Blame Vs. Causal Force

“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.


  1. Seraphita says:

    Nuanced points, eloquently made. Very nice.

  2. Thanks, Seraphita. I’d been looking for a way to candidly discuss issues in a relationship, which often involved good and bad actions by both partners, without blame. As I made the distinction between blame and “causal forces” I thought I’d finally found an approach that does that. :)

  3. Seraphita says:

    Well, frankly, I think you might have blazed a trail or two here. So big nods for the clarity of your work, your thinking. I love triumphs where they happen.

    Jacques Riviere, that exquisitely gorgeous thinker and hugely influence literary/commentary writer circa 1920s, (albeit largely if not entirely unrecognized) said something memorable I\\\’ve never forgotten in his essay “In Defense of Intelligence:

    “Essentially, and primarily, intelligence is the faculty for distinguishing, for recognizing difference as difference, the faculty for perceiving two ideas, two object where those who are not endowed with intelligence see only one; its first movement is discrimination, analysis. If we do not allow it to accomplish this freely, calmly, but itself, all the rest of its operation is vitiated. By wanting intelligence to achieve synthesis before anything else, we make it abandon its true function, which is to come as close to the truth as possible. To think of it as being the ‘genius for sleight-of-hand tricks that one is constructor, a politician (everyone has the right to be), but not an impartial thinker, a true defender of intelligence.”

    I think you’d appreciate him quite a bit. Judging by your writings, I think he’d like you for such careful discriminating careful work. I hope you spend time searching him out.

    Riviere brought to the public, introduced, and made understandable and accessible the more difficult minds of Proust, Claudel, Artaud, Freud, Dostoevsky et al other “obscures” of his time through the esteemed publication Nouvelle Francaise. He died far too young. A bit like James Agee in some ways.

    Also: You’d probably love reading Andrei Makine. Just a thought.

  4. Thanks, Seraphita. I’ll check out Riviere. I’m not familiar with his work, but he sounds intriguing. I said something similar to his “intelligence is the faculty for distinguishing…two ideas.” Sometimes I even push the envelope and try to see three ideas. :) I once wrote an essay called “The Power of Subtle Reasoning.” The gist was that almost everyone gets the obvious, basic stuff; in the subtle margins are where intellectual revolutions are born. ;)

    I’ve been accused more than once of “over-thinking” when it comes to relationships (as well as everything else!).

  5. Seraphita says:

    Heh. “over thinking”

    Well yes, sure, of course. It’s the age-old and virulent hostility in this country against intellectualism.

    I like what Henry Miller said about his censorship (and I paraphrase from memory): One’s reputation is maintained by the good opinion of a thinking few.

    I’m not a literary girl, though my posts might lend to that impression. I just read because – cool friends.

    But I’m glad you like that. Cool for responding.

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