Is there a single quality that's vital to the success of every relationship? One element that predicts its outcome?

Yes, there is - and it can be expressed in a single word: trust.

A relationship without basic trust has no security. Lack of trust creates anxiety. When we can't tolerate anxiety, we resort to blame. And blame kills relationships.

Anxiety is at the core of blame. When we're upset, disappointed or angry because of another person's behavior, we often use blame to discharge our feelings. To say it bluntly, we dump our negative emotions onto another person.

It's what I call the Blame Cycle. Here's a typical example:

John is rushing through breakfast. There's no milk. He's upset and says to Mary, "Darn it, Mary, why can't you at least keep some milk in the house?"

In essence, John is criticizing Mary of being too domestically incompetent to even keep track of the household's supply of milk.

Instantly she gets angry. "You know, John, I work too." Frequently an accusation follows: "Since when are you so important that you can't buy some milk yourself?"

Mary's accusation angers him even more. "I almost got laid off at work and you expect me to stop and buy milk?!" Clearly, this argument is only going to get worse.

Underlying John and Mary's destructive fight is the core issue of trust. Because John is anxious about his job, the stress pushes him to "forget" that Mary is doing her best to take care of her agreed-upon responsibilities. But Mary's human and she occasionally forgets. John forgets that he, too, is fallible, and allows his irritation to lead him to blame Mary. Enough of these Blame Cycles, and they can kiss goodbye any remaining trust.

That's why blame is so damaging to any relationship.

Blame is really nasty business because it's actually composed of four negative behaviors: criticism, accusation, punishment and humiliation. All four of those are present in the destructive exchange between John and Mary. It's not an exaggeration to say that whenever those in relationships employ these negative behaviors, trust erodes.

So what's wrong with criticizing someone for doing something wrong, even forgetting to buy milk? Doesn't John have the "right" to criticize Mary?

That's certainly the assumption of many people in relationships. Acting on that, though, leads to only one result: both John and Mary feel less trust for each other. Each becomes less certain that their needs will be dealt with respectfully.

The antidote to blame is simple: state your complaint without criticizing or accusing. Admittedly not an easy thing to do.

But here's how it works. John says: "Oh, darn, there's no milk." Not a word more.

Since Mary is devoted to John and committed to their success as a couple, she takes on the responsibility. "Really? I'm sorry. I forgot." Nothing more needs to be said. Mary already feels bad. Carrying on about it won't add anything to either the discussion or the reliability of the household milk supply.

To ensure trust, avoid blame. It's a simple formula that helps keep relationships together.

About the Author

Carl Alasko

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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