|A scene from "A Bug's Life." After Flik shows off his new invention, 3 other ants stare at him with disapproval. Image source.|
Blame is not bad in and of itself. It has a good function. Blame separates out who is truly responsible for what in a problem, so that we are able to know how to solve it. ...Okay, so there's our definition for "blame." In other words, blame is a problem when one partner believes that all the relationship problems are the other partner's fault, and they're unwilling to look at the situation realistically or acknowledge their own problems.
However, the blame that kills a good dating relationship is when one person sees herself as blameless and attributes almost all of the problems in the relationship to the other person. This sort of blame is not driven by a desire to ferret out reality in order to come to the truth about a matter. It comes from a much darker place in our hearts. This type of blame is based on a denial of our badness. When we cannot tolerate the reality of our mistakes, or that others might see that reality, we point the finger elsewhere. Blame is one of the gravest problems we face, spiritually and emotionally. It keeps us more concerned about being "good" than about being honest.
I'd like y'all to take a look at this bit:
Watch children grow in their blaming skills. It is so natural. When they are in trouble, they constantly scan the horizon, seeking someone to blame for their difficulties.Wow, that line sounds like something that could come straight out of a Michael Pearl book. (Michael Pearl is a Christian leader who is best known for his book "To Train Up a Child" which teaches you God's way to beat your children.) But the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" (Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend) mean this in a COMPLETLEY DIFFERENT WAY than Pearl and all the evangelicals/fundamentalists who talk about children and original sin. Let me give a translation:
Boundaries in Dating: "Blaming is a very natural thing for humans to do- even children do it. Therefore it is TOTALLY UNDERSTANDABLE that the problem of blame would arise in a dating relationship. Don't worry! Here is our advice about how to solve the problem."
Pearl: "Look at the way children blame others for their problems. Wow, so sinful from such a young age. This is proof that the human heart is thoroughly evil. Yeah, totally evil, totally beyond hope, better follow our rules because if you don't, you'll definitely make bad choices and ruin EVERYTHING."
Anyway, I'm totally happy that "Boundaries in Dating" means it in a reasonable and healthy way. Just wanted to show you this because it's interesting how the exact same words can mean different things in different ideologies- both of which are Christian.
All right, back to "Boundaries in Dating." When blame is a problem in a relationship, it is hard for the two partners to open up to each other and be vulnerable, because they worry that their partner will use their weaknesses, mistakes, and sins against them. Or that their partner will keep bringing up things they did wrong in the past, as if the guilty partner will always be defined by that past sin and can never be good enough. Yes, that's a problem. Don't do that.
And then there's this really interesting passage about truth and love:
How does blame operate inside the one receiving it? Basically, it is experienced as truth without love, and that always feels like judgment or condemnation. All of us need to hear the truth about our selfishnss, sin or immaturity. For example, the first few times that Morgan told Travis that his undependability hurt and bothered her, she was helping him grow.Wow. I don't know about you all, but I've never heard this take on "speaking the truth in love."
However, we cannot ingest truth from someone unless we know we are loved. It is too painful. We feel hated or simply that we are bad people. In fact, even when loving people tell us truth it still hurts. A friend of mine (Dr. Townsend's) recently underwent surgery. He had told me about it because he wanted my support. Afterward, he told me, "It hurt me that you didn't call me about how the surgery went." He is a long-term and close friend. He told me this in a straightforward but loving way. And I still felt really bad, in two ways. I felt the sadness and remorse we are supposed to feel when we realize we have wronged someone (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). And I also felt the "I am all bad" feelings that indicated that I am not finished in my ability to receive truth about myself. It only lasted a short while, much shorted than when I began getting involved in spiritual growth. But it was long enough to feel the sting.
The point is, if this is what truth feels like when we are safe and loved, how much worse is it when we are not? We experience deep wrath, either at ourselves or the other person, for that is the essence of what law without grace brings (Romans 4:15). So the only way to hear truth is in an atmosphere of love (Ephesians 4:15); otherwise, the "blamee" is placed in a state of condemnation that he must fight either by lashing out at you or at himself.
