Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Blame-Shifting Is a Form of Verbal Abuse

Why the pattern is hard to see and even harder to break.

Key points

  • An imbalance of power in a relationship provides the foundation for all forms of verbal abuse.
  • Blame-shifting not only elevates the abuser but rationalizes his or her unwillingness to take responsibility.
  • Blame-shifting in adult relationships effectively strips the target of whatever agency he or she had.
  • When parents shift blame, children internalize what's said to them as immutable truths.

“Whenever we disagreed on anything, much less argued, it was impossible to move forward. I honestly didn’t see what was going on until long after because I wrongly believed he wanted what I wanted. But, in hindsight, our interactions were stuck on a giant hamster wheel or tape loop, like some personal version of the movie Groundhog Day. No matter where we started, it would usually end up being my fault. And if I weren’t blamed, he was off the hook. I caught him in a lie—it was, at the beginning and not an important one. He said, ‘If you’d asked the right question, I would have answered you.’ I didn’t have words to describe it then but I do now. The pattern was remarkably hard to see at the time.”

This is a story about blame-shifting and verbal abuse. All verbal abuse is about power and control. Verbal abuse can be a one-off in a relationship that is relatively healthy—yes, people sometimes lose it—but it dominates in relationships that are defined by an imbalance of power. The victim of the abuse is always the less powerful person in the relationship, and the person with power uses verbally abusive behaviors to maintain control. The distribution of power may be based on real-world facts—when the relationship isn’t between equals like that of a parent and a child, a teacher and student, a coach and a mentee, or a boss and an employee, for example. But it also happens in the context of relationships that appear to be, on the surface at least, between peers. In these relationships, the imbalance may be based on finances (one person needs the other’s resources), emotional connection or investment (one person is more committed to the relationship or more emotionally dependent in significant ways) or negative emotion (the powerless person is afraid of the empowered one or is ashamed to go public about being abused).

One form of verbal abuse that’s under-discussed is blame-shifting, which serves a number of functions. Its most obvious use is to deflect attention and any relevant discussion from one person to the other, this maintains the control that the blame-shifter wants.

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Using deflection to maintain control (and assert innocence)

In intimate relationships, the abuser uses what he or she knows about you to gain a home-court advantage. If, for example, you tend to shy away from confrontations or backing down is your first line of defense, deflection will the first tool the blame-shifter reaches for because it’s highly effective. The tactic often sounds like this: ”If you weren’t so angry all of the time, I wouldn’t have had to lie.” In the moment, because you are indeed angry, this may actually sound reasonable and you might, just might, feel awful about yourself, which is the point.

Sometimes, blame-shifting merges with gaslighting, a manipulation aimed at having you doubt whether what you thought happened actually did happen, or any other tactic that makes you doubt your perceptions. Let’s say that the disagreement involves someone not making good on something he or she promised to do; the blame-shift here might be: “Because you’re never satisfied with anything I do, I didn’t see the point of trying.” Again, the blame-shifter frames what he or she didn’t do as being a reflection of your actions. If he or she is right about your worrying about being a complainer, it is right on the money,

Photograph by Eric Ward on Unsplash / Copyright-free
Source: Photograph by Eric Ward on Unsplash / Copyright-free

Down the rabbit hole and other manipulations

The blame-shifter is often able to maintain control because threats work when there’s an imbalance of power. When your intimate turns to you and says, “Well, if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just leave?," this is yet another tactic of deflection. Whatever complaint you might have voiced is stripped of its legitimacy and agency because the underlying message is that you’re just a whiner who likes whining; the threat makes you singularly alert and panicked. The next words out of your mouth will likely be: “But I don’t want to leave.” This is the bell signaling that the game is over.

Blame-shifting is subtle, which is why it works so well

Unlike more overt forms of verbal abuse like name-calling, expressing contempt, or derision, blame-shifting gets its energy from information the abuser has about you; usually, the manipulation hinges on your typical behavior (avoiding conflict or being a peacemaker) or something you believe is true about yourself (such as being insecure or anxious). Instead of admitting that he or she lied or deliberately misled you, the abuser softens his or her face and says, “I was trying to spare you pain because I know you’re overly sensitive and emotional.” Note how that statement elevates the abuser, on the one hand, and puts you down, on the other. It’s a verbal sleight-of-hand but hardly magic.

Seeing blame-shifting in context

When parents shift blame onto a child, it’s very damaging since the child absorbs whatever is said as truth; it reframes the parent’s action as being the child’s fault: “If you listened to me in the first place, I wouldn’t have to yell.” Or, “If you were a good child, I wouldn’t have to punish you.” This kind of abuse is closely allied to scapegoating.

In adult-on-adult relationships, it usually cements the status quo and gives energy to toxic ways of relating. It’s only when the target begins to see blame-shifting as a poisonous and controlling behavior that, just like in a fairy tale, the spell is broken.

Copyright ©2021 by Peg Streep

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

More from Peg Streep
More from Psychology Today