No, You Are The Problem: Finger Pointing in The Coupledom

Easy Enough: Is there anything easier, almost at any age, than pointing your finger at someone? Towards the end of the first year of life, most babies are pointing at something. And in our final days, feeble though we may be, we still have point-ability. No wonder we stay attached to this skill: it is reliable, easily accessed and can be so satisfying. The twelve-month-old points to kitty and mom scoops up kitty and brings it closer to the high chair for baby to see. The aged crone in the nursing home bed points to the water glass, and the aid pops up and brings the glass to her patient’s lips. A pointed finger sends out a command or acts as emphasis for the words that follow along with its movement. In the Coupledom the phrase often uttered after the finger pointing is, “You are the problem! Not me. It’s you!” – words that keep the beat with that majestic and powerful finger.

Creative Disclaimer: At what age do we develop the skill to blame? Young. “He pushed me first.” Or, “She made me steal the cookie.” We just don’t like to be responsible for something that we fear or project that another may view as bad. A man I know, when he was four and half years of age, began to tell his parents of a bad boy in his class who got into trouble with the teacher. For a year and a half, this young fellow’s parents believed that this bad boy was real until they and the teachers met and connected the dots. There was no “other” bad boy. This man/boy was the mischief-maker, yet he had managed to convince his parents for quite a stretch that this other fellow existed, a creative way to “confess” but not confess to a crime. What was at work here?

One might surmise that the boy knew on a subconscious level that he was being “bad.” He had that awareness but he wasn’t ready to own or take responsibility for his mischief. That was too difficult to reconcile with the good boy he wanted his parents to think he was at all times. So he finger pointed at a figment of his own imagination, someone who didn’t even exist. Because he was young, clever and obviously deeply uncomfortable with his behavior, he made up a person, another little boy, the “not me” entity that Harry Sullivan refers to in his theory of personality development, to take the rap. The adult version of that same disclaimer might be: “It isn’t me that is making our lives miserable. It is you.”

The Coupledom World Minus The Adult Toolkit: The developmental immaturity that was the underpinning of a four-year-old’s behavior still operates within many of us at times when under great stress: “If I am not all good, then I am all bad and no one will love me.” A four-year-old’s brain has not developed the cognitive ability to think in shades of good, not so good, not perfect all the time. The kid at four didn’t have the tools that adults supposedly do: the tools to see our behavior and that of others within a spectrum that isn’t made up only of absolutes. Yet in The Coupledom world, that richer and more complex perspective isn’t always driving the bus.

“Their Vanity Is Stronger than Their Misery”: This a quote from The Leopard, a novel published posthumously in 1958 by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, which depicted the end of the aristocracy in late 19th century Italy. The author was referring to the Sicilians of that time, who, in the view of his protagonist, were prone to making destructive choices out of vanity, saving face, and needing to feel superior, in spite of the resultant suffering brought on by these choices. This quote struck me as profoundly fitting for many couples that I have met personally or professionally whose choices seem to me to strike a similar chord. The primary loyalty for many of these folks is to their vanity, that precious image of self more dear to them than their own chance at happiness or familial health. To reflect truly upon or question what might be their significant contribution to the imperfections of the relationship, and to be open to accepting relevant responsibility for the problems in the relationship, is on a subconscious level, terrifying. These “adults” sadly are operating under the strains of a worsening relationship, with the limited cognitive toolbox of early childhood, that “all good, all bad” kit that doesn’t offer any other options. Scary.

What Is The Worst Thing I Can Learn About Myself? Several years ago a woman called, seemingly to set up a therapy appointment for herself and her husband. They were having terrible problems. He blamed her for his bad relationship with their daughter. She blamed him for his behavior towards their daughter. She sought individual therapy. Nothing changed – they were playing the hot potato of blame game. She asked him to consider family or couples therapy. At first he said, “No, you are the problem.” Then he said yes and was referred to me. Then he said no again. She wanted to see me anyway to discuss this stalemate. We set up the appointment. Twenty minutes into the allotted therapy hour, the woman still hadn’t appeared. I called her. Oh, she cried, she couldn’t make it because he, they… and then I knew. Everyone else is to blame. Everyone sees themselves as the victim of the other. Triangulation was rampant and a family was moving toward collapse. Happens all the time. She quoted her husband as saying “I am not the problem. You are the problem.” Those are the words of an impending divorce, one year, two years, six years, no matter. The kiss of death as they say. And a product of a primitive belief system that thinks only in absolutes, black or white. What is the worst thing that can happen in owning that you may be contributing to relationship difficulties? Well if I am not all good, all right, then I must be just awful, defective, a failure, the bad kid, like my father, my mother. That’s the worse thing. And no one will ever love me.

How To Measure Potential: Here is how a psychotherapist can assess whether a couple has the potential to benefit from therapy: take a measure of the ability of each member to reflect upon their own behavior, beliefs, history and choices. Not necessarily in the first few visits, a time when each one is in a heightened state of anxiety, the flight/fight mode. Not then. But over time, if the finger pointing begins to subside and the individuals can stop their explanations and accusations to wonder with the therapist about their choices, then we have a pathway filled with potential to reach a gratifying Coupledom future. But put that finger away. Or redirect it at yourself: “I can take responsibility for the following. I am neither all right nor all wrong. I am real and though imperfect, I am also worthy and so are you.” That’s a point worthy of making.

Don’t be scared of couples therapy. Don’t be scared of being in the wrong at times. Be scared of the finger pointing, the road to nowhere.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012

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