Let me tell you what it usually means when church people talk about "speaking the truth in love." Christians use this as an excuse to butt into your life and tell you what you're doing wrong, and act like they're doing you a huge favor by teaching you "what the bible says." We have this one verse that says "speak the truth in love" so that means as long as you love the person, as long as you feel like you're doing it to help them, then you're totally allowed to go point out all their sins. As I've said before, the definition of "love" that evangelicals use is pretty suspect. It's the "hate the sin, love the sinner" kind of love, the love that says "I know what's best for you, and love means doing everything I possibly can to push you to do it." You know, the love that won't let gay people just live their lives in peace, we love them so much that we have to keep harassing them until they stop being gay. That's what "speaking the truth in love" usually means. Christians are totally entitled to go point out everyone else's sins, as long as they're not, like, too mean about it.
But look at this sentence from "Boundaries in Dating": "However, we cannot ingest truth from someone unless we know we are loved." Did you catch that? "unless we know we are loved." If you have feelings of love in your heart, and your warped, hellish theology drives you to go around accusing everyone of rebelling against God, that doesn't count as love. Nope, it only counts if people "know [they] are loved." It only counts if it actually comes across as love. And when Christians tell people that what they're experiencing as hate is actually love and they should be grateful, that's gaslighting.
But... wow. When "Boundaries in Dating" talks about "speaking the truth in love", it's in the context of people who actually have a close and loving relationship with each other, and it's "speaking the truth" about an actual real-life problem that caused hurt in the relationship, not some abstract "God's law" that someone is breaking. Wow. It's not like someone is a target of your evangelism and you love them in an abstract, general sense. It's not like you're stealthily building a friendship so that you can bring them to the point where they take you seriously when you spring "the gospel" on them. Wow. It's like, people who are actually your friends. I don't think I've ever heard the idea of "speaking the truth in love" in that context.
Also, let's talk about this bit: "I felt the sadness and remorse we are supposed to feel when we realize we have wronged someone (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). And I also felt the "I am all bad" feelings that indicated that I am not finished in my ability to receive truth about myself." Wait wait wait, stop the presses. [Do people say that nowadays?] In the Christianity I learned, the "'I am all bad' feelings" were a very very important part. We believed that, in the deepest parts of our minds and hearts, we were sinful. Sure, we could act like good people. We could work hard to obey God. But every now and then, the sin nature would break through and reveal who we really were.
The bad was who we truly were; the good was just an act, a disguise. We deserve to go to hell, we deserve no happiness ever. That's what I believed. And every time we talked about Jesus' death, we felt that guilt, the "'I am all bad' feelings"- our sin was the reason he died, and we should feel guilty about it forever.
It's astonishing to me that Dr. Townsend believes you should only feel bad about yourself in a way that's proportional to what you actually did and the real-world hurt that it caused other people. He is saying you shouldn't feel "I am all bad." As if your sin was just a single event that you can address, learn from, and move on from, instead of a sign that all your efforts to obey God are just an act and you can never get away from your real, sinful nature.
Wow. I mean, wow. To be clear, I believe that what "Boundaries in Dating" is saying here is a MUCH HEALTHIER way to view our sins and mistakes. But... wow. Evangelicals would say "Boundaries in Dating" doesn't take sin seriously. To not believe "I am all bad"... wow. That goes completely against the "gospel" I learned in church.
(Okay, to be fair, evangelical Christianity does teach things like "we're not slaves to sin anymore, we have the power of God helping us and we can do anything, we are a new creation in Christ" which goes against the "we should forever feel bad about our role in Jesus' crucifixion" thing. In my experience, though, the "I am all bad" side was emphasized much more.)
Anyway, to sum up what I'm saying about "speaking the truth in love": In "Boundaries in Dating", they're using that term in the context of a friendship or dating relationship where both parties already care about each other, not as a justification to go barging into people's lives and claim you have the right to point out all their sins because you are motivated by "love." And I've never heard "speaking the truth in love" used this way before. This is connected to their larger point about blame- they are saying that when you point out what someone did wrong, the person will only be able to take that criticism in a healthy way if they know that you love them. Let me repeat: only if they KNOW you love them. It's not about your intentions, it's about whether your words and actions are being read as loving.
