When in conflict with your relational partner, do you ever find yourself blaming them for your bad behavior? If so, you are not alone. It is very common during relational conflict for people to see their own behavior as being caused by the other person. Here's the problem, the other person is likely to do the same, and around and around it goes. Therein lies the futility of this relational communication pattern. There is a solution to this problem, but it requires a perceptual transformation on the part of both partners - more on this later.
First, a little background information. In 1967, Watzlavik, Beavin, and Jackson published The Pragmatics of Human Communication, which identified several axioms (i.e., commonly accepted principles) of interpersonal communication and how it works. One axiom, "The Punctuation of the Sequence of Events" (p. 54), provides insight into why the blame game is so common in interpersonal communication.
In reality, relational communication events are continuous; they are ongoing, with no clear-cut beginning or ending. In other words, in the context of close relationships, communication events are continuous transactions, as they are tied to the past, present, and future of the relationship. As participants (or observers), however, there is a tendency to divide communication transactions into sequences of stimuli and response, or cause and effect - to impose our own punctuation on the communication transaction.
On the one hand, punctuation organizes communication events, and is therefore essential to ongoing interactions. On the other hand, punctuation is usually done in ways that benefit the individual and support the self-concept, often at the expense of the other person and his/her self-concept. For example, a common conflict pattern in distressed relationships is demand-withdraw, where one partner attempts to engage the other in a discussion of an issue by criticizing, complaining, or suggesting change, while the other partner attempts to terminate the discussion or avoid the topic by changing it, staying silent, or leaving the room (Christensen, 1988). Each person then punctuates the sequence of events in a self-serving way. The person who withdraws says it is his/her only defense against the partner's aggressive behavior. The person who demands says that they would not have to be aggressive if the partner was not so passive. Each person blames the other for their negative conflict behavior, creating a lose-lose situation and prolonging the conflict.
Although it is true that people in interaction are interdependent - that is, each person's behavior has the ability to impact the other - that does not mean that one person's behavior causes another person to respond in a particular way. People in close relationships are highly interdependent, but each individual is still responsible for their own behavior, and blaming the partner will not lead to mutual understanding or conflict resolution. Understanding how another person perceives and interprets a situation, how he/she punctuates it, is crucial to achieving interpersonal understanding and conflict resolution, and essential to interpersonal empathy.
So, how does one move beyond playing the blame game, toward a relationship where partners engage in perspective taking, create mutual understanding, and engage in productive conflict practices? By metacommunicating - by communicating about communication, talking about your talk. Sounds simple, and it can be once you get the hang of it, but if it is not something you are accustomed to doing, it will take some practice. Ultimately, this involves sharing your perspective with your relational partner and taking responsibility for your behavior. The XYZ approach (I feel X when you do Y because of Z) is a great place to start. Using the demand-withdraw pattern as an example, the partner who wants to withdraw might instead say, "I feel like withdrawing when you criticize me because I don't feel like I can stand up for myself." This opens the door for more conversation, it enables the partner to engage in perspective taking, and it increases the likelihood that partners will achieve mutual understanding and empathy. Through taking the perspective of our loved ones, we may be able to transform our understanding of the negative patterns in our relationships, and in so doing, transform our relationships.
Christensen, A. (1988). Dysfunctional interaction patterns in couples. In P. Noller & M.A. Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Perspectives on marital interaction (pp. 31-52). Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.
Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, J.B., & Jackson, D.D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes (pp. 48-71). New York: Norton.