Misunderstood Part 3 by Stephan Gombis LCPC

How Stress, Blame and a Lack of Curiosity Prevent you from being Known

Part 3: Blame

What is blame?

Blame is assuming someone’s intentions with judgment. This is also called “Mind reading” and "Convicting”. 

Assumptions + Judgment = Blame

What is Blame?

Blame is the second way that a misunderstanding can occur. And this is because blame often involves assuming someone’s intentions without knowing the facts. Judgment or assuming devalues the other, putting them down and distancing you from responsibility, leaving you feeling superior and blameless.  In couples counseling this is known as contempt.  And contempt is a serious problem. According to marriage researcher John Gottman in his book, “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work," contempt is the highest predictor that a relationship will end in divorce.

People that blame don’t Always blame.

They do it when the conditions are right (or wrong depending on how you look at it). And the conditions tend to be right when our logic uses what I call, The 3 I’s.

The 3 I’s stand for:

1-No Information

2-No Intelligence

3-No Integrity

And it’s this logical sequence that leads us to blame. 

Let’s look at an example shall we?

Imagine having an argument with your spouse over his credit card spending. Where do you start? Information?

"Did you know our credit card bill is $2k this month?”

Why did you start there? You started there because you have the assumption that if he knew what you knew about the credit card, he’d celebrate your discovery and instantly repent of his ways.

But that doesn’t happen, does it? Frustrated by his response you move on to plan B…. No intelligence

“Honey, if we spend more then we make we will go into debt.”

You say it so sweetly.  And it’s true!  But the assumption here is that your partner doesn’t have the intelligence you have. So based on that assumption you need to dumb down the information during your second attempt.

So how does that usually work for you? Not very well right? He ends up feeling like you think he’s an idiot and you get even more frustrated because you worked hard to say it nicely and where did it get you? But you’re not quite ready to give up yet.

 With your last ounce of effort you try once more to be understood. The problem is… It’s your worst assumption yet. You assume your partner has no integrity. I mean why else would he reject the information you resented. And he can’t say he didn’t comprehend it because you even dumbed it down for him. 

“You don’t care about me and you obviously don’t care about our finances, so why don’t you just leave?”

This type of thinking and assuming drives a wedge between partners. We get to the point where we believe our partner is being evil. To side with them would mean we’re evil too. At this point what option do we have but to oppose them? And here in lies the problem with blame. 

It’s possible to build up a thoughtful case against our partner–even a very convincing one. But people aren’t islands; we don’t behave in a vacuum. We are social creatures that have the ability to impact each other. This is why former president John F. Kennedy famously said, “A society gets the criminals it deserves.” No we don’t “cause” our partner’s behavior, but we do co-create the environment that it exists in. And behavior remains in an environment in which that behavior is useful.

Imagine there was a pattern where your partner shopped online after the two of you had a fight. Perhaps shopping was your partner’s way of relieving stress? You didn’t cause your partner to shop, but you may have contributed to the environment being stressful.

How do you know if you’ve contributed stress to your relationship?

If you attacked him, overly-defended yourself or withdrew from the conversation (physically or emotionally); you played a role. And as much as you have the power to add to the stress, you also have power to relieve it.

One of my coaching tools to help spouses ease the tension in their relationships is what I call, The Oxygen Mask Exercise. And it goes like this…

Have two sheets of paper (one for each partner) and draw two circles (so it looks like a doughnut). In the smaller circle, write in your minimum non-negotiable needs on this issue. Note: It’s important to avoid “Padding it up” with non-essentials so there is still room for compromise. Then in the outer circle write in what you’d like, but can live without (list what’s negotiable to you on this issue).

 Next, ask your partner what needs are in their inner circle (AKA what they need to breathe in this situation) and acknowledge that those needs are important to you too.  Both people share.

Here’s an example:

Say your partner’s inner circle has the following listed:

“I need to know you like me and that you’re on my team”

You can then respond:

“I know that this has been a tough conversation. And I know how easy we can feel like we’re fighting for our lives here. I just want you to know that I do like you and no matter what, I’m on your team.”

 What you’re doing here is essentially telling your partner, “Here’s your oxygen mask, breathe freely.”


1-Blame is making a subjective judgment about someone else without seeing your part

2-Blame often requires making assumptions using the logical sequence of the 3 I's

3-Blame can be rational without being objective

So the next time you’re upset about something your spouse did and you want to be understood, remember to withhold the Three I’s that lead to blame and try to find out the facts without judgment. Use The Oxygen Mask Exercise to identify the heart of the matter, and listen carefully to your partner.

In the next article we’re going to turn our attention to the third and final reason that leads to being misunderstood; a lack of curiosity.