Since we're talking about blame, we have to touch on the idea of victim-blaming. I'm a feminist, and calling out victim-blaming as not okay is an important part of feminism. This chapter of "Boundaries in Dating" doesn't explicitly mention abuse or victim-blaming, but here's one part that was sort of ... interesting:
[content note for abuse and victim-blaming for this excerpt]
[this section is talking about how people in dating relationships might be quick to blame their partner for problems because they're not committed, they're not married, so it's easy to just end the relationship rather than examining their own role in the problem]Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. Uhh, "rage"? This could be verbal abuse or emotional abuse. And the idea that the wife's "covert withdrawal provokes the rage of her husband"- so, it's not like the rage is a reasonable response to something she did, it's more like there are certain circumstances where the rage is more or less likely to happen. But the writers are framing it as if the wife is causing it.
When you do not have to live with someone's faults, you are less prone to do the hard work of seeing your part in triggering them. A wife might notice that her covert withdrawal provokes the rage of her husband. She has seen the dance they do a hundred times, and she knows the only way it will resolve is for her to figure out what she needs to change. But a date can say, "I don't do rage" and exit. This creates more of an opportunity to think it is all him, and none her. This is not to diminish the gravity of the raging man's issue. But it perpetuates the likelihood that she will continue searching for an ideal mate who has no issues, and that she will miss dealing with her own.
This passage really creeps me out. It says "the only way" to fix the problem is for the wife to figure out how to not "provoke" her husband. And it says if she decided to end the relationship and find a partner who didn't rage at her, well she's not dealing with her issues and her expectations are unrealistic. Wow. Y'all. Wanting to find a partner who doesn't abuse you IS NOT AN UNREASONABLE STANDARD. You're never going to find a partner who has no faults, but don't take that to mean you're never going to find a partner who doesn't abuse you. (Hmm this reminds me of how evangelicals like to say "we're all sinners" when some famous Christian does something terrible, as if their crimes are totally normal and we're all the same. I would assume the "Boundaries in Dating" writers don't agree with that view though.)
If she wants to stay in the relationship, then yes, in a practical sense, she would need to figure out how she can change her behavior to help manage the problem. But that is not her only option. And whatever her decision is, nobody should ever suggest that abuse is partly her fault.
Also, as a former purity-culture girl, the idea that 'if you have problems in your dating relationship, there's no real commitment, you can just end it and find a new partner' is completely foreign to me. There have been times I spent way way way too long analyzing my own behavior and trying to figure out how to get my boyfriend to be less terrible, because of purity culture and how I was so afraid that breaking up was The Worst Thing Ever. (That was a long time ago, I am with a really great guy now.) Purity-culture girls need to know that it IS a good idea to end a relationship with a partner who doesn't treat you right. You deserve better, and things will get better. Breaking up is really hard and painful, but it can be a very very good thing.
Same thing goes for divorce.
And here's another section in "Boundaries in Dating" which I found very interesting:
Another way that blame can kill a dating realtionship is that the injured person can take on an attitude of moral superiority to her offender. She will be shocked and saddened by his behavior, and think, I would never be capable of the hurt that he has caused. While it may be true that he has hurt her deeply, she doesn't know the dark capabilities of her own heart (Romans 3:10-18).So they think it's not healthy to see yourself as a victim. Actually, my psychologist has said similar things. That seems very different from what feminism says. But yeah, I can see how, from a point of view of helping victims to heal, you don't want them to believe that they're helpless and passive and have no control over their lives. So I'm not totally sure what to think about this. I think that people like to throw around the criticism "you have a victim mentality" to try to get people to shut up and quit demanding justice for the wrongs done to them. As a feminist, I'm not okay with that. On the other hand, I can see why a psychologist might not be excited about a patient defining themself as a victim. So... I guess it depends what the situation is and what the goal is. If anybody has any insight about this, leave a comment.
Blamers are people who tend to take a victim stance. They feel helpless and run over by powerful people, and they do not see themselves as having much say-so in relationships. This is a child position, and therefore brings with it a sense of innocence. The result it that the blamer- who sees herself as an innocent victim- will forever hold the problem over the offender's head.
It is very hard for dating to survive this problem. The offender will try and try to get in his girlfriend's good graces, but will come back feeling one-down and inferior to his innocently hurt date. Though he needs to own what hurt he has caused, it is very difficult to do so with someone who sees themselves as an angel and him as a devil. He will eventually give up trying to do the impossible.
