Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Conflict, Argument, and Who's to Blame

A few weeks ago my husband and I had an argument.  Things got kind of ugly and both of us ended up saying some not very nice things.  After taking a few hours to regroup, we sat down to talk about what happened.  I've mentioned before that my husband has a tendency to blame me when there's conflict in our relationship.  In this particular instance, I'd clearly said and done some things that were hurtful.  I was angry over what I felt were legitimate grievances but that didn't make my behavior okay.  (Unfortunately, this was a conclusion I reached only in hindsight).

So when my husband sat down to talk things out the first thing I did was apologize.  I admitted that my actions were inexcusable.  My husband immediately agreed.  He then proceeded to list a number of grievances he had with me.  He concluded by asserting that anything he said or did that was upsetting to me was simply a natural reaction to having to deal with my bad behavior.  He went on to say that if I would stop being so difficult to deal with then everything would be fine and we would get along perfectly.

I cannot completely capture how it feels to try to resolve a conflict with someone I love, to humble myself enough to admit I was wrong and to apologize for it, only to be told that I am the root of the problem.  The most immediate emotion is anger.  It feels like a slap in the face.  I become defensive, like I have to justify myself or somehow prove my intentions are good.  I feel frustrated.  Sometimes I feel hopeless.  "What's the point of trying to fix things?" I ask myself.  "We never solve anything.  He just ends up blaming me.  Nothing changes."  On several occasions I have ended the conversation at this point.  I get pissed off and walk away.  It doesn't solve anything but sometimes walking away seems like the only good option.

In this particular instance, however, walking away would have made things worse.  So I told him it wasn't fair for him to place all the blame on me.  "So you're saying that every argument is always both people's fault?" my husband asked. 

I actually had to stop and think about this for a minute.  In any given argument, are both parties at fault?  Is this a rule that applies in all cases?  Or are there arguments where one person is clearly to blame?

"Yes," I finally decided.  "Because a disagreement doesn't have to turn into an argument," I explained.  "And it always takes two people to argue. If one person refuses to engage then you can't have an argument," I added.  I went on to qualify my statement.  "I don't think both people are always equally to blame," I said.  "There are times when one person clearly initiates an argument.  The initiator would probably bear more responsibility in that case.  But still, it takes two people to argue.  If someone tries to start an argument and the other person won't take the bait then there's no argument.  It's just one person acting like an asshole." 

It is a tricky question though.  I think most of us are inclinced to blame the other party when we get into any sort of conflict.  This isn't always a bad thing.  People are motivated to fight for something when they believe in the rightness of their cause.

It's different when the conflict is with someone you love.  The best approach is probably just to agree to disagree, whenever possible.  When this isn't possible compromise is the next best option.  Of course this means that neither party gets everything they want and that both parties have to give something up.  People are not always willing to do this. 

I also think there is something to be said for acceptance.  For example, I'm (begrudgingly) learning to accept that my husband is not going to actively participate in keeping our house neat and clean, no matter how often I ask him to help with these tasks.  And he is (slowly) learning to accept that I become irritable when I'm stressed out and that unfortunately, I get stressed out pretty easily.  Our tendency has been to get upset about these things again and again, to demand that the other change, and then to feel frustrated and disappointed when this doesn't happen.  For me, it is extremely difficult to accept that my husband won't do something I think he should do.  It makes me angry but not as much as it used to.  I try to recognize the other ways he contributes to our lives.  This is a work in progress.


  1. There is an underlying need to be right, that is very American. If either one of you can go for walk(don't storm out) or both of you together without speaking for a half-hour with "no faces" or sighs and reflect on your upcoming death or the love that you share... the whole thing would blow away. Agreeing to disagree is not always the best answer either...someone will think they are short-changed and feel hurt.

    1. You make a good point about agreeing to disagree not always being the best answer.

  2. Interesting. Maybe peoples' personalities can be understood as arising from patterns of behavior observed and emulated from childhood, and the complex dynamics of interpersonal relationships seen then less as a product of "you" or " me", but more about dynamic processes that extend through a lifetime. Of course there are unique experience s, biochemical factors, and habitual responses which come into play too so I don' t actually think there is "one" solution. Sometimes I think just having a little faith in the person goes a long way. So when things go bad -- and in a society with over 50% divorce rate, they often seem to -- it is vital I think that there be consciousness of these dynamics without simplifying them to mean the people themselves.

    1. You're right about dynamics. I think the primary problem in my marriage relationship is the way my husband and I deal with conflict -- together. Our ways of handling conflict might work in other areas of our lives but don't work with each other, for whatever reason.

    2. Maybe they _are_ working, but just in ways that are not yet manifest. I wouldn't discount that possibility!

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