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Marriage Counseling: Getting Your Partner to Take Responsibility
It’s amazing how many people can’t seem to apologize. Here are some reasons I’m speculating that this happens:
- They grew up in homes where people were blamed whenever things went wrong. Therefore, apologizing is not only an admission that they did something wrong—which they probably heard too much of in their lives already—but it’s opening themselves to being the target of blame. Would you start lacing into them? Probably not, but it doesn’t matter; they’re just afraid of it. Even when their logical mind knows better, people like this don’t want to put themselves in a place that feels icky because of past associations.
- They grew up in homes where they were perfect; they could do nothing wrong. Now, you know that can’t be true; no one is perfect. But some people were never told that. This can happen because parents are genuinely afraid to discipline their children or because they honestly don’t see anything wrong with the behavior. Either way, the child honestly doesn’t know that he or she did something wrong.
To educate a person of either type in trying to help a marriage is very challenging. When you try to explain that the person in Category 1 did something wrong, they automatically slide into victim mode; they feel like they’re being blamed. This makes them defensive and sometimes they pre-emptively attack you, adding more injury on top of whatever it was in the first place.
A person in Category 2 is just as difficult to teach. Such a person has no comprehension of what you’re talking about. They are likely to say, “No, I didn’t” when you tell them they did something wrong. They will deny either the action you’re saying they did or your feelings. This is also very frustrating; it’s as if you both function on different planets.
How do you deal with people like this?
I have a solution that I use in marriage counseling which is simple but not easy. What I mean is that it is simple conceptually but it will take tact on your part, patience, and being emotionally calm and centered (not cold). Right there, that’s hard for you because you’re the one that’s owed an apology. You’re the one who feels you have a “right” to be frustrated and angry. Even though that could be true, being frustrated and/or angry will fan the flames and escalate the problem. It’s not a solution by any stretch of the imagination.
The solution is to approach the whole thing by asking some very challenging questions, something like this: “I have a problem. I would like to discuss something with you but I know from past experience that it will make you mad. So if I don’t bring it up, I will feel further away from you. If I bring it up, no matter how carefully I phrase it to make sure you understand it’s not about blame, you’ll feel blamed and get angry. What should I do?”
Notice, you’re not actually discussing the problem itself yet. It’s all about setting up the rules of engagement. If this seems annoying, it sure beats an argument that goes nowhere, doesn’t it?
In fact, one of my big rules for couples is that they need to talk more about the way they’re relating than whatever the topic originally was. So, for example, if the topic was “You work long hours and I’d like more time with you,” that topic ends abruptly if your partner gets angry or disrespectful. Then the topic has to change to: how he or she is talking to you. Similarly, if you know the topic will be sensitive, plan to discuss how to handle it before you handle it.
So you might say that this method is called: Setting up the rules for a discussion so that your partner does not act like you're blaming.
I know what you're going to ask: But what if he/she still feels blamed; what then? That will be handled in another post.