The Blame and Shame Game

When working with couples, I often run into a repeating pattern of behavior I call

“The blame and shame game.” It goes something like this:

They came in initially because they were arguing too much—at least every other day, they reported—about money, sex and children. Maryanne was concerned that hundreds of dollars had gone missing over the past six months and John pled innocence, claiming that she was “trying to pin everything on him.” He, in turn, accused Maryanne of having a secret affair with her ex-husband, which she also denied. Accusations continued to be thrown. They both began yelling and pointing fingers at one another. They were blaming one another for various unrelated incidents from the past and upping the level of each other’s transgressions in rapid succession, overlapping their voices such that the volume increased so significantly no one voice could be heard.

This pattern seems to be prevalent among couples that have not had good parental modeling for problem-solving or conflict resolution. It is within this framework that winning supersedes resolution. The result is predictably that they both hop on this treadmill that takes them nowhere, except deeper and deeper pain.

The interventions to this cycle are multidimensional in nature. That is, they overlap; they work together. In Respect-Focused Therapy, the specific needs of each individual or couple supersedes any formulated model or technique. This approach rather suggests that all known evidenced-based and reliable techniques, etc. to a therapist be utilized as best serves the needs of each client’s situation.

For example, in the case sited above, I was deeply aware that I need to gently interrupt the pattern of “blame and shame,” but I also knew that such a pattern was deeply entrenched in their style of communication over the long span of their relationship as well as the pattern each had grown up experiencing with their respective parents. This could and would not be an easy fix; to assume so would be to disregard these two people who sat in front of me. For me to assist them in effectively, I had to first acknowledge and positively regard/respect their perspectives on how and why they communicated in the fashion they did.

By asking more questions about how each had grown up, I found out that competing and never losing face in the process was a highly held value in both homes. This being particularly true in John’s home, unfortunately also meant “win no mater what the cost.” This included attacking his wife with a charge of adultery, which later it was found out he didn’t believe, in order to cover his gambling addiction.

Respect needs to come from a place of authenticity and symmetrical balance to have any true validity..png

In order to get a foothold into any meaningful resolution, I had to openly state my awareness of how much raw pain they each endured every day and how much energy and stamina that must require.

Once it was established that I truly understood how exhausting and frustrating it was for both always needing to win and yet no one ever winning, then I was able to begin offering some tools such as active listening and non-violent communication to slowly break up the long-standing pattern. Eventually, with months of trust-building, we were able to reconsider and reevaluate the value of winning an argument vs. the value of resolving conflict.

RFT Book Cover


Respect-Focused Therapy (RFT) is a foundation on which all modalities and techniques used in therapy can be strongly grounded, in order to produce sound, effective outcomes. This approach offers clients the opportunity to gain experiential understanding of being respected, possibly for the first time, from the therapeutic relationship and then be able to heal old wounds by creating more respect for self and others in the therapeutic process.

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