Zen master Buddhist, Thic Nhat Hanh, writes:
When a plant does not grow well, you do not blame the plant. You look for the reasons that it is not doing well. You may need to do something differently: it may need feeding, or more water, or less sun – but you don’t blame the plant.
Yet, very often, if we have problems with our family, or with our partner, or with friends, we blame the person. Frequently, however, the blame has little positive outcome. It rarely results in the desired change in behaviour, or attitude, or belief and, more often, prevents the possibility of dialogue and discussion. At worst, a blaming culture in a relationship has a corrosive and destructive effect. We all know the feelings of frustration and resentment that arise when we feel misunderstood and unfairly blamed and we can become closed-off and angry.
The counsellors in Coupleworks often work with couples to learn the most effective ways to take care of their particular relationship so that it can ‘grow well’ and thrive. Sometimes a couple can get stuck in a culture of blame – and each partner needs to understand their own role in that dynamic and what they need to do differently. Why are they stuck with feeling that the other is not good enough or, somehow, should not be the way they are? Each needs to reflect on this anxiety and their urge to criticise and attack. How can each take responsibility for getting needs met with compassion and generosity, and what has to happen if they are both to make the choice to ‘tend’ and not diminish?
Of course we can be upset and distressed when our idea of what reality should be confronts a different reality understood by our partner. But a conflict in a relationship is a couple problem that needs both parties collaborating to resolve. Alienating one another prevents a shared creative thinking.
If a relationship is to flourish and deepen it needs to feel safe – and acceptance and understanding is fundamental. Acceptance does not mean approval, consent, permission, agreement, aiding, abetting or even liking what is. But it does require each partner seeing the other and accepting ‘That’s the way it is’ and ‘That’s the way they see it’.
As a therapist I am alert to when a couple begins to talk in absolutes: ‘You always…’, ‘You never…’ and when perceptions are filtered through ‘should’s, must’s, and ought’s. An insistence on wrong-doing, of being ‘right’ or wrong’, then requires a respectful exploration of value-systems, perceptions, and beliefs.
A challenge to our expectations can make us anxious and rigid and there is a danger that love can then become conditional: ‘I’ll love you if you are different’. The need to ‘walk a mile in your shoes’ to find understanding then becomes more critical than ever.