Let’s say I have new clients named Joe and Mary. Let’s say they’ve never been in for a session before. Joe often expects things to go like this:

“Well,” Joe might say, trying to sound reasonable, “the problem is Mary. She’s always nagging. If she’d just leave me alone when I come home from work, we’d get along just fine.”

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” Joe expects me to say. “Mary, you’re obviously to blame. What can we do to make you less of a harpy so your family can have peace and harmony?”

That’s not how it would happen.

Meanwhile, Mary might expect something like this. “Joe’s the problem,” she’d say. “He comes home grumpy and lazy, and I need him to stop that. If he wasn’t such a Grumpy Gus, we’d be just fine.” (OK, she probably wouldn’t say “Grumpy Gus,” but this is a family-friendly blog.)

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” Mary expects me to say. “Joe, you’re obviously to blame. What can we do to help you stop being such a jerk when you come home from work?”

That’s not how it’d go, either.

Now, people do come into family sessions with the idea of “fixing” someone else, but that approach rarely leads to positive change. More likely, it leads to more of the same arguments that they have at home, only this time they’re in my office and expecting me to referee. They play the blame game with all the skill of a kid trying to blame a broken lamp on a little brother.

So imagine the looks I get when I say to Joe and Mary, “I’m not really a blame guy. Tell me, what’s working well for you?”

They normally stare at me. As they gape, I follow up with, “Tell me one small thing that works well when Joe comes home from work.” It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed what people agree on when they just give themselves the chance.

Blame is one of the biggest obstacles to progress. This applies at all levels of our lives. When Congress and the President point fingers at each other, they only alienate each other so nothing can get done. When a referee makes a bad call, players and coaches lose focus by giving too much attention to it, making it harder to win the game. When the brother blames the toddler for breaking the lamp, the lamp’s still broken, and the toddler’s confused about why he’s in trouble.

And when Joe and Mary blame each other, they’re pushing away a dear member of their family that they count on for love and support. Instead of lifting each other up, they’re tearing each other down, and that often devastates not just the two of them but the rest of the family as well.

Now, let’s not be too hard on Joe and Mary. Our brains are wired to remember the negative much more than the positive. It’s a survival technique from the days when we lived in caves instead of condos; many of the negative things that happened those days either made you deathly ill or made you some creature’s lunch. These days, the chances that you’ll be attacked by a wild animal while strolling down the street are next to nil, so we really don’t need that approach anymore. That’s why I help Joe and Mary leave blame behind so they can build on what works for them.

Deep down, that’s really what Joe and Mary expect, too.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. Carl is a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

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