How to Avoid the Marriage Blame Game

In my time working with couples, I’ve observed what tends to be the key difference between marriages that are able to thrive and those that fail to do so. Yes, there are certainly many factors that go into a successful marriage. Ultimately, however, it usually comes down to whether each individual is able to accept their own part in whatever conflict exists or whether one can only see the other’s faults. I call this the “blame game”.

To illustrate how this blame game works and the keys to move beyond it, I’d like to present the example of Jim and Irene–a fictitious composite representing many couples with whom I’ve worked.  My hope is that this example provides some clues for all of us as we each deal with some variation of the blame game.

Meet Jim and Irene.

Jim and Irene sat at opposite ends of my couch, as far apart as possible. The tension between them so charged the room that I knew we were in for a rough ride even before this first session began. After some small talk, Irene dove right into the reason for their visit: “No matter what I do or how hard I try, it is never good enough for him. I’m sick of trying anything anymore.”

Jim quickly retorted, “Funny, I feel the same way.”

Sadly, Jim and Irene seemed to have only two things in common: Each believed their own negative behavior was a justified response to provocation by the other, and both expressed unhappiness with the marriage.

Jim and Irene each had important perspectives on their relationship, and what they described was actually a very common negative pattern of interaction. The details of that pattern are not nearly as important as the manner in which it was described to me, though.

Irene explained in detail what Jim was doing wrong in the marriage, while Jim described with equal competence just how Irene was failing him.

Have you ever experienced this spin cycle in your own relationships? It seems like you keep rehashing the same issues over and over. Yet, you get nowhere.

Of course, the basic issue here is that no one is listening. Frankly, neither one cares what the other is saying. Jim and Irene were demonstrating mastery of the “blame game.”

They were just getting warmed up with their finger pointing when I interrupted  them with a challenge: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your spouse’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

As Christians, Jim and Irene recognized this slightly altered version of Matthew 7:3-5. I let them know that our emphasis, if their marriage is to become what God intends it to be, should be to work on their individual planks while saving their partner’s sawdust for later.

Plank Warfare

Jim and Irene’s situation is not unique. We all have planks that limit our ability to see another person and circumstance the way God sees them. Sometimes these planks are leftover from hurts experienced at a young age. Other times they’ve developed as defense mechanisms from more recent trauma. These planks represent an accumulation of unmet needs and expectations. As these disappointments mount, the planks become more destructive. In many cases, marriage simply cannot survive sustained plank warfare.

These proverbial planks are harmful for at least three reasons:

  • Planks foster despair in situations where God could pronounce hope
  • Planks reflect obstacles where God offers opportunities
  • Planks make sure you continue blaming your spouse rather than looking within for change

Like cataracts, over time these planks become blinding. They hamper a couple’s ability to assess and take responsibility for their individual negative contributions to the deteriorating marriage. There must be a better way.

The Making of a Plank

How large is the plank in your eye? That is probably a difficult or even painful question for you. We are all inclined to underestimate our own limitations while overestimating those of others.

In a recent post, I described how the psychological term, Fundamental Attribution Error, helped me understand this deleterious phenomenon in my own family of origin. You can read that here.

With this in mind, here are five questions to help you be objective about the size of your own plank. Each question, except the last one, is designed to point you to some of the family-of-origin issues that become the planks in your eyes in marriage. The last one simply assesses selfishness. As you respond honestly to these questions, ask God to allow you to accept that plank at face value.

  1. If you could be miraculously healed from  your most troublesome personal flaw, which one would you choose?
  2. What relationship in your childhood or teenage years caused you the most pain? What similarities are there between how you handled the conflict then and how you deal with it in your marriage right now?
  3. What do you do when your spouse disappoints you?
  4. Who or what informed your current expectations about what your husband or wife should be doing if he/she really loved you?
  5. Last week, how much time did you spend praying for the well being of your spouse?

Planks are stressors on your marriage. And, they are progressively destructive as a result of dysfunctional family patterns that you mimic from your family of origin, unrealistic expectations that you pick up from popular culture, latent fears that keep you in a defensive posture, sparse time in meaningful conversation, and unrepentant pride.

Removing Your Plank

It takes time. But, as Jim and Irene reflected on these questions over several sessions, their postures gradually changed. While several transformations occurred in the relationship, Jim captured it best. “We are shaving our planks,” he said humorously.

There are no gimmicky tricks or painless solutions to protect a marriage from these marital stressors. But, you can have miracles if you pursue an unconditional commitment to place God’s will for your marriage as the point of focus.

We are all broken, and therefore neither you nor your spouse is perfect. Husbands and wives will inevitably detect the specks of sawdust in one another’s eyes. We can honor God with an atmosphere of grace in marriage, which will allow Him to shape us into His image.

But, God can only transform your marriage as both partners shift their focus inwardly and grace outwardly.

Ultimately, this isn’t just an answer for marital relationships. Planks can be obstacles in all your important relationships.

For all of your relationships, remember Jim and Irene.

How does this notion of planks apply to your own relationships whether marital or other?