“Which attitudes were the most important [for relationship satisfaction]? Other-blame was by far the most important mind-set. People who blamed their partners (or people in general) for the problems in their relationships were angry, frustrated, unhappy, and intensely dissatisfied with their relationships. In addition, this mind-set accurately predicted what would happen in the future. Individuals who blamed their partners for the problems in their relationship were even more miserably unhappy three months later.”
- David Burns, Feeling Good Together
Dr. Burns is referencing a series of studies he did to identify attitudes that lead to happy and unhappy marriages. More than 1200 individuals from all walks of life participated, including gay couples. The participants took Burns’ Relationship Satisfaction Test. He also personally interviewed troubled couples. Finally, the participants completed an “intimacy inventory.”
Burns and his colleagues made a variety of predictions before they analyzed the data. They programmed the mainframe computer at the University of Pennsylvania medical school to evaluate every possible combination. While he was expecting age, education, religious affiliation, income and other attitudes to be among the top factors in relationship satisfaction, it turned out that blaming your partner was the number one predictor of relationship dissatisfaction.
Dr. Burns hammers home the point that therapists universally make: blaming your partner for problems in your relationship is highly destructive. But in taking this to heart, some partners may call any form of explanation involving their behaviors as “blaming,”
Acknowledging negative factors need not involve casting blame. We can instead view these factors neutrally as “causal forces.”
It’s simply true that any number of changes in your attitudes or life circumstances will affect your relationship. If you live down the block from your partner, your interactions will be different than if you live five hundred miles away. If you believe that romantic love means an eternal honeymoon of passionate trysts and adventure you will not behave the same way toward your partner as you would if you believe that love means closeness, comfort, and security. If you work ten hours a day, seven days a week, your relationship will be different with more free time. And so on.
Causal force may appear to fly in the face of such cherished psychological-therapeutic maxims as “we are responsible for our own emotions; no one truly makes us do or feel anything,” or “you cannot blame your bad behavior on others..” To say, “But I wouldn’t have done X if you hadn’t done Y” is usually condemned as casting one’s self-responsibility onto your partner.
And yet, I think, the claim that what we do does cause our partner to do something is clearly true. For example, if a man hadn’t cheated on his wife, his wife wouldn’t have lost her temper and called him some unflattering names. Now I’m not suggesting that the wife is not responsible for calling him bad names, or that she was necessarily justified doing so , but the fact is that she wouldn’t have called him those names if he hadn’t cheated.
Or perhaps your wife left on a sabbatical and had an affair while gone, and upon learning of her affair you also embarked on one. Or you decided to divorce her. Or, in a desperate rage, you emptied your joint bank account to fund an excursion to Maui. None of these things was absolutely required because of your wife’s infidelity; on the other hand, none of those actions would’ve occurred had your wife not had an affair.
That’s how causal force works in a relationship. Everything either of you say or do necessarily affects the other. This doesn’t mean we can predict exactly what that effect will be, or that we can claim we’re somehow “forced” to do a particular thing Causal force just means that if you do something, there will be a consequence – an event that would not have occurred if you hadn’t done that thing. An event that can either be good, bad, or indifferent.
Though everything you do necessarily affects your partner, you are not necessarily responsible for your partner’s actions. You may have changed their behavior – or they yours – but you are both ultimately responsible for your behavior. This is how you can recognize that your behaviors may negatively affect your partner – and vice versa – while neither casting nor accepting blame for them.
In practice, unfortunately, attempts to point out cause and effect in relationships are likely to be treated as negative accusations. This is where intellect comes into play as a counter to our feelings. You may naturally feel defensive if your partner points out that your long business trips and work days caused her to seek solace in another man, because you see her as blaming you for her affair. And if she did blame you, that would merit feeling defensive, since she had other choices and was responsible for her decision. But at the same time, it is in fact true that your lack of attention to your wife was a strong causal factor in her choice to seek extramarital companionship. It may be true (though not necessarily) that had you reduced your business activities and spent more time with her that she never would’ve considered an affair.
So on one hand we are not blaming you for your wife’s affair; on the other, we are saying that your behavior had “casual force” – that there would be *some* consequence of your being away from home all time. Perhaps instead of an affair she might’ve just pulled more and more away from you emotionally, or perhaps distracted herself with other activities. But there would be some consequence of your frequent absences.
The hypothetical husband might choose to ignore his causal role and instead surrender to righteous anger and blame his wife for the demise of their relationship, but in doing that he is depriving himself of several positive possibilities, including: 1) understanding that being chronically absent in a relationship will likely lead to dissatisfaction in his partner; 2) saving his marriage, if he and his wife are still in love; 3) re-examining his priorities and discovering a happier lifestyle for himself.
This is the positive power of the “causal force” idea: it enables us to candidly acknowledge how we affect our partners without either blaming the other or ourselves. Lacking that negative stigma , we may avoid or ameliorate the usual anger, guilt, and defensiveness which accompany assignations of blame, and thereby forge new productive understandings about relating to our partners.