Navigating Conflict: Blame versus Empathy

When we feel disrespected, hurt, betrayed, or angry we may blame our partners for how we feel. These feelings paint the way we understand the situation. We may approach our partners with the stance that they have intentionally caused these feelings. Our partner most often will immediately feel attacked and become defensive. Our partner has his or her own perspective and therefore feels dismissed and unacknowledged. This quickly escalates until that conversation becomes a full out argument, perhaps even a fight. Neither party will budge and it has become a power struggle. The relationship is no longer a team of its own; it has broken into two separate teams with each captain believing that his or her own team must win, “I will only listen to you when you agree that I am right!” Neither party feels heard, respected, or understood. So, what went wrong? We committed ourselves to our own stance without taking into account that the other person also has a side to the story. Blame does not allow us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. It has already decided that we have been wronged in some way. We have stopped aligning ourselves with our partners and, in turn, have made our partner the enemy.

So how can we correct this? Empthay. Empathy allows us to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. For example, my partner and I plan a nice day off together and then my partner is called into work and cancels our plans. I may feel upset and disappointed and immediately blame my partner for making me feel this way. This leads me to feel disrespected, hurt, and unimportant. I may go on the attack letting my partner know how I feel and what I say will be fueled with anger and even perhaps a sense of entitlement, “How dare you do this to me!”

However, If I were to take a step back and use empathy to attempt to understand my partner’s position I may diffuse my own anger. I might say to myself, “I can imagine that my partner would prefer to take the day off and spend it with me over going into work and so this is probably not a choice.” I may be able to empathize with the disappointment my partner also feels about having to go into work on what he or she thought was a day off. Rather than blaming my partner for my feelings, I am empathizing with how this also impacts my partner and therefore I am aligning myself with my partner. He or she is no longer the enemy, we are on the same team. This allows for compassion, communication, and no one feels attacked.

We may think to ourselves “I am mad so my partner must have done something wrong.” What we are not considering is that the context in which we give the situation is fueling how we understand the situation and therefore how we feel about it. The following example illustrates this point.

Situation: John is late coming home for dinner

Context: Sue believes John intentionally did not tell her that he would be late

Thought/Feeling: Sue feels angry, hurt, disrespected, and unimportant


Situation: John is late coming home for dinner

Context: Sue believes John must have been in an accident because he is never late

Thought/Feeling: Sue feels worried, panicked, scared, and anxious


Situation: John is late coming home for dinner

Context: Sue knows there is traffic sometimes and believes he is trying his best to get home

Thought/Feeling: Sue feels calm and content


 

Blame:

  • You: evokes feelings of anger, frustration, power, and superiority

  • Your partner: evokes feelings of defensiveness, being attacked, sadness, and inferiority

  • Your relationship: leads to a power struggle and a disconnectedness in the relationship that leads to its deterioration

Empathy:

  • You: evokes feelings of compassion, equality, understanding, and love

  • Your partner: evokes feelings of love, being understood, acknowledged, and heard

  • Your relationship: leads to understanding, communication, and connection in the relationship which continues to flourish over time

     

How to step out of the blame game:

  • Look at the situation from more than one perspective. Imagine you were in your partner’s shoes. Is this a pattern of behavior or a one-off event?

  • Just because you feel a certain way does not mean it is that way. Don’t let your emotions paint the picture.

  • Use calming self-talk rather than “fueling the fire.”

  • Start with empathy before letting your partner know how you feel. Start with phrases such as “It sounds like” “I can imagine” “I understand”

  • Explore how you feel. What is underneath the anger? Are you feeling rejected, hurt, sad? Express this to your partner.

  • Avoid blanket statements such as “you never” or “you always.”

  • Remember you are on the same team. If one side of the ship sinks, the whole thing goes down.

  • Put it into perspective. Ask yourself “Is this really as big of a deal as I am making it into?” “Is this more about me wanting to be right than about improving my relationship?”