How many of us blame our job troubles, financial instability, broken relationships, or other negative life situation on our family, loved ones, or anyone else but ourselves? At some point we all do it. Unfortunately, there are those who never acknowledge that they can only blame others for so long before it’s obvious who is responsible for their current situation.
“One of the most destructive human pastimes is playing the blame game. It has been responsible for mass casualties of war, regrettable acts of road rage, and on a broad interpersonal level (social, familial and work-related), a considerable amount of human frustration and unhappiness. The blame game consists of blaming another person for an event or state of affairs thought to be undesirable, and persisting in it instead of proactively making changes that ameliorate the situation” (Cohen, 2012).
I think back on many different conversations that took place with my second husband after finding out about his ongoing affair and secret family with another woman. There are a few statements I want to dissect, all of which illustrate the thoughts above. Before I delve into the things he said to me, put yourself in my shoes for a minute – imagine the sense of betrayal I am feeling at this point. Imagine having your entire world turned upside down in a matter of seconds. Imagine what a situation like that does to someone with extreme anxiety, not to mention the depression that was lying in wait for the opportune moment to pounce. Now imagine listening to these words coming out of someone who had just been caught in his own web of lies and deceit:
“I never wanted any of this to happen. I believe she intentionally got pregnant so I would leave you. She tried to railroad my whole life, and has now ended up succeeding.”
First, he very clearly believed one of two things: 1) that he genuinely was her victim, or 2) that by making me believe he was her victim, I would have pity on him, forget it ever happened, and move on with our life together. I am honestly inclined to think that he believed both to be true to some extent, but his history of gas lighting clearly points to the latter as the belief with deeper roots in reality. Either way, he actually thought those words would help his case. Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne states, “Blame is an excellent defense mechanism. Whether you call it projection, denial, or displacement, blame helps you preserve your sense of self-esteem by avoiding awareness of your own flaw or failings” (2015). I sprang the news on him that I knew, so he went into defense mode. What better defense than to say it was all her fault? Never mind the fact that it obviously takes two to have an affair, to continue having an affair, and then to make a baby after two years of said affair. It’s not like she can intentionally (or even unintentionally) get pregnant without his help. Last time I checked, it takes more than eye contact to make a baby.
To railroad someone means “to force someone to do something before they have had enough time to decide whether or not they want to do it” (Railroad, 2019). I would argue, dear sweet ex-husband, that there is no such thing as railroading someone’s life when you’ve made the conscious decision to sleep with that person for years on end.
“I couldn’t trust her any longer after she told me she was on birth control and then got pregnant intentionally.”
First of all, birth control isn’t 100% effective. Condoms aren’t 100% effective. The only effective way to make sure someone who is not your wife does not get pregnant is to…I don’t know…may not sleep with someone who is not your wife? Just a suggestion.
Second, what a lovely use of projection, which “is a psychological defense mechanism in which individuals attribute characteristics they find unacceptable in themselves to another person” (GoodTherapy, 2016). Place yourself in my shoes again. I just found out that this man – a man I trusted with my whole heart – has been cheating on me for years. In his hurry to paint himself as the victim, he tries to earn pity by saying she betrayed his trust. Really? In that moment I found it unbelievable that he would seek to make me feel sorry for him by bringing up a term as volatile as “trust” in that moment. Especially after years of gas lighting me by making me feel crazy when I would question why he went somewhere or came home so late. It was all a big blame game so everyone was at fault except himself.
“She is a pathological liar. Don’t believe anything she tells you.”
Again with the projection. This statement came hot on the heels of me informing him that I had spoken with her before I confronted him. I had her side of the story, though he did not know this until I also had his side of the story. This might come as a surprise, but the only thing their stories had in common was the fact that the child was his. All other details (time frame, activities, etc.) were completely different. After lying to me for nearly our entire marriage, he expected me to disregard her side of the story because she makes things up. Apparently they were a match made in heaven.
“I hate who I am. But I am the way I am because my parents never wanted me.”
This was coming from a 51 year old man who left home when he was 17. After 34 years of making his own decisions, fighting in two wars, and moving to the other side of the world, he thought it was still acceptable to blame his parents for his low self-esteem. His rationale was as follows: “My parents had me late in life, they both worked and were never home, they didn’t spend time with me when they were home, and I had a rough child hood because of it.” He stated that this led to low self-esteem, which in turn caused him to behave in ways that he hated (including, but not limited to, his affair). After sharing this lengthy sob story with me, he asked me to move to a different state and start over with him. His goal was again to win my pity by blaming his parents for a childhood that apparently directly caused his infidelity. He even managed to squeeze out a few tears for effect.
