My husband and I were driving through British Columbia recently on a narrow windy two lane road pulling a fifth wheel. We wound up behind an ancient-looking, worn out travel trailer going half the speed limit. Stuck behind him for quite some time, my husband was waiting for the perfect opportunity to pass. When it finally came, he edged up close, and then began to move out to the left to pass.
A couple of split seconds before that, a guy in a car behind us, not reading the sign that my husband was getting ready to pass, pulled out to pass us. My husband didn’t see that the guy pulled out, and so he kept going, basically forcing the guy off the road on the other side. A wild few seconds ensued: furious honking, mud splashing from a puddle the guy hit on the shoulder of the other side of the road, swerving and hearts pounding. We were three vehicles abreast on a two lane road and a car coming toward us in the distance. The guy in the car to our left put his foot on the gas and zoomed past us back into the right lane. My husband moved over as soon as he could. Crisis averted. We continued down the road.
My husband, understandably shaken, started to grumble. “Didn’t he see that I was about to pass? That blankety blank blank.” Just then, I looked up and saw that traffic was stopping. It was a construction zone. My heart started racing. The guy who we almost ran off the road was right in front of us. I knew my husband thought it was the other guy’s fault, but I was certain the guy thought it was my husband’s fault. Now that we’re stopped, I was sure the guy would get out of his car and come yelling at my husband.
I counseled my husband about how to handle this potentially dangerous situation. “If the guy gets out of his car and starts yelling at you, just apologize, even if you don’t think you’re wrong. We’re in another country, please don’t aggravate the situation, it’s not worth it.” Just as I finished instructing my husband about how to behave, and he finished rolling his eyes, I looked up at the car ahead and to my utter amazement saw the guy waving to us in his rear view mirror; waving in a friendly, relieved sort of way. He was smiling! The look on his face, coupled with the wave, seemed to be saying: “Hey fellow Human Being, we just survived a potentially disastrous incident. I’m glad to be alive, and I’m glad you’re alive. Hugs and kisses! Have a good day!”
Huh! Is he serious? He’s not going to blame us? I was flabbergasted. Is this because we’re in Canada, or did we just get lucky that it was a really nice guy? Whatever the reason, it got me thinking about blame and how it is our “go to place” when something goes wrong. My husband quickly made a case for why the other guy was to blame. I quickly assumed the other guy would blame us and was shocked when he didn’t.
When you think about it, blame is a pretty weird thing. The idea behind blame is that things are supposed to go a certain way, but somebody does something wrong, and then everything is screwed up. It implies that life can and should be perfect, and that the only reason it’s not is that there are stupid people who made mistakes. In other words, everything that goes wrong has to do with somebody doing something wrong. If only everybody was perfect, then life would be perfect.
Even though we all want it to be true, we know that this idea of perfection is ridiculous. It is just not the real nature of life. Things just happen, like the near-miss. My husband was doing the best he could, trying hard to take all information into account, as was the other guy. Neither one of them meant for something to happen, neither one of them wanted to get into a disastrous accident, and neither one of them was grossly careless. Yet, if they had gone into the blaming mode, they would have made it sound like the other guy had intentionally, stupidly done something wrong. Each guy would have made the other guy into an idea of a person that they’re really not.
Brene Brown, a well-known researcher of shame and vulnerability created a humorous, but very poignant, cartoon video about blame. In it she says that blame is the discharge of distress. It is distress about the fact that life isn’t perfect, that we can’t control everything and that things go wrong. It’s hard to accept that life is that way, and we get scared and mad about it, and we blame. If we blame, then we can continue to believe that life can be perfect, if only so and so didn’t do such and such.
Life is hard, messy and unpredictable. This is a very hard thing to accept in general, but it is especially hard when it comes to parenting. The stakes are so high- we want our children to do well, to be happy. And when things don’t go well, or we’re afraid they won’t go well, it is easy to blame someone or something. It is painful to accept that we cannot control everything when it comes to our children.
Co-parenting situations are a set-up for blame because there is so much distress, and therefore so much opportunity for blame. Divorced co-parents worry about their kids, and the idea of something going wrong with their kids, or their relationship with their kids is almost intolerable, and that distress can so easily go to “it’s my co-parent’s fault. If it wasn’t for my co-parent, everything would be perfect.” Nice idea, but probably not so.
We blame because we are worried about our children but ironically, blaming is something that actually hurt kids. It is very hard on children emotionally when one parent is pitted against the other. It contributes to feelings of insecurity and distress. Even if you are not intentionally putting your children in the middle, when you blame your co-parent, you are inadvertently forcing a child to figure out who is the good one and who is the bad one. Emotionally and psychologically, this is not good for them.
And yes, co-parents do things that they shouldn’t do. But blaming them over and over again for the things they have always done, and are likely to continue to do, doesn’t help you and certainly doesn’t help our children. And let’s face it, blaming doesn’t make anything better. When people are being blamed, they usually feel attacked, and when people feel attacked, it is difficult, if not impossible to listen in an open-minded way to what is being said. If the guy in the near-miss had come out of his car cussing at my husband about what a blankety blank he is, it is unlikely that my husband would have seen this as an opportunity for personal growth. I doubt he would have said: “Oh yes, kind Sir, I see your point and I will take your feedback to heart. Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness in letting me know my mistakes and shortcomings.”
Giving constructive feedback or criticism can be helpful, but it takes a healthy, mutually trusting relationship for this to be possible. Most co-parenting relationships are not solid enough for constructive feedback to be possible. And, blaming isn’t constructive feedback.
So what to do?
First, determine if the issue is worth fighting about. There are issues worth fighting about. If you think your child is in danger or being neglected or in harm’s way, of course you have to do something about it. But just blaming is not the answer. You have to know how to fight smart about the battles that are worth engaging in.
But if it’s a battle that is not worth fighting, work with yourself. For your own sake, and the sake of your children, do the difficult emotional work of learning to let go of blame. In doing so, you will have to accept that life isn’t perfect and that as hard as you try, you can’t always make everything right or good for your kids. You will have to accept that you can’t change other people, especially your co-parent.
The ability to stop blaming comes when you face these truths. Acceptance of these truths and grief go hand in hand. Letting yourself feel grief will bring you to a more grounded, level-headed place. From that place you may be able to say: “Maybe my co-parent was doing the best he or she could” or “Maybe my co-parent didn’t intend to make a mistake” or “my co-parent is someone that is going to continue doing what they’ve always done, and continuing to get mad and blame them is not going to make anything better” or even “I guess I’m not perfect either; none of us are.”
Learning not to blame does not mean that you’re letting them off the hook. It just means that you’re being realistic about what you can and can’t control, and the truth of the imperfection of life. The truth will set you free.
From one imperfect human to another, good luck!