Why Do We Blame Others and at What Cost?

Blaming others is always easier than turning a critical eye on ourselves. But what's the cost to our relationships and our society?

Unhappy with what’s going on in Washington? Blame someone. Unhappy at work? Blame someone. Angry at your partner or kids? Blame someone. And now, thanks to social media, you can blame and shame them publicly. There’s so much blaming going on, you have to wonder if anyone takes responsibility for anything anymore. Has it always been like this? And if we think everyone else is to blame, what does that mean for our future?

For some answers, I turned to Anna Aslanian, the founder and director of My Therapy Corner, She's part of The Gottman Institute that's been researching this topic for years.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CODY BROADWAY: Is blaming an issue?

ANNA ASLANIAN: Yes, yes. So, as you can imagine, none of us are born communicating in the perfect way. We all have different models of where we learn how to communicate. Oftentimes they're not the best. So, blaming comes up a lot with couples, and with individuals as well. Blaming their partner for, you know, if you change, then I'll change. If you do this, then I'll do it that way. The reason I'm doing this is that you're X, Y, and Z. So that comes up a lot. There is really good research that shows that blaming is criticism, and we don't respond well to criticism... Complaining is good because it actually helps us learn how to love our partner better if we know what’s upsetting them. But there's a difference between complaining and criticizing and blaming is criticism.

BROADWAY: We aren’t born blaming, so where does it start?

ASLANIAN: It's sort of like the tip of the iceberg, and what's underneath is just uncomfortable emotions. Whether there are thoughts of, I did something wrong, or I'm being accused of something or pain. So, the blame is just an easy way that comes up very automatically for all of us pretty much to release that uncomfortable distress. So, it's just like a, boom, I’m blaming, and that makes me at the moment feel better. Many people don't think when they do, it's just an automatic response that can happen. We feel attacked somehow, and we want to blame back.

BROADWAY: You've mentioned research and studies. What are some of the research insights you can talk about?

ASLANIAN: John Gottman has done the research for years as far as what makes relationships work and what doesn't. And what he found and how he did it is just, you know, watching the couples have conflict discussions and going through all the process of the research that comes with it. What he found is that there are four predictors of divorce or of a relationship not working out if they're not married. One of them is criticism. So, the couples who tend to criticize a lot are on their way to a bad place in the relationship right now. I think it's important to mention that if you are criticizing, you're not doomed, your relationship is not doomed — It's just being aware of it and learning what to do instead. So, with criticism sentences that start with, “you always, you never do this, you are so lazy,” you are blaming. We can do the antidotes of that. So instead of criticizing you just do what he calls the gentle startup. Research shows that the first three minutes of how you actually start a conflict discussion will predict how you will end and also how the relationship will go.

BROADWAY: So what about on the individual level. Why am I more willing to blame than take accountability for my own actions? 

ASLANIAN: That’s part of the discomfort level. “I'm late, I'm feeling stressed.” So, what's the feeling underneath all of that? I'm assuming that you might be feeling stressed out. You might be feeling anxious about being late, possibly not performing well, or what does the person think about me now? When we blame, it gives us a false sense of control and control is something that we all need to feel less anxious, but of course, there are things outside of our control as well. It's a quick release that makes us feel good. I don't want to make it sound easy to take accountability and to be vulnerable in that way, it's difficult. But if we can learn to communicate in this way, we can also learn to have more empathy for ourselves in others.

BROADWAY: Do you see leaders and politicians playing the blame game versus taking accountability?

ASLANIAN: Yeah, it’s important to remember that leaders are also people. We should to some extent have higher standards for how they should lead. It's good for them to take accountability and to role model what that looks like. Like I said, most of us aren’t born with all these communication skills. We learn this along the way from our parents, and peers. It's important, I think, for everybody to learn the skills to communicate better. Even if our leaders are not taking responsibility or your partner or your boss or whoever, can we do our part? I think that could have this domino effect where we each communicate in a better way and then we roll that for our kids and then just kind of spreads.

BROADWAY: What do you want people to get out of this story?

ASLANIAN: I think the most important piece from this story is regardless, if you've been blaming, not taking responsibility for yourself and your individual life, there is healing. It's very much possible. It's not easy work, but it's very possible. It's a learning process. It's lots of trial and error and but it's worth it. So, if you are struggling, whether it's in your relationship or individually there are some things that you can do. What's in your control, what's not in your control? What's in your control is asking for help. What's in your control is reaching out and learning better skills to communicate, to work your empathy, to work on taking accountability. Instead of criticism and blaming to be less defensive. All of those things can be learned.