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Is Your Partner a Blame-Shifter?

When productive conflict feels impossible.

Key points

  • You may be dealing with a blame-shifter if your feelings or concerns are not being addressed.
  • Blame-shifting derails honest communication and healthy conflict.
  • Blame-shifters take control of arguments by making the other party responsible for the conflict.
Alex Green/Pexels
Blame-Shifting creates distance.
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

Josh and Lucy came to counseling because Lucy had lost all interest in having sex. Josh felt that Lucy was cold, withdrawn, and critical. Lucy agreed with this assessment. "I'm either angry or indifferent to Josh all the time," she said, acknowledging her feelings.

"You can see why I'm at my wit's end," Josh replied.

When I met him, Josh came across as warm and affable. He had a youthful energy and was instantly likable. In contrast, Lucy looked sad and worn out. She lit up when the conversation moved to children or work, but the minute attention was brought back to the relationship, it was like a curtain of depression had fallen in front of her eyes. Both Josh and Lucy said they wanted to save the relationship, but Lucy didn't seem to hold much hope that things could be different. As Lucy and Josh recounted their arguments, a pattern emerged.

Lucy had recently discovered that Josh had spent an exorbitant amount of money on clothing for himself and hidden the receipts from her. Lucy was furious, after years of financial instability, Lucy had recently received a substantial promotion and raise. She'd finally felt like their finances were under control.

Lucy's income supported the family. Josh had never found his footing professionally. He had plenty of big ideas, but very little follow-through. When she'd found out about the clothes, Lucy lashed out at Josh. "Are you kidding me! You just spent more money on clothes than you've earned in the last year! What were you thinking?"

Josh felt Lucy was overreacting. He said her reaction was over the top and inappropriate. After the fight, Josh sunk into a depression, saying Lucy had shamed him by saying she made all the money. That was true, he conceded, but he hadn't thought when they'd first gotten together that all she cared about was money.

It turns out that under his charming exterior, Josh was a world-class blame-shifter. When presented with Lucy's frustration at his spending, rather than address the problem, he blamed Lucy for even considering it a problem.

Blame-shifting usually looks one of three ways.

  1. You tell your partner that you are upset with them. This hurts their feelings so much that you end up comforting them instead of dealing with the issue at hand. (This is what Josh tried to do when instead of apologizing to Lucy for his overspending, he cast her as the one who erred by "shaming" him.)
  2. You tell your partner that you're upset, and they turn the focus to the way you confronted them instead of the problem itself. (For example, when Josh accused Lucy of over-reacting.)
  3. When you're upset with your partner, they launch into something you did or allegedly did and say that you owe them an apology. (As when Josh accusing Lucy of only caring about money.)

These are all effective ways to derail any constructive or healing conversation. Blame-shifting is usually rooted in narcissism and defensiveness. People who can't tolerate their partner's upset feelings do not make good partners. Blame-shifting is corrosive behavior and not a way to operate in an adult relationship.

If you are on the receiving end of blame-shifting, firmly bring the conversation back to the topic at hand. For example, "I'm happy to discuss the way I brought this up, but first, we need to talk about your spending and secrecy." If your partner refuses to be re-directed, it might be time to bring in a couples therapist. Allowing blame-shifting to take root in your relationship sets the stage for resentment, mistrust, and hopelessness. It ensures that no issues are ever resolved.

In therapy, Josh was able to take ownership of his defensiveness. And, over time, Josh and Lucy were able to address the long-standing mistrust in their relationship. Once Josh took steps to make amends, start earning consistent income, and, most importantly, be honest and forthright in his communication with Lucy, they were able to get their sex life back on track.