Self-Loathing and Responsibility: Your Partner Makes Mistakes Too
Do you shoulder all the blame in your relationship?
Posted November 27, 2011
Most people have a good sense of how to attribute responsibility for things that go wrong, recognizing when something is their fault, somebody else's fault, or no one's fault at all. But there are exceptions: I'm sure each of us knows someone who refuses to take responsibility for anything he or she does wrong, always shifting the blame to someone else. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, we have the self-loathing, people who feel a profound sense of inadequacy and lack of self-worth, who are often too eager to shoulder the blame for things that go wrong and very hesitant to blame others—especially those they care about, such as romantic partners.
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.
As much as the partners of the self-loathing may appreciate this at first—especially if their previous partners behaved the opposite way and blamed them for everything—after a while this may grow tiresome. On the surface, absorbing the blame for their partners' mistakes may fulfill some need for the self-loathing, but it will not make them pleasant to be around! No matter how strongly someone feels he or she deserves to shoulder blame for others, eventually it will breed resentment—especially, and ironically, if by doing this the self-loathing person starts to feel better about him- or herself.
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.
In the end, the tendency, desire, or impulse of the self-loathing to shoulder responsibility for their partners is another aspect of the mistaken ideal of selfless love. Absorbing blame seems to express care and concern for their partners, but in reality it focuses on the self-loathing and their own issues with self-worth. As sincere as their motivations for this are, in the end it is about them, making them feel better about themselves and their role in their relationships—which would be fine if it did not come at the expense of denying their partners the equal respect they are owed.
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.