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Why We Blame

April 01, 2012

Is there any couple alive that doesn't sometimes indulge in the blame game — finding fault in one another when something goes wrong?

Research reported in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Volume 138, 2009) revealed that people credit others far more often for "negative" events — what we call blaming — than for "positive" events. Why might this be?

Some psychologists believe that the blame game is what we do to avoid the difficult feelings that accompany "negative" events. While "positive" events trigger easier-to-handle feelings — glad, satisfied, relieved, joyful — "negative" events trigger feelings most of us would rather avoid: upset, sad, hurt, afraid. By angrily blaming, we make our spouse the main event rather than experience our own painful feelings. Here are some examples:

  • In the car, my spouse hits a patch of ice and we skid off the road, hitting the guardrail. It's easier to blame him for driving carelessly than to feel fear, upset and powerlessness over what just happened.

  • Returning from vacation, we notice that the garden flowers have died for lack of water. It's easier to blame my spouse for not setting the sprinkler system correctly than to feel sadness and upset at the loss of the plants I worked so hard to install.

  • The oven conks out in the middle of preparing the Thanksgiving turkey. It's easier to blame my spouse for recommending we purchase the lower priced appliance than to feel upset and helpless, worried that we won't have a way of feeding 20 holiday guests.

When we're unwilling to experience our difficult feelings, it becomes easier to point an angry finger at someone else — often our spouse. So the next time you hear yourself blaming your sweetie, pause and reflect: What's up with me? What am I feeling behind my angry cloak of blame?

And the next time the finger of blame is pointing at you, find a moment to gently and kindly ask your spouse: Are you feeling anything else besides your anger with me?