Thursday, November 21, 2013

How to cope when you get blamed for everything

How do you cope when your partner blames you for just about every problem that exists in your relationship?  This is something I've struggled with in my marriage, although my husband and I have made a lot of improvements in the way we interact.  I will start with an admission: I probably sometimes feel like my husband blames me for "everything" even when he doesn't.  I have become sensitive to him blaming me.  That means I am more likely to notice when he blames me for something and unlikely to notice the times he doesn't blame me or when he accepts responsibility himself.  Because I'm sensitive to him blaming me I almost immediately become defensive when it happens.  This has the unfortunate effect of making it harder for me to recognize when I am truly at fault.  This is, of course, something that only becomes apparent to me in hindsight; I rarely recognize it when my husband and I are in the middle of a heated disagreement. 

So I admit there are things I need to work on.  This doesn't obscure the fact that my husband has a very real habit of blaming me when problems arise in our marriage.  This makes it extremely difficult to resolve conflict in any meaningful or lasting way.  We therefore find oursleves confronted with the same problems again and again and we continue to respond to them in the same problematic manner.

Is there a right way to cope with this?  It's exceedingly frustrating.  It has at times made me feel hopeless about the possibility of ever solving problems in my marriage.  I will share how I've tried to deal with the situation in the hope that someone else with a similar problem might find it helpful.  I would also appreciate any suggestions or feedback for how to improve. 

It does not take long before constant blame begins to erode self confidence.  This is something I've been determined to prevent.  It took years for me to learn to love myself.  My self confidence was hard won; I will never allow anyone to take it away.  I protect my self esteem by refusing to accept blame for anything that isn't truly my fault.  I quite literally say to my husband, "I refuse to accept blame for this.  It isn't my fault."  The flip side is that I have to work really hard to accept responsibility when I am at fault, to apologize when I behave unkindly, and to admit when I've done something wrong (oh how I hate admitting I'm wrong).  I inevitably screw this up, at least initially.  Fortunately, I've discovered I can get more than one try.  If I behave terribly during an argument (I do this a lot more than I care to admit) I can go back an hour, two hours, or even a day later and say I'm sorry. 

Which brings me to my next point.  I have no objection to going to bed angry.  Arguing is only productive if it leads to resolving the conflict.  If an argument is going in circles, if it turns into a blame game, or if it simply becomes obvious that the problem is too complex to solve in one night then walk away.  Going to bed angry is better than fighting all night yet accomplishing nothing.  Get some rest.  You may still be angry in the morning but probably less angry than you were before.

The purpose of an argument, disagreement, or other conflict is as follows: clearly identify the problem (or the problem caused by a particular behavior, comment, etc.); accept responsibility and/or apologize as appropriate; solve the problem or resolve the conflict (this can sometimes take the form of identifying what can be done differently in the future to prevent the same thing from happening again).  When it seems like my husband is stuck on blaming me I point out that blaming each other damages our relationship and does nothing to fix the problem.  The first time I pointed this out my husband's response was to continue blaming me.  A day or two later we had a serious talk.  I pointed out to my husband that when conflicts arise in our marriage we have no effective way to resolve them.  We argue and point fingers but we never accomplish anything.  When we found ourselves arguing about the same issue a few weeks later I pointed out that this was the same argument we'd had a few weeks earlier but had been unable to resolve.  And when the same problem inevitably came up again a few weeks after that I pointed it out again.  And again.  And again.  Over and over again I told my husband how concerned I was about our marriage.  When he tried to blame me I lamented how focused he was on "winning" the argument or on being "right."  "If one of us wins that means one of us loses," I told him.  "If one of us loses the relationship loses.  I don't want to lose our marriage." 

I've also told my husband it really bothers me when I try to discuss a problem or concern and his immediate response is to say it's my fault.  Every time he does this I point it out.  "Stop blaming me," I tell him.  "I want us to talk about the problem."  If he continues to blame me I get up and leave the room.  That's my version of how it goes.  His version goes like this: "You get to say everything you want to say.  Then when I try to say something you won't listen.  You want to complain about me but then I can't complain about you."  It's true that I don't like to be criticized.  It's true that I sometimes walk away when he's saying things about me I don't like to hear.  Usually I take some time, think about it, and come back to talk about it later.  So he has a point.  My problem, however, is when I bring up something he's done that bothers me and he responds with a litany of things I do that bother him.  "If you have a concern you are free to bring it up later," I say.  "Right now, I want to talk about [the initial problem]."

So that is where we are.  Things have gotten better.  We're both starting to realize there are things about one another we are going to have to learn to accept.  For me, I am very slowly learning that it is sometimes better to go along with certain situations I don't like simply because it makes my husband happy.  I am trying to decide which of these situations I am willing to go along with.  There are some things I am unwilling to abide.  I am still figuring out where to draw the line.  It is hard to know when to put my foot down and when to give in.  The fact that my husband and I are both very strong willed makes it more difficult.  Neither of us are inclined to back down from something we believe in.  We are both bull-headed and hell bent on doing things our own way.  We both have a fierce desire to be right.  We both have difficulty admitting we're wrong. 

To a certain degree I suppose this is what marriage is about: two people finding a way to live together peacefully in a way that makes them both happy. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Listening well

I have been accused at times of not being a good listener.  This is ironic because probably 50 to 60% of what I do for a living requires good listening.  In college we called it active listening.  Active listening is basically listening in such a way that the speaker feels heard, validated, and understood.  This comes quite naturally to some people.  These are often the people we feel comfortable going to for advice or for comfort.  For other people, active listening is more difficult; it is a skill they have to develop with practice. 

