A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

Family Communication Part III: The Blame Game

The issue of who's at fault can stop attempts at family problem solving dead.

This post is Part 3 of my continuing series, How to Talk to Relatives about Family Dysfunction. They provide win-win strategies for overcoming chronic repetitive problematic interactions between potentially loving family members. 

In Part I, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and what usually happens when they try. I discussed the most common avoidance strategy — merely changing the subject (strategy #1)—as well as suggesting effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track.  In Part 2, I discussed the avoidance strategies of nitpicking (#2) and accusations of over-generalizing (#3). 

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The subject of today’s post is the avoidance of attempts to change the subject by getting into the blame game, and taking a shifting stance as to who exactly is to blame for a given family problem (#4).

The goal of metacommunication is effective and empathic problem solving. I will once again discuss counterstrategies that are often effective in getting past blame shifting. As with all counter-strategies, maintaining empathy for the Other and persistence are key.

I again repeat the strong caution: Please be advised that sticking to the counterstrategies that I describe may be extremely difficult, so the services of a therapist who knows about these patterns are often necessary. For families in which violence and/or shattering invalidation of people who speak up is common, a therapist who can coach you in effectively employing the techniques is essential. Also, the advice in my posts is designed for adults dealing with other adults. It is not meant for metacommunciation with children and teens.

                                                   Strategy #4: Blame Shifting

A favorite maneuver that is used by many families members to scuttle metacommunication is the counter-accusation, in which someone else is blamed for the problem under discussion or another problem. The counter-accusation may be aimed at the metacommunicator, or it may be aimed at a third party.  

For metacommuncation to succeed, it is best for people to take the position that there are NO villains in the family drama. However, family members, including the metacommunicator, may have done very bad things, and that fact cannot be ignored without the ignorer sounding like a liar or an idiot.   

In general, blame is toxic to metacommunication, and leads to fight, flight, or freeze reactions in others - none of which is productive.  No one likes to or needs to eat crow, as it does not taste like chicken.  One needs to keep one's eye on the final and most important goal - to begin the process of changing problematic patterns in future interactions.

Individuals attempting to discuss a mutual problem with a family member without placing blame on anyone must nonetheless bring up the Other's troublesome behavior within the family system. Even when individuals do their best not to blame anyone, the Other may nonetheless attempt to quiet them by acting as if they were behaving in a blaming manner. 

Let's take the case in which the Other (O) becomes indignant and starts placing the blame for the problem on the Metacommunicator (M). In order to get M to become especially angry, O may magnify and exaggerate M's contribution to the problem or imply that M is entirely at fault. 

This kind of maneuver is, of course, an attempt to distance M through the use of an unjust criticism. M will be sorely tempted to return the insult in kind. As with any other distancing maneuver, however, M should instead react by moving closer

The biggest difficulty in designing an effective countermeasure for this maneuver is that the counter- accusations of O will invariably contain at least a kernel of truth. M, being an integral part of the family system, is indeed part of the problem. If M reacts to O's accusation by merely defending himself, O will have and may use a wealth of examples from M's past as ammunition to back up his or her charge. M may then begin to become frustrated, angry, or feel guilty about his or her contributions to the family problem, and the conversation will sidetrack.

Luckily, however, the fact that O's accusation does contain a kernel of truth can be used to get the conversation back on track. It can be used in the service of empathy. 

Instead of becoming defensive, M can acknowledge the kernel of truth in the O's accusation, while either ignoring the exaggerations or pointing them out in a matter-of-fact fashion. M can then use his contribution to the problem as an example of behavior that is caused by the very family problem that they are now trying to discuss and solve. M can add that he used to criticize himself for the very "sins" of which O is now accusing him. 

As we shall see in the following example, M can also use O's criticism to question traditional family beliefs. The latter subject is normally one of the last parts of the metacommunicative sequence that comprises effective metacommuncation, but O's blame-shifting maneuver provides an excellent vehicle for speeding up the process. 
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Example:

Mr. M, estranged from his family and living far away, was in the process of calling up his older brother to metacommunicate about a family problem. Mr. M let the brother know that he wanted to come home on vacation to clarify some of the family issues. The brother, who had attempted but failed to escape enmeshment in the family by moving away as M had done because he had felt obliged to stay, immediately began to indignantly criticize M's attempt at renewed family involvement. "You moved away and have your own life. Who the hell are you to come back here and try to fix the family?" 

(As an aside, there is hidden altruism in the brother's seemingly hostile response: he was trying to help Mr. M stay away from what the brother considered to be a toxic family situation. Responding to the lexical content of someone's statement - just the words and not the tone of voice or the implications - will be the subject of a future post in this series).

M responded, "I can understand your feelings. I often asked myself that same question when I first considered doing this. I have been away a long time, but I'm not happy about not being close to the family." The goal of this statement was to use it as a vehicle for bringing up the difficulty that the entire family had in resolving the riddle of how to remain close to one another while leading independent lives. 

In response, however, the brother let go another accusation - one that the patient had often used on himself to discourage himself from trying to return to the family fold. The fatalistic belief that underlay this particular accusation was at the core of the family problem. (More on fatalism also in a future post in this series).

"Look," protested the brother, "forget it. You're just going to stir up trouble. The people in the family are not going to change. Dad's been drinking for years, and he isn't going to stop. You're not going to save anyone." 

The accusation that he was trying to be the family savior and that this was a major cause of trouble was particularly effective on M.  He had attended a self-help group for years, and the avoidance of the rescuer role was one of the hallmarks of the group's message: "Let go and let God." Indeed, the fatalism of the family made that organization and its message seem entirely reasonable to the patient. 

M reminded himself that he was not responsible, ultimately, for making the family change, but he could change the way that they related to him. M empathized with the brother's feelings that the family members were fundamentally and irreparably damaged. He had, after all, felt that way himself many times. He could truthfully say, "I used to think that way, too." After expressing this empathy, he was in a position to question the validity of this assertion and to discuss the historical and cultural reasons that led to the family's fatalistic belief system.
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Now let us take the situation in which O shifts the blame off of him- or herself and attributes the problem entirely to the behavior of a third family member. M may also be annoyed at the third party, so it is very easy for both parties to stop talking about their problems with one another, and non-productively start in on the other guy. 

Alternatively, the metacommunicator may feel the urge to defend the other guy. Even when certain family members may be furious at, say, Dad themselves, they will often defend him if anyone else attacks him. That's just the way people are - very protective of their kin group.

In this case, the counter-strategy involves validating O's point of view about the third party without necessarily agreeing with it, and avoiding going off on a non-productive tangent. M can say something to the effect that, "Everybody in the family seems to get embroiled in this problem to some extent. I plan to talk to [third party] as well. But let's talk about how this plays out between the two of us. I really would like for us to get along better."

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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