The (Self-)Blame Game

As people read about couples where one partner is dominated and controlled by the other, most healthy individuals wonder why, in heaven’s name, the controlled partner doesn’t leave–or at least make it clear that the day of a new regime is dawning.

One of the major answers to this is a common response on the part of that dominated partner: It’s my fault that things go wrong. This goes along with: I make him/her behave this way. And, conveniently, the controlling partner is often more than willing to subscribe to and elaborate on that view.

So what, in their minds, have the controlled spouses done wrong, precisely, to bring about the couple’s dynamic as it stands?

[Some of the ideas from this post are taken from When Love Goes Wrong: What To Do When You Can’t Do Anything Right by Ann Jones and Susan Schechter.

1. “I chose this person as my partner; now I need to see it through.”

Similar to this one is: “I have five kids. It’s too late to leave–I’ll have to just make the best of it.”

Although I’m not an advocate for divorce in general, I’m certainly no advocate, either, for living in a marriage with a controlling spouse and not doing something to change the dynamic. I actually often have great success in therapy with couples like these–but that is with one large caveat. If the controlling ever turns to outright physical abuse, the gig is up. So if you are convinced you want to stay in the relationship, you do not  need to “see it through” in the way it’s been going. You need to make a change, and we will address how to do that.

2. S/he is kind and loving–and then so mean and controlling. It must be my behavior that sets him off.

A lovely woman had gone to college with then married an emotionally abusive man. He had a few good threats up his sleeve: he’d crash the car [hers–highly financed], he’d make a scene in public and embarrass them all, he’d tell her parents about some of the borderline illegal activities she’d gotten up to in her youth. He had never been particularly abusive, but after dumping a plate of syrupy pancakes down his son’s shirtfront, my friend showed up at my house, ready, finally, to take the steps we who loved her had been hoping for years she’d take. So we filed a police report, spoke to DCFS, and got a restraining order.

They were back together within a week, and it was better than their first honeymoon, she said. With her firm stance she had bought herself a few good months. It was, of course, only a matter of time before his nastiness surfaced again, but by now my friend was convinced that she was the one who caused the metamorphosis. Hadn’t he been just fine until he’d been with her for a few months?


3. I deserve it.

Remember Kyle and Karen? Kyle’s outbursts came when Karen would finally put take a stance and refuse to service Kyle hand-and-foot. Karen was often shocked by their snide tone and nastiness. But she would always return to Kyle’s refrain, “I make the money, you do everything else.” And, of course, “You’re lucky to have it so good.” Clearly she had brought the rage upon herself by forgetting how grateful she ought to be.

4. I make my partner act this way when I should know better.

Didn’t he know, Tim thought, that Tali went to pieces and felt suicidal if he brought up leaving? Didn’t Norm know that Norah would come home, shaken, upset, and feeling abandoned if he put her in a cab? He really caused the scenes that came after that–and didn’t he know she felt afraid if he was out of the house when she was home? Of course she had to call constantly to reassure herself while he was out. He really created that scenario of phone calls so frequent he was embarrassed in front of his friends by abandoning her at home–didn’t he?

5. I can’t make it without him/her.

Women in the ER, beaten to the point of physical damage in patriarchal violence, consistently say that the emotional abuse was even worse than the physical pain. Frequently these partners–often women–don’t leave because their partner has made them feel so badly about themselves that the abused one truly believes they she make it without the abuser. Their heads have been so twisted around that they see themselves as inadequate and unworthy–precisely the belief that the abusive spouse has worked for years to implant in their brains. These abused spouses have lost all hope of bettering their lives–they believe their fate is now firmly intertwined with their abuser’s–forever.

As long as you look to yourself for the cause of your spouse’s controlling behavior, you will remain stuck. But when you accept that you each take responsibility for your own actions–and realize that certain actions you take can make a profound difference–you are ready to break out of the cycle that haunts and torments you. I’ll address some of my ideas for how to do that in my next post.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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