Blaming is a natural human tendency. When something bad happens, the first thing we want to know is, “whose fault is it?” In this follow up to her popular short on empathy, Dr. Brené Brown considers why we blame others, how it sabotages our relationships, and why we desperately need to move beyond this toxic behavior.

Blaming provides us with a means to discharge our pain, and makes us feel as though we have some grasp of control on a negative situation. While it may feel good to release anger by blaming others, it hurts our relationships with those around us, and makes it difficult for us to hold people accountable for their actions. As Brené explains in the video, blaming has an inverse relationship with accountability.

So why is blaming so toxic? It’s an example of defensiveness, one of the Four Horsemen that predicts relationship failure. Dr. Gottman defines defensiveness as self-protection from a perceived attack through righteous indignation or by playing the victim. Below is an example of a defensive interaction between a couple:

Mark: The house is a mess! We have company coming over in an hour, Ben. I thought we agreed that you would tidy up the kitchen once you got home from work. I can’t believe how careless you are!

Ben: I had a bunch to do at work today. I work long hours to put food on the table for our family while you stay at home all day! I don’t see why you didn’t have time to clean.

It’s not surprising that Ben would become defensive considering his partner’s blatant criticism, another one of the Four Horsemen. While it’s reasonable that Ben would defend himself, research shows that this rarely results in the desired outcome. Defensiveness doesn’t make the attacking partner back down or apologize. In fact, most of the time it will escalate the argument even further.

This is because defensiveness is really an underhanded way of blaming your partner. When Mark confronts Ben about his lack of housework, Ben responds with a counterattack about how Mark stays at home all day. In other words, Ben is telling Mark, “the problem isn’t me, it’s you.”

Furthermore, defensiveness and blaming lead to missed opportunities for empathy and emotional connection. When we are listening with the intent to determine who’s at fault, we are not truly listening with empathy. This is problematic because empathy is crucial to feeling heard and understood in relationships.

The antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility, even if for only part of the problem. By holding ourselves accountable for our actions, we open the door to make the changes necessary to better ourselves. When we respond defensively by blaming, we slam that door shut, and give up our power to change.

Here’s how Mark and Ben could say things differently:

Mark: I’m really upset about how messy the house is. I thought we agreed that you would tidy up the kitchen once you got home from work.

Ben: I’m sorry, dear. I did agree to clean the kitchen. We still have an hour until company comes over so I’ll start washing the dishes. Would you do me the honor of being my dish dryer?

There is a complete absence of the Four Horsemen in this interaction. Mark avoids using criticism, and Ben accepts responsibility for his actions instead of blaming his partner.

Many of us don’t realize that negative comments may actually contain hidden pleas for connection. Dr. Gottman says that, “behind every complaint is a deep personal longing.” Before rushing to respond defensively, pause and think about what your partner is trying to communicate. Practice accountability in your relationships with others. You might be surprised by how it increases your capacity for empathy.

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Why We Need to Stop Playing the Blame Game
Becca Sangwin

Becca is the Marketing Director of The Gottman Institute and a recent graduate from Western Washington University. She manages all the Gottman Institute’s print marketing campaigns, strategizes, curates, and plans content for The Gottman Institute’s social media platforms, works on website SEO/SEM, analyzes the success of digital marketing campaigns using analytics applications, and also serves as The Gottman Institute’s webmaster.

  • Excellent post. As a therapist when I am working with my clients I say, “we can dig our heels in and be right OR we can decide to work together towards a solution”. I ask clients what is their goal? Is it to be right? OR to come to an agreeable workable solution.
    Heather Pincelli

  • Jim Wray

    I just have a question about blame and perhaps an expert maybe able to answer it…

    My wife and I are having a debate. Its about whether or not someone is blaming their partner when they say “When someone does this I feel horrible”. Notice its an I statement describing how I feel but I have added the words”When someone has done” at the beginning. If my wife is the one who has done the action but I have not directly said its her fault am I blaming her?

    • Rebecca Ruffels

      Firstly I want to say that I am not an expert – more of an enthusiast in the field and passionate about these types of topics, especially since I sought professional help which profoundly helped me change my perspective and let go of limiting beliefs that I wasn’t even aware of that were the causing a far greater negative impact on my life than I could have even fathomed.

      It’s hard to give a definite answer, as your example is very general and it might be helpful to know the context in which it is said, as it might change my answer. But from just the information you have provided, I would say that it isn’t blaming. Blaming would be if you were to say that when your wife does it makes you feel horrible.

      But blaming can still occur, regardless of what you say (or don’t say) to your wife. It depends on who you are giving the power of control to over your emotions. If you believe that you feel horrible as a result of someone’s actions or words, you are blaming, or rather deferring responsibility for how you feel to someone or something outside of yourself. By doing so, you give up your power of control over your emotions and will continue to allow other people and/or situations to have power over your feelings, which impacts on your behaviour and the choices you make in response.

      Despite your example not directly blaming your wife, it begs the question as to why you would say it in the first place? If you feel horrible, then you hold a belief that has caused you to feel that way, and it is important to firstly identify that belief. Because if you feel horrible, then it suggests that you feel bad/guilty/not good enough for some reason, and the reason is something you believe to be true.

      Your beliefs determine your thoughts, your thoughts determine your feelings and your feelings determine your behaviour and choices…which will in turn consolidate and strengthen your belief. You will notice that none of those things have anything to do with your wife. The only thing she has done, was an action which triggered your belief in the first place. The rest was all you. So if you are telling her because you are trying to stop her from triggering you in the first place, then you are trying to control her in order to avoid taking responsibility for your beliefs, thoughts, unpleasant feelings and actions/choices. And as a result, you are suggesting that she is responsible them, not you. So it essentially still blaming her for your unpleasant feelings even though you may not be directly saying it’s her fault.

      Hope that made sense?!

      One last thing, it could also be because you don’t know how to set personal boundaries effectively. So you may also find it helpful to look this up.