BLAME – What is it really about? I get aggravated when a news story breaks and the first minutes concern themselves with who is to blame rather than what happened and what’s being done in response.
Assigning blame is a lot of fun in murder mysteries, WhoDunnits, and so forth; however, in real life, I thought blame served next to no useful purpose whatsoever. I got to thinking about how I steer well clear of the word and concept in mediation, yet I am continually pulled towards it as if by my ill-aligned car (for which I blame my mechanic).
There is a lot wrong with blame. It usually lacks compassion, is rich in judgment, and is packed with hostility and animosity. If blame were food, it would be an organ meat.
Yet blame we do. So rather than blaming blame, I took my own advice and got curious about it.
What is the purpose of blame?
I. Order and Safety
I think blaming might serve a function by helping us organize chaos and try to make sense of a situation that challenges our concept of order, the social compact, expectation and entitlement. When terrorists attack, we first want to know who is responsible. Where did the violence come from? Who is our enemy? Is more violence coming for which we must stand at the ready? We are designed to identify danger with precision. This is derived from that primitive, survival brain that first wants to know the “threat” so it can respond and protect us accordingly.
Blame is called upon when something defies our understanding of the order of things. How do we regain a sense of control? Blame! Distinguish the incident and sort out who did wrong rather than embracing a disturbing sense of general wrongness and powerlessness – that things just happen as a result of other things that happened. That our control is often eclipsed and mostly illusory.
II. Realigning with the Other and Closing a Distance
In divorce, the injured party often wants to have a [perceived] wrong acknowledged by the wrongdoer. Assigning fault, and getting consensus on it, rebuilds a shared narrative that was ruptured by the wrongdoing. This may be necessary to help the injured party regain her footing. A marital injury often has two parts – the harm from the act itself, and then the alienation from the spouse-transgressor. Blaming can be an invitation to connect – to step into the same reality by accepting the same analysis of the situation: you cheated on me and hurt me, which ended our marriage and disadvantaged my future security. Often there is a lot of blame to go around: you punished my job loss and career change by withholding sex for the last 11 years; you rejected me – only after your wrong did mine take place.
The good news is, the more blame, the more opportunity for repair.
Blame seeks acknowledgment and consideration. When we react to blame by dismissing, diminishing or rejecting it, we tend to increase its hold. In divorce, blame seeks a process that requires the other party’s participation. It does not mean the other must accept or receive the blamer’s version of events, only make room for it as the other’s current reality and evidence of his or her current grappling to make sense of the situation. When one spouse refuses to hear the experience of the other, to try to understand how it affected her well being, it can be another injury, another abandonment. But this one is avoidable. In the controlled environment of mediation, the blame can be expressed and tolerated. Once it’s seen, invited in and regarded, it often can recede if not resolve. This benefits both parties – the blamer and blamee. Blame addressed can be blame contained. Unidentified, it bleeds into every other issue – from alimony to equitable distribution to child custody.
III. Reform Reality to Meet Expectations and Values
Blame seeks to make things fair, to equalize or restore/heal what was lost. To reorganize what has happened into an established and manageable sense of the world. The breach took something from me; how can it be restored in some way, even a symbolic way? Even when the root of the “wrong” can’t be healed (the affair was had, the savings lost), the collateral damage often can be, by first allowing space for the other to relay his experience, simply to hear it without pushing it away.