The Blame Game 

A couple cannot seem to stop bickering whenever certain issues resurface
March 20 2021 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I feel as though I’m at my wits end. My husband and I have been together for 40 years and we just seem to keep going around and around in negative cycles and arguments. We seem to always go back and forth about who is right and which of us has the “problem” and needs to change. I know we both need to change, but I can’t seem to find a way to break the cycle of arguments. The conflicts start about anything from pillows on the couch to relationships with our kids. We can work together well about some things, but it feels as though almost everything is a challenge. What can I do to break this pattern?


Although you say you are aware that you and your husband get caught up in the blame game, the key in escaping it is anticipating your tendency to fall into it in the first place, and to make plans for avoiding it before you start a difficult conversation. The dynamic you describe is what happens when our brains become ‘flooded’ with stress chemicals which causes our cortex (our thinking brain) to essentially go off line. At that point, our limbic system (our emotional brain) takes over and attempts to ‘solve’ our problems by making us fight, flee, or freeze. This is exactly what occurs each time we find ourselves getting stuck in the kind of unhealthy cycle you’ve described. When this happens, our brain works to distance us from the problem, but prevents us from actually doing anything to solve the original problem.

The first step is to increase your awareness of when you start to become ‘flooded’ with stress chemicals. What signs occur in your body – i.e. your shoulders tense, your face becomes flush/hot, you clench your fists? When you first start to notice these signs, take a step back, take a deep breath, send up a quick prayer and ask God to help you find solutions that will glorify him, and be the loving person he needs you to be – even in conflict. Then, focus on something that will help you drain those stress chemicals from your brain and bring your thinking brain back online. In moments such as these I like to reflect on the verse from 2 Timothy 1-7, which states, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.”

When we get caught in the blame game, our focus becomes fixated on changing, fixing, or controlling the other person – to get them to do what we want/need them to do. While this may not be the intention, it is how we tend to operate when we are in a blaming centered conflict. This reminder from 2 Timothy demonstrates to us that we are not capable of, nor is it our responsibility, to control or change another person. Our responsibility lies solely in our ability to practice self-control and model the behavior we want to see in the other person. How do you wish he would behave? Make sure you’re doing that first. If that doesn’t get things back on track, pick a time when you’re not arguing to discuss things you both need to do to make each other feel taken care of when you disagree.   

Be aware of your signs of stress, pray, and breathe. Take a step back until you are able to respond in a calm and solution-focused manner. Be a model of the behavior you want from him, and proactively discuss ways to better take care of each other when conflict heats things up. 

Updated on March 20 2021