Late in the evening one Wednesday night, we got a call from Molly. “We desperately need your help. Can we come over?” And over she came with her husband, Allen. Over coffee and doughnuts, Molly shared what the problem was. According to her, Allen wasn’t leading the family well. For the first five minutes, Molly told us everything that Allen was doing wrong and the great efforts she’s put in to change him. Allen was silent.

At that time the evening got interesting. My wife asked Molly a question: “You’ve told us about Allen. Why don’t you tell us what you’ve contributed to the problem?” Offended and put off, Molly insisted that she had done everything she could do to fix Allen … the rest was up to him.

Then Allen finally spoke: “I’m doing the best I can, but my best is never good enough for her.” Whether that was true or not, the pain in the statement reverberated throughout our kitchen. But even louder was the silence that followed. He had nothing else to say … nothing.

Amidst the various shortcomings on both their parts, Molly’s entire focus was on Allen. Even in our conversation, the well-intended efforts to help the marriage have been on fixing him … not in recognizing her contributions to the issue. And, in his own passive and quiet way, Allen blamed Molly and her lack of cooperation for the failures in their marriage instead of looking to himself. Molly and Allen have fallen into the blame trap.

The problem for all of us

There is a blame trap awaiting us all in marriage. When a problem or a conflict arises, we are poised to fall directly into it … and we often do. We blame our spouses for the problem and then either blatantly accuse them or passively set out to fix them. We may even pray, but we pray that God will fix them, convict them of their sin, or cause them to repent.

In this posture, we will never experience the unity and victory God desires. Why? Because the blame trap never works. But in spite of its repeated failure, it is still the first course of action that most marriages take. One look, many years back, will give us all a great example.

What happened after eating the fruit

Before the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, the world was sinless. The first set of sins are well known and well recorded: eating the fruit from the forbidden tree. However, what about the second set of sins? Take a look at the scene just after the eating of the fruit:

[God] said … “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:11-13).

Eve ate the fruit; we know that, and she knew that. Adam ate the fruit; we know that, and he knew that. However, when God asked each directly if they had eaten of the fruit, both Adam and Eve denied responsibility. And so, the second set of sins were committed—blaming another instead of looking to oneself.

Solomon tells us there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). As old as the second set of sins is, we still repeat them today. Molly and Allen are perfect examples. Each needed to accept responsibility for his or her own actions and attitudes and leave the spouse’s responsibility up to him or her. They needed to avoid the blame trap … and so do we.

Falling into the blame trap

Man or woman, old or young, rich or poor, we all fall into the blame trap in the same way. Regardless of circumstance or actual facts, it is always much easier to deal with a problem if someone else is to blame. Then the responsibility is on him or her to fix it, to change, or to apologize. If only Allen would lead!” “If only Molly would follow!” 

We blame others to bring ourselves comfort from guilt or responsibility.We blame others to protect ourselves and make things better for us. And we think once the blame is shifted away from us that we are better off. The fact is … we’re not.

Blaming others helps the guilt go away, but hurt, bitterness, and anger often fill its place. We’re trading responsibility for our own actions and receiving a manifold return of disaster. No matter how you look at it, the blame trap is the wrong way to handle conflict.

A better alternative

Wherever there is a wrong way of doing things, there is always a right way. First Corinthians 10:13 gives great comfort to couples who find themselves in this scenario. It says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Having removed the blame trap from your arsenal, God will provide a way out … a better way.

In any conflict, especially marital conflicts, it is essential that we examine ourselves. This does not mean that your spouse has no blame. All it means is that the blame that rests with your spouse is not yours to deal with. That is between him and God.

Self-examination is the better way. Consider Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” In this list of godly wisdom and commands given to followers of Jesus (Romans 12:9-21), this strangely ambiguous one fits neatly. With phrases like “if possible” and “so far as it depends on you,” it admits that you cannot make others live at peace with you any more than you can make others do what you think they should do. But at the same time, it turns the focus and responsibility of interpersonal conflict on you personally. It says, “In any conflict, make sure you are doing all you can to live at peace.”

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The problems in the mirror

So when Molly and Allen sat across our table, the best we could do was to first turn them away from each other and toward a “mirror.” We had to help them deal with the problems they saw in the mirror first (James 1:22-25). Then, we helped them see the interpersonal dynamics in their marriage.

When we accept the calling and the challenge to focus first and primarily on our own responsibilities and blame, we are given a gift from God. It’s called humility. With humility comes grace to give away, patience to spend, and love that understands. We realize that few are the conflicts with just one culprit and many are the conflicts with many. We realize just how much our marriages need the work and grace of Jesus.

As a result of this humility, we argue less, love more and seek understanding—not victory. And all of this comes just from avoiding the blame trap and actively pursuing another way—a better way.

A real-life story

One couple got it right and reaped the benefits. Wendy and Rick were a young married couple. Shortly after their wedding, Rick went into a long stretch of unemployment. They were forced to live on her salary only, which put them in an awful financial position.

Daily, Wendy would push Rick to apply for this job or that position. The harder she pushed, the less he would do. In just 12 months, they drifted from happy newlyweds to live-in combatants.

At a quick glance, the main issue seemed to be Rick’s unemployment. If they just resolved that, they’d be fine. This was the basis for Wendy’s complaints and constant prodding. And since Rick wouldn’t fix the problem, the blame seemed to rest squarely on his shoulders. But a closer look revealed a more complex picture.

Wendy was not better off for falling into the blame trap. In fact, once she fell in, she realized that Rick only got worse not better, and she was growing more and more bitter. The thinly veiled promise of improvement quickly gave way to the awful effects of the blame trap—rather than improve the problem, the blame trap compounds it.

Examining their own contributions

In order for Wendy and Rick to address the actual marital issues on the table, they both needed to examine their contributions … not their spouse’s contributions. After much prayer, patience, and many repeated visits, they began to see the value of self-examination and are doing much better. In fact, once their relationship started to be transformed by avoiding the blame trap, Rick found a job.

Just like Wendy, when you blame your spouse and try to change him or her, you are filling a role never intended for you. If real change happens on the inside, at a deeply personal and heart level, then it takes the Holy Spirit to change a person’s heart. When we try to do it without Him, we are trying to be Him—a dangerous task under any circumstances.

If we will be wise enough to look at our own role in any matter, especially marital conflict, we will be dealing directly with God. He will be working on our own hearts and we will give Him the room to work on our spouses’ hearts.

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