Bill, a client, came to see me because his wife “never takes ownership of her own behavior.” Bill is married to a blamer. No matter what difficulty she experiences, there’s always someone or something else to blame for it, but not her. As he put it (with exasperation), “She is never, ever, ever, but I mean ever the problem!” Bill felt a lot of resentment and residual rage toward his wife as a result of this issue, but also felt unable to speak about it with her with any degree of honesty. When he did try and point out, gently, where she might be part of the problem, she would accuse him of not being empathic not supporting her, and not being a good husband. “All I want from you is to know you’re on my team.”
The problem for Bill was that when he empathized with his wife’s problems (and she always had problems wherever she went) he felt like he was supporting a part of her he really didn’t like, and the very part that he believed was responsible for her being so unhappy and unsatisfied all the time. When he validated her version of the truth, it felt like he was validating exactly the character issue in his wife that made her life stuck and their marriage difficult. The same part of her that blamed everyone else also blamed Bill and refused to look at herself when problems arose in the relationship.
On a recent morning, Bill had asked his wife how she liked the people at her new job. She then launched into a diatribe about how everyone at her office was so overly sensitive and that she couldn’t say anything that they wouldn’t find offensive. She couldn’t relax and be herself because she had to be hyper-vigilant about not offending anyone about their race, gender, sexuality, color, and everything else identity-related. If she spoke naturally, she would be offending someone and there would be consequences. The office wasn’t safe to make friends. Identity politics were in the way.
As Bill explained it, she went on and on about the external problem that made it impossible for her to connect to anyone. She didn’t talk about feeling lonely or awkward or disappointed, she just talked about the reasons friendship was impossible, and what was to blame for her not making friends and enjoying the new environment.
Bill’s wife had in fact rarely been able to make friends and had always felt isolated. She’d been in many work situations and other environments, and there was always something wrong with the people or the conditions that made it impossible for her to be part of the community. According to Bill, she was also very critical of others and awkward in her social skills. She frequently said things that offended people or that she felt people took the wrong way. For her whole life, she had felt misunderstood and misjudged.
After listening for a while and nodding supportively, Bill had asked if there might be a way to connect with her co-workers at a human level, around something everyone could relate to that didn’t have to do with their race, gender or identity. Her answer was no, everything led back to identity issues in that office. Trying to move the topic away from the blaming, he asked if it was lonely or frustrating to be in such an office. There was no response on that either. He also poked in a question about whether it was true that if she complimented a man on what he was wearing, she would be accused of being inappropriate. But at that point, smelling the rat, Bill’s wife erupted and told him that she wasn’t looking for instructions on how to correct it, she was just looking for support. Bill explained that he was trying to be helpful and suggest a way that she might create a community since she had said she wanted that. She angrily responded that his help was always directed at changing who she was, correcting her in some way, and never aimed at validating that the situation was in fact difficult. Bill then did what he often does, namely, go back to nodding empathically and listening to his wife’s newest target for blame, playing the docile part he’s supposed to play. Meanwhile, on the inside, he was, as he always is, enraged and feeling utterly helpless, with no way to express his truth and also not be attacked and accused of being the enemy.
When he came in that morning, Bill was fed up and tired of feeling controlled, frustrated by not knowing how to deal with this particular situation. How could he be empathic with his wife’s experience when he was sure the problems she was encountering were caused by her own behavior? How could he validate the very part of her that made it nearly impossible to be in a relationship with her?
This is a tremendously challenging situation that many of us confront. We have a strong theory about why someone is suffering or encountering a particular problem; we’re convinced that it’s their own behavior that’s causing it, and yet they want and need us to empathize with and validate their conviction that something or someone else is to blame, which we don’t believe is true. They don’t want to and are not willing to look at their part in the situation or how they are contributing to their problem, but need us to confirm a reality that maintains them as the victim and repeating the same pattern.
Although Bill felt he had failed at the situation, in fact the strategies he came up with were incredibly wise, which I pointed out to him. He did some empathizing and validating, nodding his head and responding supportively. He also inserted some reality checks, as in his question about commenting on someone’s outfit as inappropriate. And finally, he tried to move the conversation to her experience of lonelinesswhich could have been a place to join her and feel some real empathy. His instincts were spot on, but unfortunately, none of his attempts succeeded at giving him a new role in the situation or changing his wife’s behavior for that matter. He was either the un-supportive spouse or stuck validating his wife in an ignorant and unattractive behavior that he found abhorrent.
So, what’s left to do after all the strategies lead nowhere? That is, after we: 1. Legitimately empathize, because after all, the person is suffering even if we think they’re the cause of their own pain; 2. Reality check: Ask benign questions about the facts and assumptions the other is using to defend their argument; and 3. Shift the topic from the object of blame to the other's experience of the problem. What’s it like to work in a place that feels so unsafe? (We do this so as to create a place we can connect and empathize authentically.) What’s left, after all this has been tried, is a strategy of an entirely different sort. We move our attention from the other into ourselves.
Depending on the kind of situation, the intensity of the other’s pain and our own inner state, we may try to express a bit of what we’re living through as well. As in, “I want to support you and I feel how hard this is for you, and I really care about that—and (not but)—I also have some thoughts about what might make the situation better that include you. Are you interested in hearing that “take” from me or do you just want me to listen and support you that this is the way it is?”
When we can say something that implies or suggests we think the other may have a part in creating their own unhappiness, even if it’s not the actual contents of what we think the other is doing that’s causing their problem, it often feels much better than just behaving by listening or validating. By asking if the other is open to our thoughts about alternative solutions, we feel less controlled and invisible, and more authentic and present in the conversation. By acknowledging out loud that we will agree to tuck away our truth and do what they need us to do at that moment (even if we think something different), we’re actually, in a very clever way, giving our truth a place at the table, making ourselves heard and not allowing our truth, even if not named, to be bullied out of the conversation.
Furthermore, as the other is going on about who and what’s to blame for their problem, and asking us to empathize, we turn our attention inside. We acknowledge, silently, that this situation is really hard—for us. We remind ourselves, with kindness, that this is the place, the moment, the exact spot where there’s no right way to do it, no strategy to handle this person, this situation, this roadblock, that will make it comfortable or right. We offer ourselves permission to not know how to do it. We do the best we can without demanding that it feel OK or that we be able to make it OK.