If you tend toward the morally superior position, look at it as something that is working against everything you want in life: mutually adult relationships, personal growth, and freedom. Begin realizing how capable we all are to sin and being hurtful. Actually, it is a relief to get away from a demand to be innocent. Living in reality is less work than living in a fantasy land.
But the real reason I typed up the above passage- about blame and moral superiority- is that it really reminds me of something from purity culture. Any guesses?
[cue Jeopardy music]
If you guessed "What is 'if you had sex before marriage, then your pure spouse can hold it over your head forever'?" then DING DING DING YOU WIN.
I mean seriously. Every single thing about this description of the "innocently hurt" partner sounds EXACTLY LIKE how purity culture says a marriage between a virgin and non-virgin should go. If you had sex before you ever even met your spouse, well, your marriage will suffer for it FOREVER. Your spouse "saved themself" and therefore they deserve better. Oh, how gracious of them to "forgive" you. They deserve a perfect, pure marriage, and they're never going to have that because of YOU, you just had to go put yourself in a situation with temptation, didn't you? (I definitely internalized the idea that sex is such a horrifying dirty thing- it was unimaginable to me that any guy I would consider as a potential boyfriend would have participated in something so awful.)
In purity culture, there's no such thing as just forgiving and then being fine. No, premarital sex has to haunt you FOREVER- otherwise, how will we scare teenagers into not doing it?
And this line at the end was interesting: "Actually, it is a relief to get away from a demand to be innocent. Living in reality is less work than living in a fantasy land." Because, in the Christianity I learned, we are supposed to try to be "innocent"- completely sinless. Every little tiny sin deserves death and is enough to get Jesus crucified.
The last part of this chapter is about "curing blame." The authors advise us to be honest about our own faults, and to see both the good and bad qualities of our dating partner. Also, we should "set boundaries instead of blaming" which I think is really really important. When someone treats you wrong, you can retaliate by complaining and blaming- but in my experience, this never feels like enough. You feel powerless, like you can never make them feel bad enough to atone for what they did. Meanwhile, the other person feels like it's not fair how you keep bringing it up over and over. Avoid this by setting boundaries. "If you act like this, then I'm not going to be willing to see you for a week." It's not emotional, it's not manipulative, it's just "okay, here are the logical consequences for what you did." And once those consequences are finished, you don't keep bringing it up again and holding it over them.
"Boundaries in Dating" also says we can address the problem of blame by forgiving. They say, "Let go of the offense, and the need for revenge or perfect justice." Their next piece of advice is about grieving. This part is really good:
While forgiveness is objective in nature, grief is its emotional component. When we cancel a debt, we are letting go of the right to demand revenge. That letting go brings loss and a feeling of sadness.Wow. Wow. In other words, forgiveness doesn't mean you're pretending everything is okay. Forgiveness means you lost something, and it's 100% reasonable and expected that you would have feelings about that loss. It is good and healthy to feel your feelings and allow yourself to be sad about it.
Wow. I don't know if I've ever heard forgiveness and grief tied together like that. In church, I learned that forgiveness is required, that I had no choice, I had to forgive any and all wrongs people committed against me, and I had to do it as fast as possible, because God had already forgiven me. (I now believe that, if someone did something REALLY bad to you, you have every right to NEVER forgive them, and it doesn't make you a bad Christian.) It was sort of unclear what exactly forgiveness was- I heard Christians say forgiveness doesn't mean saying what they did was okay- but I know I NEVER heard anything about "you have the right to be sad after you forgive someone."
All right, that's it for chapter 14. The main message of this chapter is that it's unhealthy to blame your partner for all the relationship problems, or to keep bringing up their past sins or mistakes. Yes, I totally agree. That's really good and heatlhy advice. They also have a shocking and astonishingly healthy take on the concept of "speaking the truth in love." And I love how their warning about blame and moral superiority sounds exactly like a marriage between a virgin and non-virgin in purity culture. However, I'm very creeped out by the bit about how a wife needs to take responsibility for her role in "provoking" her husband's "rage"- that just sounds like blaming abuse victims. (Maybe someone with more insight/experience with abuse could give their opinion in the comment section?) Overall, though, it's a much healthier understanding of sin and forgiveness than what I learned in church.
A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (introduction post is here)
Previous post: Know when to give up hope
Next post: Disrespect