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From Partner Blaming to Partner Respect

Blaming's healthy substitute: Effective need management.

Key points

  • Blaming can be "kryptonite" to an otherwise healthy intimate relationship.
  • Blaming one's partner often comes easier than the harder task of good personal need management.
  • Part of the "job" of intimacy is to reveal the emotional strengths and weaknesses of relating partners.
Source: Slowikowska/Pexels

Partner blaming is an ugly blemish on the complexion of the couple's repertoire of communications. Worse, habitual, unresolved accusations can keep partners locked in a disquieting fallout of chronic couple discord. On its own, partner blaming poses one of the more formidable and challenging obstacles I face as a psychologist specializing in couple's therapy. Even within the therapy session itself, couples not infrequently pull the pin on the blame grenade in a real-time illustration of their debilitating "at-home-warfare," which, of course, threatens the productivity of the session. These vexing but not uncommon circumstances have taught me that if "law and order" aren't soon imposed, the session can spiral downward, sometimes irretrievably.

Late arrivals

Equally urgent, many blame-ridden couples present to therapy precariously teetering on the very precipice of separation and divorce, a time when their poorly managed personal needs and the burgeoning emotions orbiting them have peaked and despair has mushroomed. These late-arriving couples often force me into a role similar to a first responder where I must quickly administer a heavy dose of encouragement, a reassurance that the couple's problems are remediable, even fixable, as is often the case. This consoling prospect of rehabilitating their relationship can strengthen the couple's commitment to the therapy process and the hard work it often requires. Moreover, this initial sanguine intervention can keep lit or reignite the flickering hope the couple must have had in deciding to come to therapy in the first place.

Insight born of emotional hurt

In lockstep with cognitive psychology, I've learned that helping fractured couples reevaluate their turmoil and suffering in neutralized, reframed terms can effectively mitigate the painful sting of their mutual blame campaign. It also breathes new meaning and even value into their struggles, making them more endurable and amenable to change.

For instance, proceeding empathically, I point out how keenly aware partners usually are of each other's personal strengths and weaknesses including their relationship "felonies and misdemeanors." Partners are thus singularly well-positioned to make good or bad use of this trove of personal data. Then, with a buoyant expectation of delivering helpful, eye-opening insight, I gently assert that it is the very nature of their intimate relationship to reveal or otherwise bring to the fore—though countless interactions—the developed and not-so-developed features of their personalities. Expectedly, when the not-so-developed traits surface—making their unwelcomed but inevitable appearance—it can be embarrassing, frustrating, and even painfully difficult, albeit also highly informative and therefore potentially valuable personal feedback—like a CAT scan of one's psyche.

Intimacy's job

Because it's sometimes difficult for clients to digest, I patiently nurture the point about intimacy's uncanny propensity for revealing the character strengths and weaknesses of its constituents. I go on to suggest this property of the intimate relationship can be viewed as part of its "job," a job not done as rigorously in our less complicated, casual relationships.

Now, while this concept percolates, I encourage partners to think about what their relationship may reveal about them, as I hint at, prompt, or otherwise coach them to consider the following possibility: Our emotional maturity, or more specifically, what I call "intimacy intelligence," is plainly and ongoingly revealed by the quality of our personal need management abilities, or lack of the same. I encourage partners to consider that blaming reflects questionable, if not low, intimacy intelligence as it is an instance of need mismanagement and therefore a retreat from the responsibilities that attend effective individual need management.

Toddler heaven

Surely, by defaulting to the easier, often reflexive option of blaming, labeling, or other fault-finding, partners are not effectively managing their needs. I go on to point out, unbeknownst to the blamer, that the tacit but still obvious inference is if the "blamee" were more accommodating—or even better, if they simply gratified the needs of the blamer—all would be well. The blamer would then be happy, in "toddler heaven," and unburdened of the adult-like task of effective need management (which includes compromising with one's partner). With this said, I ask couples, "Does this sound like effective need management? Does it seem like optimal mental health to you?"

As they ponder their answers, I encourage partners to consider this related idea: Imagine partners forever bending to each other's needs in a self-forfeiting way, devoid of the growth-spurring efforts involved in compromise, negotiation, and quid pro quo, the indispensable nutrients of a healthy balance of give and take that characterizes good personal need management—and good relationships, in general.

Most often, at this point in our work, couples are primed and eager to answer these questions, which they frequently do unequivocally and in short order. Their responses are usually fairly predictable: "No, it is not good personal need management nor good mental health." I promptly affirm their answers while adding this to the thinking mix: In effect, the partner doing the blaming is de facto placing the locus of control of their needs and feelings within the person of their partner—as though there had been a momentary personal "power outage" in the blamer.

In the heat of blame

In the next step, I find it very helpful to ask couples, "Do you think your tendency to blame each other—amplified by the heated emotions that often accompany your blaming—would be this strong were it not for the fact that each of you brings important personal needs to the other; in fact, very valid needs? And wouldn't you agree the sheer strength of your emotions accurately reflects this validity? So, given their legitimacy, don't your needs merit your best reasoning, your best problem-solving capabilities? Yet is this possible in an emotionally charged atmosphere of blame and accusation?"

To the rescue—effective personal need management

Moving boldly forward, my clinical aspiration is to fully awaken the couple to the counter-productivity and potentially inflammatory dysfunctionality of blaming each other. To the degree the couple and I team up to do this job well, formerly contentious partners are now positioned to ask themselves this obvious question: "Why do we blame one another when clearly each of us has a valid need?" "Aren't we then both entitled to one another's sensitive, respectful, understanding?" Now, with an agreed-upon goal to place a moratorium on blaming, the groundwork is laid for blaming's healthy substitute: effective personal need management.

Do you sometimes resort to blaming? And how would you assess your own need management skills?

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


R.N. Johansen, T.W. Gaffaney, (2021) Need Management Therapy, A New Science of Love, Intimacy and Relationships, Archway Publishing by Simon & Schuster, Bloomington, IN.

J. Gottman, (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail...and How You Can Make Yours Last. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York.

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