Is your ex an expert in blaming you for everything under the sun? Are you getting pretty good at turning it around and putting all the blame at her door? How much time have you spent in lawyers’ offices, not negotiating, not figuring out how to solve problems, but just hurling insults at each other? Can you imagine how much time and money you would save if you could just stop trying to prove who is right and start making decisions?
I grew up in a forest, and when we could gather enough kids from nearby houses, one of our favorite games was “War.” Each team would create a fort behind a fallen tree or a good rock, and then we’d spend a long time gathering pinecones. The war itself was always a fast and furious volley of pinecones; then a truce had to be called while each side gathered more ammunition. When I got to be ten or so, I stopped playing the game. The whole thing was kind of stupid. Nobody ever won. And the better you were at the game, the more accurate you were at hitting the enemy’s fort, the more ammunition you gave them for shooting back at you.
Playing the Blame Game
As a mediator and divorce coach, I see reenactments of War over and over again in my office. I call it the Blame Game, and it sounds like this:
“You never wanted to spend time with the children when we were married.”
“I was working full time so that you could go out with your friends and get your pedicures.”
“You’re so negative!”
“You never gave me anything to be positive about!”
“You never even tried to make the marriage work!”
“Why would I want to?!”
People exaggerate when they’re playing the Blame Game. They make things up. They flat out lie. It can be extraordinarily difficult to refrain from defending yourself or correcting the facts. This is what needs to happen though if you want the Blame Game to stop. Like War, the Blame Game requires two people to play. And if you want the other person to stop throwing blame at you, you have to stop giving them more ammunition.
How To Stop Playing the Blame Game
This is TOUGH. It requires calm, flexibility, and self-discipline, qualities which tend to be in short supply when people are going through the turbulence of a divorce. When you can get out of the Blame Game, though, you can save time, money, and angst. You can make rational decisions, get your divorce done, and move on with your life. Here’s how to leave the Blame Game behind:
1. Get calm.
You can try exercise, getting support from friends, laughing out loud, and taking nice long walks in the woods, but the best way to get calm and stay that way is to start a regular practice of meditation. You’ll need to take a class to get started and to stay on the path. Yes, it’s airy-fairy, woo-woo, etc. However, it’s also an excellent way to meet calm, self-aware women. I’m just saying…
Where should you go to learn meditation? If you’d prefer to stay away from the spiritual side, a quick Google search should bring up Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class near you.
If on the other hand, you’d like to learn more about ways to live a meaningful, spiritual life while you’re learning meditation, you can try a Zen Buddhist Center or a yoga meditation class through your local recreation center. For example, the Art of Living Foundation promotes yoga meditation world-wide.
2. Take responsibility for your own behavior and let go of trying to get your ex to take responsibility for hers.
Don’t think of taking responsibility as a weakness, think of it as an assertive way of calming your ex down and helping her to get back to the topic at hand. Taking responsibility looks like this:
Blame: “You never wanted to spend time with the children when we were married.”
Response: “You’re right that I didn’t spend enough time with them. That was a big mistake, and one I deeply regret. I know they wished for more of my time, and that when I worked for so many hours, it caused you an additional burden. It’s my intention not to continue to make this mistake as we move forward, to give the kids more of my time and build my relationship with them, and to give you a break so that you can get things done and have a life outside of child-care.”
Blame: “You’re so negative!”
Response: “That WAS a negative comment. I apologize. Let me try to frame my last statement more positively.”
Blame: “You never even tried to make the marriage work.”
Response: “Looking back, I can see that there were many points where, if I’d only done something different, I could have improved our relationship. I wish I’d known then what I know now. And I’m very sorry for the hurt that I’ve caused you.”
Please note a few things that each of these comments has in common: the statement that the other party is right or justified in their opinion, and the expression of regret for past mistakes. Aren’t these the two things you most wish you would hear from your ex? The same is true on the other side.
