Dear Therapist,

My wife and I are stuck in a pretty toxic dynamic in which we criticise and blame each other pretty regularly. Topics of conflict are varied – parenting, money, our relationship – but the interaction between us similar: each of us feel the other is being stubborn, unreasonable and unresponsive to our needs.  

At this point we somewhat view each other as the enemy, wondering what we every saw in each other. Other than couples counselling (which we may consider), what would you recommend?

Stuck in Love

Dear Stuck,

You’ve identified one of the most common obstacles in couple dynamics: the blame game. And the associated belief that if the other person would just change or improve a few things, the couple would function properly. We become overly fixated on the other, and this tends to prolong the conflict. First, because our partner feels blamed and under attack so will naturally respond defensively. Also, because this approach completely avoids our own part in co-creating the drama, and therefore neglects our ability to affect change. Often there is an unconscious agreement in place that allows us to blame each other and get caught up in complaints so we don’t actually have to do what is necessary to change the pattern of engagement.

The blame game is also based on the belief that the other is causing our pain when in fact they are merely triggering what is usually an already-existing emotional sensitivity. Intimate relationships inevitably have us rubbing up against our core vulnerabilities that predate our partner. Looked at this way, relationships can be a very good route to working through unfinished business, but to do so we have to stop blaming our partner and refocus attention on our own experience and taking care of ourselves when we get emotionally triggered.

So the first step in getting unstuck is to stop the finger pointing and start considering how you, yourself, are contributing to the conflict. Get honest with yourself: What makes you not the easiest person to be in relationship with? Can you acknowledge these imperfections and commit to showing up differently with your wife to see how this might impact the couple dynamic? Can you also check in to make sure you are regularly putting fuel in the tank of your relationship’s engine via actions, words and gestures that show you care? 

The next step is to experiment with the idea that maybe you are viewing your wife’s words and actions through a stubbornly negative lens. Can you get curious about more neutral (or even positive) interpretations for her annoying tendencies or familiar faux pas? Can you also intentionally shift your focus to what you appreciate about her? You mention wondering what initially drew you to your wife. Those qualities and parts of her are still there, they just aren’t surfacing in your current dynamic. The more you attend to your role in improving interactions, the more likely some of these qualities will resurface. 

Finally, I would encourage you to make sure you are taking care of yourself in relationship. Acknowledging and articulating our own needs sounds easy in theory but is more difficult in practice. So many things get in the way – conflict avoidance and people pleasing to name but two common ones. When we’re not taking responsibility for our needs, we can become needy or resentful, both of which catalyse the blame game and keep us stuck. 


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