If you love someone with ADHD, you may know too well how blame shifting can hurt a relationship.
Blame shifting takes many forms:
“If you didn’t make me so angry all the time, I wouldn’t explode at you. Would you rather I bottled it all up?”
“I wouldn’t have gotten a speeding ticket if you hadn’t asked a bunch of questions when you knew I was trying to get out the door.”
“I never thought I’d be the type to cheat, but you made me feel so unappreciated.”
“You and Dad never modeled a healthy relationship for me. No wonder my marriage fell apart.”
For the purposes of this post, let’s look at a smaller-scale example:
Suppose you’re having company over tonight. Your husband meant to take pork chops out of the freezer last night, but he forgot. He arrives home from some errands at 4:30, ready to marinate the chops so he can throw them on the grill when your guests arrive.
Upon discovering the meat still in the freezer, he blows up at you:
“Great, now dinner is ruined! You were here all day and you couldn’t have noticed the meat wasn’t in the fridge? Every time I think you have my back, you’re just thinking about your own stuff and doing your own thing. All our other married friends work together as a team. You make me feel like our relationship is just every man for himself…”
And on and on.
In describing this behavior to your friends — or searching the internet — you may learn blame shifting is often categorized as psychological abuse.
Does this mean you’re in an abusive relationship and it’s time to get out?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Why we blame others
Just like shifting blame onto others is easier to swallow than accepting your own (often overwhelming) faults, it’s easy to cast ourselves in the role of the victim. Once we’ve accepted the role, both parties learn to play their part like it’s second nature.
Before we write off a blame shifter as incurably abusive and ill-intentioned, it’s worth a closer look. The ability to see a situation from multiple angles and experience emotions without being blinded by them is a marker of strength. We can assert and protect ourselves in ways other than walking out the door.
As we seek that steady foundation, we need to remember why people people tend to mistreat others. As a child, I remember my mother telling me bullies picked on me because they felt badly about themselves.
Bullies of all ages use others to shift focus away from their own hurts. In his book Healing ADD from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Amen writes, “people who ruin their own lives have a strong tendency to blame other people when things go wrong.” Consider the pain, humiliation, and self-loathing weighing on the hearts of so many ADHD adults and it’s easy to see blame shifting and other emotionally abusive behaviors as the path of least resistance.
Accepting even a minor failure — like forgetting to take the meat out of the freezer — can feel like too much to bear if your self-image has already been decimated by ADHD. Allowing ourselves to own that one misstep threatens to open the floodgates, confirming our worst fears about ourselves and reinforcing our most damaging self-criticisms.
Disarm with compassion and clarity
I’m not excusing bad behavior, but rather seeking explanations beyond “he’s just a bad person.” When you’re feeling wounded by a blame shifter’s words, try to remember they’re hurting, too. This knowledge may make it easier to begin from a strong and productive place rather than simply retreating or attacking back.
And it does take strength. The best first step in a conflict is to acknowledge your own contribution, even if the other person is wrong.
Why? Because this removes the blame shifter’s weapon. You cannot assume a position of strength without making yourself vulnerable. When someone shifts the blame, that’s a good signal that they’re coming from a place of weakness and will redouble their attacks if you begin by focusing on their faults.
When acknowledging your contribution, don’t dwell on blame or get melodramatic. The idea is to communicate to the other person, “I’m not interested in discussing who’s to blame here” and move on.
In the case of the frozen meat, that means saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t notice when I went into the fridge to get my lunch. If I had, we may have been able to get the meat thawed in time.”
You may fear you’re just rewarding bad behavior. There’s inherent risk in making yourself vulnerable. But consider your options: if you argue, deny, and try to pass the buck back to the blame shifter, you’re making them feel even more threatened and thus even more prone to attack. You could just slink away, refuse to engage, and wait for it to blow over, but that makes you an ideal target: a person who won’t stand up for herself, who will allow someone to tear you down to make themselves feel better. That’s not okay.
After accepting your contribution, be firm. Make sure you’re not enabling blame shifting now or in the future. Help the blame shifter see their role in the situation by making clear, non-threatening observations about what happened.
Avoid statements that aren’t about you, like “you said you’d be in charge of the meat. I shouldn’t have needed to worry about it.”
Instead, describe only your own feelings, observations, and interpretations: “the meat wasn’t on my radar. I guess I kind of forgot about it after we decided you’d grill and I’d make the side dishes. It sounds like you’d like for us to check each other a little more intentionally to make sure nothing gets forgotten.”
This shifts focus away from finger-pointing and toward problem solving.
If the blame shifter continues to dump on you, speak up. Resist the urge to get emotional or confrontational. For example: “I feel like I’m trying to look at this from both sides. It’s not okay with me to just focus on how I messed up because that’s not what I feel really happened here. Am I making it difficult for you to have a two-sided conversation about this?”
Once a blame shifter learns that you won’t take the bait and feed the flames with more emotion, they’ll stop seeing you as a viable container for their own bad feelings and low self esteem.
You can’t do it all
Sometimes a loved one will continue behaving badly, especially if their ADHD is untreated or poorly managed. Only you can know — through experience, soul searching, and repeated attempts to open doors to effective communication — if it’s time to remove yourself from a toxic environment.
However, it’s important to remember there’s hurt on both sides, and rarely does responsibility for stopping the cycle rest with just one person.
Much of the advice in this post was gleaned from Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen’s Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. If you’re dealing with a poor communicator, the best thing you can do to make things better is to hone your own skills and lead by example. I highly recommend Difficult Conversations as a starting point for anyone seeking to heal a damaged relationship.
Have you felt victimized by a blame shifter? What did you do? Are you a recovering blame shifter? I’d love to hear your story in the comments.