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The “It’s Not You, It’s Us” Approach to Relationship Problems

(This blog post was written by Elisabeth Mandel, LMFT. Elisabeth is an Associate Therapist at our practice and specializes in working with couples.)

Partners often come to therapy to play the blame game. One partner points the finger at the other, turns to the therapist and says, “See what I mean.”

The couples therapist then turns to the other partner and asks, “What does she mean?”

The partner responds, “I don’t know” or “She blames me for everything.”

This is typical couples therapy. I see it every day. One partner attempts to collude with me to get me on their side, and I resist by shifting the focus to the other partner’s interpretation of what’s going on.

Systemic thinking involves looking at the relationship as a system, as opposed to two separate parts. It doesn’t mean that I don’t acknowledge partners as individuals. Rather, I observe the dynamic between partners and help them understand how they are working together to perpetuate problems.

An important question I encourage partners to consider is, “What is the purpose of this presenting problem?” Incidents turn into problems for a reason. Repeated incidents indicate a trend or pattern in the way partners interact.

I also ask each partner, “What do you think is the problem?” so I can see things from both perspectives. As an outsider, my capabilities are limited in terms of what I can do to influence change in the system. Therefore, I must insert myself into the couple’s relationship by approaching the presenting problem from all angles.

My role is not to tell partners what they are doing wrong and how to change. I offer a service that helps couples better run their relationships by guiding them away from their own stubborn views of why problems exist, and towards a systemic perspective of how problems developed and what each partner is doing to contribute to their relationship problems.

Dysfunctional patterns, or relationship problems, are the direct manifestation of dysfunctional interactions, which stem from dysfunctional behavior on the part of both partners. Blame leads to resentment which reduces emotional safety and increases the likelihood of repeated incidents. Mutual accountability through systemic thinking breaks these dysfunctional patterns. 

If you are experiencing problems in your relationship, I encourage you and your partner to take responsibility for your own contribution to the problem. This will allow you to work together to protect your relationship from the counterproductive blame game.

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