It’s rare in any situation to hear a true apology. This makes it a truly powerful thing to do, and I’ve seen over and over again its effectiveness in stopping the Blame Game in its tracks. Ken Blanchard, the author of The One Minute Manager, has written a great book with co-author Margret McBride called The One Minute Apology. This is a MUST READ for everyone, in my humble opinion, but especially for people who are going through a divorce or other conflict.
Now, I know you’d like to help your ex to become more enlightened, but unfortunately, all of your efforts are doomed to failure. You are the very last person on the planet to be able to help your ex to change, and any efforts on this behalf will only lead to another battle in the Blame Game. Accept her for what she is: vulnerable, scared, caught in the traps of the Blame Game without the calm, flexibility, and self-discipline to get out of it. She will never take responsibility for her behavior. She will never agree to your version of reality. You’re going to have to do all of the heavy lifting yourself, with no expectation of change on the other side, including no recognition of your efforts. I know the child in you is screaming that that’s not fair. Part of being a grownup is looking at the effect of your behavior on your long-term goals and acting accordingly. Life isn’t fair.
3. Edit, edit, edit
There are times when an apology is inappropriate because there is no truth at all to the version of reality your ex is presenting. In those cases, the best responses simply ignore the blame. It’s worse than useless to defend yourself or argue the point or fling back more of the same6. It just gives her more ammunition! You may have to state the truth, but be very careful to do it in a non-blame laden way.
In the heat of the moment, staying calm and avoiding your automatic defensive reaction is extremely difficult, which is why it’s sometimes a good idea to communicate in writing by text or email. Try this exercise: print out an upsetting email from your ex, and use a black marker to erase all the blame coming your way. Wait a day. Read it again. Respond just to the relevant information or question. Don’t push the Send button! Print out your response. Use that black marker again. Hone it down! No emotional language. No counter-attacks. You might have a third party look at it too, asking them to point out anything that might make your ex feel defensive. Now that your response has absolutely no blame in it go the extra mile and add empathy for your ex’s feelings and some polite friendliness, even if you’re not feeling it. Have that third party check it again, watching for what might be interpreted as sarcasm. Don’t push send until you’re sure there is no ammo in your reply.
Here’s what some Stop-The-Blame-Game email exchanges might look like:
Blame: You’ve taken away everything from me, and now you want to take away Christmas, too! You never did anything to help with Christmas while we were married. It’s my holiday.
Response: I understand that the thought of spending the holiday without the kids is upsetting to you. Here’s my proposal: You could do Xmas Eve and morning with them just like always, then I could take them Christmas day in the afternoon to do a Christmas Eve-like celebration at my house, with a Second Christmas morning the next day. We could coordinate the gifts, so that we aren’t spoiling the kids and to give you some help with the shopping and wrapping. Let me know what you think.
Blame: I know you are sleeping with that woman! Don’t try to tell me she’s just a friend. And no way are you going to introduce her to my children. I’m their mother!
Response: I hear that you feel hurt and angry about my relationship with Angela. For the record, Angela has a very nice boyfriend named Bill, whom the children also met at my barbecue. Let’s put a paragraph in our parenting plan about introducing significant others to the children. We can talk about it at our next meeting with the mediator.
For help with this, and some great examples, check out Bill Eddy’s book, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks, and Social Media Meltdowns.
Knowing How to Stop Blaming Isn’t the Same as Doing
Knowing how to stop the blaming is not the same as actually doing it. Give yourself some grace. This stuff is hard! If you’re human, you will make mistakes. You will react immediately when you should have taken some time to get calm. You will defend yourself. You will try one more time to get your ex to acknowledge your version of reality or let go of hers.
When you find yourself blaming your ex for triggering you and making you make these mistakes, though, take a deep breath. What did you say or do that gave her the ammo? Your ex may never stop playing the game. That’s okay. You don’t have to take it in. You don’t have to believe it. And you don’t have to play the game.
Beth Proudfoot, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and divorce coach in San Jose, CA.
- You should review and change your will when you go through major life transformations, and divorce is one of the most disruptive life transitions. By updating your will you are avoiding future problems with loved ones over your estate and ensuring your wishes are carried out exactly as you intended.…