Self-Loathing and Responsibility: Your Partner Makes Mistakes Too

Do you shoulder all the blame in your relationship?

Posted Nov 27, 2011

Why do they do this? Perhaps they want to save their partners the pain and discomfort of being held responsible for mistakes. Perhaps they want to maintain an idealized image of their partners, and to this end they rationalize why everything is their own fault instead. Perhaps they simply believe that everything that goes wrong truly is their fault, even if they don't know how, which is in line with their feelings of inadequacy: "since I always screw things up, I must have caused this somehow." Or perhaps it helps to redeem them from whatever guilt or anxiety causes their feelings of inadequacy, helping to restore a little of their self-worth by taking pain away from others.

But more important, their partners will not feel truly involved in the relationship if they are not held responsible for their part in it, including both the things that go well and the things that go badly. Being relieved of responsibility and blame occasionally might feel good, but if a person is never held responsible for his or her actions, it becomes insulting and demeaning: it means that person is not being taken seriously. It is a matter of basic respect that people be held responsible for their actions, receiving praise as well as blame when appropriate. When we don't hold our partners responsible we treat them like children or animals, and not as the adults they are.

In her book Creating the Kingdom of Ends, philosopher Christine Korsgaard explains the importance of holding people responsible for their actions, drawing from the views of Aristotle and Kant:

To hold someone responsible is to regard her as a person—that is to say, as a free and equal person, capable of acting both rationally and morally. It is therefore to regard her as someone with whom you can enter the kind of relation that is possible only among free and equal rational people: a relation of reciprocity. When you hold someone responsible... you are prepared to accept promises, offer confidences, exchange vows, cooperate on a project, enter a social contract, have a conversation, make love, be friends, or get married. You are willing to deal with her on the basis of the expectation that each of you will act from a certain view of the other: that you each have your reasons which are to be respected, and your ends which are to be valued. (p.189-190)

If the self-loathing do not hold their partners responsible of their actions, they are not treating them as true partners—that is, as equals in the relationship. Self-loathing people may sincerely believe that they are relieving their partners of a burden by absorbing blame and fault, but their partners deserve to be held accountable for their own mistakes. They don't want to be coddled or regarded as too fragile to carry responsibility themselves (like a child). Furthermore, only if the partners are held responsible for their actions can they feel truly comfortable holding the self-loathers responsible for their mistakes as well, in the spirit of true reciprocity.

By refusing to hold their partners accountable for their actions, the self-loathing fail to find the appropriate balance between care and respect that is necessary in all relationships, romantic or otherwise. (Indeed, Korsgaard references both attitudes in the last sentence in the quoted passage above.) Shielding your loved one from blame may be motivated by care, but it fails to show the respect that he or she deserves, both as a person and as a partner in a relationship. And if the self-loathing person does not find this balance, he or she will truly have only one person to blame for the end of the relationship!


For a list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing (and other topics), see here.

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