He is a narcissist who has clearly perfected the skills necessary to play the blame game. That being said, “unlike other games, the more often you play the blame game, the more you lose. Learning to tell when you need to own up to your role in a bad situation will help you grow from your experiences, and ultimately help you achieve more fulfilling relationships” (Krauss Whitbourne, 2015). He sought control and blamelessness by pointing his finger at other people each step of the way.
“Please don’t tell our friends why we are really getting a divorce. I would like to save face as much as possible.”
In the end, he still wouldn’t be honest with some of our closest friend. He proceeded to tell them that our divorce came about because we simply “grew apart.” I did not provide the truth, though I still wonder if I made the right choice. He acted in a despicable way, but still wanted to come out of it clear of fault in the eyes of others. I chose not to tell the truth to several people because I didn’t see the point in ruining his reputation. Our life together was over, so it was time to focus on myself and not cause additional pain for either one of us. I can’t help feeling, though, that if he was truly sorry for his actions, he would have owned up to them before everyone. Let me give anyone reading this a piece of advice: if you ever hurt your significant other by choosing someone else over them, don’t make things worse by trying to pretend it never happened. It’s like spitting on someone after running over them with your car. Do the world a favor and take responsibility for your actions.
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy (this is a very emotional topic for me) talking about how someone else plays the blame game like a strategic chess match. However, I am not innocent of the blame game. Although I learned the value and freedom of forgiveness after that experience, I struggled (still struggle!) with a couple different things as a direct result. The first is that I habitually play the blame game with myself. Although my ex and his girlfriend were the individuals who chose to behave as they did, to this day I battle the idea that if I had just been a better wife, if I had just been a little less anxious or depressed, if I had just given a little more physically, he never would have sought comfort or passion in someone else’s arms. He even told me that the reason he looked elsewhere was because I wasn’t meeting his needs. That almost did me in. For someone who has an chronic issue with overthinking and taking things to heart, these were some of the worst words he could have said to me. I am one of those people “who blame themselves for everything, even when they’ve had nothing to do with an unfortunate outcome. This isn’t just false modesty or fishing for reassurance; some people do believe that they cause every bad thing all or most of the time” (Krauss Whitbourne, 2015). In much the same way that it takes two people to have a long affair and two people to make a baby within that affair, I also believe that it takes two people to let a marriage get to the place where one feels the need to find someone else. The rational part of me chides myself for believing that, but the emotional part of me will always believe it to some extent. This has bled into many different areas of my life and will probably be an ongoing internal battle. I take responsibility for too much, even when I am not at fault. Whether it’s healthy or not, that is part of who I am.
The second way that experience forever changed me is how I perceive my relationships with other people. Trust does not come easily, small things are blown out of proportion, and motives are misjudged. That’s all on me. I cannot say that I do those things or think those things because of my ex’s actions. His actions scarred me, yes, but they do not rule me unless I allow them to. I make the choice to not trust someone’s actions. I make the choice to blow something out of proportion. I make the choice to misjudge someone’s motives before I give them a chance to explain themselves. My own struggle with the blame game lies in my desire to blame past experiences for current and future responses to others. To say that I can’t trust someone new is no different than my ex saying that the way his parents treated him as a child caused him to shatter my heart. It’s just not true. By forgiving my ex on a daily or hourly basis, I am setting myself free of the excuse that he is to blame for any relationship issues since our divorce.
It’s hard to trust again, but trust I must. It’s hard to forgive him, but forgive him I must. It’s hard to forgive myself, but forgive myself I must. The game of life does not need to be synonymous with the blame game. Take responsibility for your own actions and hold others accountable for theirs. Pointing fingers unjustly serves no purpose in the end.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” – Mary Oliver
Cohen, Elliot. (2012). Stop Playing the Blame Game. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-would-aristotle-do/201207/stop-playing-the-blame-game
GoodTherapy. (2016). Projection. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/projection
Krauss Whitbourne, S. (2015). 5 Reasons We Play the Blame Game…But Rarely Win. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201509/5-reasons-we-play-the-blame-game
Railroad. (2019). From online Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/railroad_2