I probably fall into the latter category.  Naturally, I'm not the best listener.  I don't think I realized this when I decided to become a therapist.  If I had, I might have chosen a different career path.  Anyway, at some point early in my career I began to notice that listening was a struggle for me.  Even now, after years of consciously honing my active listening skills, it still takes a significant amount of effort.  I constantly have to remind myself to pay attention, to make eye contact, and to refrain from interrupting.  I regularly forget to validate a person's perspective before suggesting another way to look at things.  I frequently have to quiet the running commentary in my mind so that I can fully attend to what a patient is saying.  All of this is in addition to reigning in my overwhelming impulse to blurt out every response the moment I think it.  (Self censorship is another skill that doesn't come naturally to me.  I've gotten a lot better at it over the years though).

Because listening demands so much of my focus and concentration it also requires a lot of energy.  Talking to people all day may not seem like it would be exhausting but it really can be, at least for me.  When my husband and I first got married he used to call me as soon as I got off of work.  He always wanted to talk about some problem he wanted to solve or to ask my opinion about some decision he needed to make.  It felt overwhelming to me and it led to a lot of stupid arguments.  Eventually I had to ask him to stop calling me right after work.  I simply didn't have the energy right then for the kind of conversations he wanted to have. 

Fortunately my husband was willing to do this so it wasn't a big deal.  What's been a bigger problem for me is that I never get re-invigorated after working all day.  By the time my husband and I get home in the evening I just want to read or watch something online.  Like most normal people, my husband wants to tell me about his day.  This is perfectly reasonable and yet it is such a struggle for me to listen.  This is especially true if he starts a conversation when I'm in the middle of looking at something else.  My inclination is to keep doing what I'm doing.  Normally, I'd set aside this inclination, stop what I'm doing, and have a conversation with my husband.  When I'm tired, however, I don't have the energy to overcome my natural tendencies.  It takes will power to overcome an urge and will power takes energy. 

Does anyone else have this kind of problem?  Do you have any suggestions for overcoming it?     

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Winter approaches...

They say it's going to be a cold winter this year.  I became a bit worried over the summer when I realized it just didn't get as hot as it usually does.  A mild summer usually means a cold winter.  I suppose a cold winter is a given in some places.  I, however, live in Virginia.  When it comes to weather, the only thing that's a given in Virginia is that July and August will be hot and humid.  Everything else is a toss up. 

In the summer, I manage to forget the toll winter takes on me.  I grow accustomed to feeling comfortably warm when I leave my house each morning.  I don't have to plan my wardrobe around the official weather report; short sleeves and open toed shoes are good every day of the week.  Yes, it gets hot outside - sometimes unbearably so - but I'm hardly ever forced to be outside against my will.  If it gets too hot I simply go inside.  It only takes a few minutes to cool down sitting in an air conditioned room.  And I adore the long days.  The sun begins to rise on my way to work and when I come home there are still hours of daylight remaining.

The first thing I notice as winter approaches is the days getting shorter.  It's gradual at first.  Then, Daylight Savings Time ends and suddenly the days aren't long enough.  Tonight when I leave the gym it will be dark outside for the first time in a long time.  That's when it seems official to me - summer is gone. 

Usually the temperature change creeps up on you too. In Virginia, it is not unusual to have 70 and 75 degree days through the middle of November.  We've even been known to have an occasional 80 degree day in December.  This year has been different though.  The colder temperatures raced in without warning, sweeping away the warm summer days in an instant.  This is yet another sign that this winter will be a cold one.

What is it about winter that affects me so?  At least I don't live somewhere like Norway or Alaska, where months pass without sunshine.  First, it's the cold.  My body betrays me when it's cold outside.  My skin becomes red and irritated.  Eventually, it starts to crack.  My poor hands ends up bleeding several times a day by the time it starts to get warmer.  I wear gloves when I go outside, but still my hands crack and bleed.  They itch and they hurt.  While I prefer warm weather to cold, I am no fan of being hot.  I sweat a lot when the temperature rises.  But cooling down when overheated is much easier than warming up when I get too cold.  Some cold water on my face and a few minutes in front of the fan cools me down pretty effectively.  Something about cold though...I've heard people say it gets into your bones.  I don't know if that's true but it certainly feels like it.  When I get cold, it takes forever to get warm again.  I can spend ten minutes in a hot bath shivering before I start to feel even a little bit warm.  I can bury myself beneath a mound of blankets - give me fifteen or twenty minutes and I'll start to warm up.  (But then I have to stay under the blankets to stay warm).  And in the car...I have a particular problem with that.  I blast the heat to stop shivering.  Unfortunately, the heat on my face (or even on my feet) is so pleasant I start to get drowsy.  I turn the heat off until I start to get cold again; I turn it back on and I start to get drowsy.  Off on, off on, warm cold, warm cold...I hate it.

So the cold is one thing.  The other is darkness.  I get excited after the winter solstice because the days start to get longer.  By January, I start checking the Weather Channel website to see what time the sun sets.  Each day it sets about a minute later than the day before.  I eagerly anticipate the long, warm summer days.

I will challenge myself to find things to embrace about the winter months this year.  It's better than sulking, anyway.

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