwise marriage-worthy.

When it works out well, it’s because Hashem made it go that way, and when it doesn’t, it’s because Hashem has other plans for the people involved. The mother is out of line in taking blame because she lacks the humility to recognize that parents aren’t in a position to guarantee the rightness of a child’s spouse.

As for encouraging her child to work on her marriage, well, that’s what a supportive parent does unless there’s compelling reason not to. The mother’s only mistake in this scenario is in leaving Hashem out of it. She did what she was supposed to do. Now she needs to accept the limits of her responsibility and her control. The fact is that we cannot determine the outcome of our efforts. Whether things turn out well or otherwise, our humility reminds us that it was all in Hashem’s Hands.

Here’s another parent making the same error: My child is floundering now because I made the wrong call. I wanted him to stay in the community school for reasons of Yiddishkeit, but I knew that the school wasn’t right for him academically. Now he is a young man without a career path and without the desire to learn Torah. I destroyed him in every way.

We do the best we can with the information we have. We’re always making decisions with the success of ourselves and our loved ones in mind. We do our research, we ask our rav for advice, we follow the intuition that Hashem plants within our minds. Again, the outcome is not up to us — that’s out of our control. A more compassionate view is, “I did what I thought was right. It didn’t turn out well.”

None of us does what we think is wrong! Hashem empowers the weak, allows people who are bright to fail, and those who lack gifts to succeed. We just need to do our part; we put in our effort and pray for success.

A related error is taking credit when things work out well. I studied hard, and that’s why I succeeded. Sometimes people study hard and don’t succeed. In fact, “success” is never due to our sheer effort. Hashem needs to be with us every step of the way, organizing every factor behind the scenes — who our parents are and how they treated us, which part of the world we grew up in, who we met, and what happened to us, and on and on and on for every single event leading up to our success.

Another pitfall is to separate blame from responsibility. We blame whoever is accountable for the outcome. That must always be Hashem. Whether we’re responsible or not, Hashem can arrange success or failure. Therefore, when we look at our own failings, we needn’t blame ourselves for the outcome. After all, Hashem has His ways of arranging success even when we don’t put in sufficient effort!

And yet, we can certainly take responsibility for our actions and learn our necessary lessons. I didn’t put in enough effort. Next time I’m really going to prepare well. Looking at where we went wrong and making plans to address our errors is a form of taking responsibility. It doesn’t involve berating ourselves or hating ourselves. It is simply a self-assessment with an action plan. We need to do what we’re supposed to do, but doing so doesn’t give us superhuman powers. At the end of the day, we’re still only human.

Philosophical Quandary

If only Hashem is to “blame” for all results, do we never hold others accountable for their bad behavior? Should we never blame ourselves or anyone else?

To answer these questions, let’s consider an imaginary scenario: A mother and father are going out of town for four days, leaving their three teenage children at home alone. They carefully draw up a list of “responsibilities” for the children to carry out — safety measures such as checking to see that appliances are turned off at night and doors are locked, as well as duties, including cleaning up the house, removing garbage, replacing supplies, and so on.

However, since this is the children’s’ first time on their own, the parents aren’t leaving anything to chance. While the kids are sleeping and at school, they check the house via their remote camera devices, and, using their smart home technology, turn off lights and heaters and adjust appliances as necessary. In addition, they ensure that their cleaning lady comes on two occasions, and they arrange to have neighbors check the house several times while the kids are at school. The parents are, to the best of their ability, ensuring that everything is okay.

When they arrive home, they sit their kids down and review their behavior. “You invited 30 friends over and served alcohol, which is against the law. You left the freezer door open for 12 hours. You forgot to defrost the meat that was supposed to defrost in readiness for our return.” They read a long list of irresponsible behaviors.

The children are astounded. “How do you know? Everything is fine now! The meat is even defrosted in the fridge!”

The parents hold the kids responsible for failing to do what they were supposed to do, even though there were no negative consequences. “Your actions broke the bond you have with us. We trusted you to do as we asked because we asked you to do it; by ignoring what we asked you to do, you’ve harmed our relationship, even though we protected you from negative results.”

Isn’t this what will unfold for us? Hashem asks us to guard our lives, and yet we fiddle with the phone while we drive. Hashem usually ensures our safety and the safety of others on the road but will hold us accountable for being irresponsible nonetheless. Or, if we’re more fortunate, Hashem allows us to experience an expensive, but otherwise harmless fender bender as a result of our irresponsibility, which has the potential to awaken us from our irresponsible slumber. “Ever since that accident, I’ve been careful to never use the phone while I’m driving.”

Once we fully understand that we and others aren’t to blame for what happens, we can then hold ourselves and others accountable for failing to fulfill responsibilities. You’re getting in the car 15 minutes later than the time that we agreed to leave. Now it will take a miracle for us to arrive on time.

Exactly.

So what would happen if this couple does manage to arrive on time? They’d thank Hashem for the miracle. And what would happen if they arrived late? The “good” person could blame the “bad” one for making them late, thereby incurring the personal and relational damage of resentment, anger, judgment, self-righteousness, and blame. Or, the prompt person could acknowledge that the lateness was caused by Hashem.

Putting the blame in the right place allows this person and this relationship to remain in a state of peace. And then the prompt person can seek solutions for traveling more promptly as a couple, including asking the partner to be ready earlier in the future. We can hold ourselves and others accountable — and we can do so without destructive blame.

For when blame is lifted, we are too.

How to Stop Blaming Others

Here are some ways you can deal with challenges without blaming others:

Focus on your feelings. Suppose your spouse made a poor financial decision, and now you must earn more and/or spend less. Focus on how this unfortunate situation makes you feel. Most likely you will be disappointed, sad, and hurt. Possibly you’ll feel betrayed, uncared for, or disrespected. Talking to your spouse about these feelings will be far more productive than simply pointing out how bad and irresponsible he or she was. The emotional damage is what really matters here.

Focus on your humanity. Blaming someone involves judging and condemning them. When their behavior has caused you harm, it’s natural to want to do this. However, thinking about someone in this way is as unhealthy for you as it is for them and your relationship. Try to think of a time when you yourself caused harm, inconvenience, or pain through your actions. Remember that you are also fallible and in need of compassion and forgiveness. Adopting this kinder attitude toward the person’s wrongdoing is good for you, them, and your relationship and is even good for you spiritually.

Focus on problem-solving. Blaming doesn’t get anyone anywhere good. It just heaps pain upon an already painful situation and suffering upon the people who are already suffering from it. Instead, focus your attention on how repairs can be made, how the situation can be remedied, on the steps that need to be taken to move forward. Consider how to repair the harm that was caused in your life and in your relationship with the person who caused it. These productive thoughts and actions begin the healing process.

Focus on yourself. Blaming focuses your attention on the flaws of another person. However, the activity of blaming generates anger and toxic emotions in you. Be kind to yourself; refuse to sit in negativity. As you start to entertain blaming thoughts, notice how you’re beginning to feel. Along with the righteous indignation, you’ll notice an array of dark emotions. Blaming invites rumination, and rumination invites depression. Avoid the dark cycle by bringing light and healthy energy into your physical and emotional bodies; repeatedly turn your attention away from thoughts of blame to a more pleasant subject.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 662)

 

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