Part II: Taking responsibility in relationships: unpacking your suitcase.

How do you disentangle blame when conflict erupts in a relationship? You have had a brutal fight with your son, daughter, parent or good friend. Ever since things erupted, you have been livid and in a state of high anxiety, wondering what to do next. Have we not all been there? When embroiled in relationship turmoil, figuring out whose suitcase is whose and taking ownership of which stuff is yours often is no easy task. Strong emotion, especially fear, can be blinding and you may find yourself rerunning over and over in your mind what happened, blaming the other person and trying to justify your own actions. Or you might be doing quite the opposite, that is, putting your own behavior under the microscope and second guessing yourself about everything you said and did. If you find yourself reacting with strong emotions, ruminating and not being able to let go of anger or hurt, guilt or blame, know that chances are, there’s stuff that is yours.

Whenever people get snagged in a relationship or the relationship breaks down, inevitably, both parties have played a role. It takes courage to look at your part in a relationship breakdown or conflict. Most of us are familiar with the scenario where people have separated and though it may seem that one person is the victim and the other, the villain, wisdom and life experience tells us that each party must have contributed in some way to the relationship’s demise. In a relationship dispute, however, the tricky part is figuring out which suitcase is your suitcase and what you are carrying around in your suitcase that contributed to problems. I had one woman recently who was extremely distraught following the failure of her marriage. She blamed herself for just about everything and concluded that somehow she just was not attractive enough or lovable enough and had not tried hard enough to make things work. Contrary to these conclusions, therapy uncovered that she had in fact worked very hard and sacrificed much to try to make the relationship work. This was not her suitcase. What deconstructing the marriage did reveal, however, was that she had seen red flags early in the relationship indicating that she did not love him but chose to override these warning signs. She had not married for the right reasons. That was her suitcase. Unpacking her suitcase led us to appreciate that she married the wrong person because she was getting older, feared ending up alone and was desperate to have a child before her biological clock gave out.

Relationship therapists know that if you find yourself stewing about a relationship problem, chances are that it’s not just somebody else’s suitcase, you’ve got a suitcase too. If you are wanting to be responsible and accountable and your intention is to grow from your relationship life then it pays to try to figure out which suitcase is your suitcase and to unpack it. It is easy to either take all the blame or none of the blame. The challenge is to be able to filter and sort and take only that which is yours and to decipher what that is. None of us see ourselves objectively when it comes to relationships. That is why it is often helpful to try to debrief with someone else in order to figure out why you continue to be in distress. This does not mean gossiping with others in order to try to bring them on side. Talking about it can be done with the genuine intention of trying to understand your role in what happened. It can take some deep soul searching and hard work to decipher your role in a relationship conflict. Oftentimes, it means looking at some part of yourself that you find unattractive and do not want to see. Psychologists have referred to this as your “shadow self.” Everyone has one.

One woman that I worked with was horribly upset by the fact that her teenage daughter ended up having to go to summer school. To add insult to injury, her daughter had exploded telling her that it was her fault that her summer now was in ruins. Why couldn’t this woman see that her daughter was experiencing the natural consequences of her actions and that this was her daughter’s issue and not her own? As we talked about it in therapy, it became evident that not only had this mother gone too far in rescuing her daughter whenever assignments had been overdue (sometimes referred to as the “helicopter parent”) but that she also had way too much emotionally invested in whether or not her daughter pursued a professional career. As it turned out, both of these suitcases, her need to rescue her daughter from distress and need to have her daughter live out her unrealized dream of having a professional career, needed to be picked up and unpacked in order for her to let go and find a place of peace and calm again. This is one of the most important roles of good therapy…to help you figure out which suitcase is yours and to help you unpack it!

The word responsibility means just that: the ability to respond. The assumption that underlies a value of taking personal responsibility in relationships is the belief that each of us is responsible for everything we do, everything we feel and everything we say. We may not have any control over what somebody else does or says or some misfortune that comes our way but we do have control over how we choose to respond. It is so easy to get hooked on wanting to control somebody else and to convince ourselves that our happiness depends on it! If people were perfectly honest, many would admit that when they first went to see a therapist, their hope was that the therapist would side with them and tell them they were right and the person making them miserable was wrong! They also would probably acknowledge that their hope was that the therapist would have some magic recipe that would reveal how to change their child, their husband, their wife or their friend who was causing them misery. In actuality, what people find out when they come to a skilled and competent therapist is that therapy is about changing oneself, not somebody else and that in the end the only thing we have power over is the ability to change ourselves. In fact, ultimately clients realize that trying to change somebody else is futile and only fuels helplessness whereas changing oneself, leads to a sense of empowerment. Why then is it so hard for people to look at their role in relationship struggles and admit it when they may have made mistakes or when their behavior is not serving them? It seems that our tendency is to be very hard on ourselves when we make mistakes and lack of sufficient compassion in facing failure has a lot to do with it.

One response

I am glad to see the focus of this article highlighting the inter-relational aspects of conflict. There is a constant debate however, about how much responsibility one should take when there is a breakdown. Of course, both sides are accountable and responsible for their reactions and actions. But there is always the danger of blaming the victim when we take this too far. It is true that we trigger one another and must take ownership of our part of a struggle. Some new agers talk about creating our reality to the point of saying that things happen to us consciously or unconsciously because at some level we “will” in on ourselves. How does that apply to a rape, for example? So while I buy into the idea that we have an equal part to play in most negative interactions, there are always aspects that are out of our control.

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