The blame game
When we want someone to apologise, especially a partner, what are we actually asking for? An apology that we accept graciously, or an admittance that the other person is ‘wrong’ and therefore needs to be punished? Why is it difficult for someone to apologise? Is it easy to say sorry but more difficult to be sorry?
A lot of counselling work with couples involves one of the partners wanting the other to apologise. The reasons for this can cover a wide range of issues; from being taken for granted, or not responding to the person’s needs, to being unsupportive or having an affair. Whatever the reason, the point is that the person who is expected to apologise finds it hard to do so. The process of saying sorry and its implication that they are wrong becomes difficult. It means owning and taking responsibility for actions that may have hurt someone. Feelings of shame and being blamed attack old vulnerabilities and the person who is apologising becomes defensive. Sometimes this leads to counter-blaming, so although one partner will apologise, there is always a ‘but you said/did…’ and the cycle of arguments start again.
So what can couples do to break the cycle of arguing or sulking and withdrawing? There has to be an acceptance that we are responsible for how we feel. In which case we choose to hold onto anger or resentment no matter what the other person says or does. An apology therefore can keep us in our state of ‘victim’ - 'you were bad, I am good'. An apology can also imply that the subject is now closed – 'I’ve apologised, that’s the end of it'. But we are more complex than that and unless the issues have been explored to both partners satisfaction, then it will tend to crop up again (and again).
Counselling can help couples reframe their positions – it can help them focus on what is the issue, rather than how they are arguing about the issue. Having a third person in the room looking at the relationship can help the couple explore what is really going on when something has hurt the other. This helps create a more open forum for both partners to be able to communicate how they feel to each other without fear of being blamed or shut down.
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About Donna Sullivan
Donna Sullivan is a BACP registered integrative counsellor who has worked with offenders in prison, women's outreach services and private practice. She specialises in relationship issues, in particular how men and women communicate their vulnerability to each other and is currently employed in helping men and women improve their relationships.