bench in thunderstorm

Relationship Killers, Part 4: It’s Always Your Fault

Have you ever talked with someone who complained about their relationship and made comments like "My husband picks on everything I do" or "My girlfriend complains about everything I do"? Or are you maybe in a position yourself where you feel constantly picked on?

You probably already guessed that this is a common complaint in relationships. But did you also know that there is a psychological explanation for this phenomenon?

Let's have a closer look at Mike and Judee's relationship to figure out what's going on:

Mike sometimes wonders why he ever got into a relationship with Judee.  On the one hand, they have lots of good times together.  On the other hand, she has a really bad personality. The heck of it is that he knew that when he got involved with her and he hitched up with her anyway.  At the time, he thought he could handle it.  Now he’s not so sure.

The problem is that she is always, always, ALWAYS, criticizing him.  He feels like she picks on him for everything he does. She is constantly finding fault with what he does. Sometimes he is waiting for her to criticize him when he breathes.

Mike knows, of course, that sometimes he can be critical too.  But it’s always in response to Judee’s frequently inane criticisms.  He can’t just let them stand.  If there’s one thing he learned as a young boy, it was to stand up for himself, and that’s what he does.

Judee sometimes can’t figure out how she hitched up with Mike. He always was one hell of handsome guy and he has a great sense of humor.  But he procrastinates in doing things and then simply cannot admit to the procrastination, or really, to making any mistakes.

She feels like her husband picks on and finds fault with everything she does.  He is critical and negative.  Everyone makes mistakes, apparently, except Mike.  She has always known he is sensitive to even the slightest criticism, but lately, things have gotten out of hand.  Even if she reminds him that he had promised to take out the garbage, which is piling up, he takes it as an offense and lashes out at her.

She has tried brief periods of time of just not saying anything, but some things just have to get done, like the garbage, which is his job, or the snow shoveling, for which he also procrastinates, sometimes making it hard for her to get her car out of the driveway.

She feels she hates to criticize anyone, especially Mike, but his procrastination in doing what needs to be done leaves her with absolutely no choice.

It seems odd that both Mike and Judee are in roughly the same position but see themselves as being in entirely different positions.  In a nutshell, each of them sees the other as dispositionally flawed—as having a basic problem in their personality.

Mike sees Judee as hopelessly critical of him and as always blaming him for almost anything she can find.  Judee sees Mike as a hopeless procrastinator who then cannot accept responsibility for the problems he causes.

Your own actions are influenced mostly by the situation; but others' actions seem to be influenced mostly by their personality

Mike and Judee are falling into a trap that psychologists call the actor-observer effect.  Let's take Mike as an example. Basically, when he himself does something wrong, he thinks his reaction is a response to the situation.  His personality is fine—it’s the circumstances that make him act the way he does!

But when Judee does something wrong, he attributes it to her personality.  It’s a deep-seated flaw that makes her act the way she does.

So essentially, when we are a victim of the actor-observer effect, we think that our own failings are due to the pressure of the situation; but when someone else fails, we think their personality is the cause of their failure.

Mike and Judee are not particularly unusual as a couple.  Almost all of us fall into the actor-observer trap.  And it is a real relationship killer, because it means that our partner is responsible for the problems in our relationship, while we ourselves are just reacting to the stress and strain our partner is causing. Even if we act badly, it’s always the partner’s fault!

How to break out of the vicious cycle

So, what do you do if your husband (or wife) finds fault with everything you do?  Or if you feel the source of all your problems is your partner?

  • Ask yourself whether you are not caught in a vicious circle, where each of you blames the other for starting it.  Break the vicious circle.
  • Talk to your partner and discover whether you are not both feeling the same way.
  • Resolve to admit your own faults and not always blame your partner for whatever goes wrong.
  • Watch your own behavior.  Is your behavior really always reactive, or are you sometimes starting the circle of blame and recrimination?  Once the circle starts, of course, it can become difficult to know who “started it.”  Just resolve not to let the vicious circle start in the first place.
  • And realize that we all are subject to the actor-observer effect.  But we all can break the circle.  Do it now!

Some guidance on how to approach conversations about touchy topics

So, how do you approach this delicate subject with your partner? You'll obviously need to be cautious so you don't get blamed again and things backfire.

Here's what we suggest:

If you are in a relationship where criticism and negativity occur frequently, you might consider changing your approach to tricky conversations. John Gottman calls this "softening your start-up." This is important because when your partner automatically expects harsh words and criticism from you when you bring up a delicate subject, they become defensive, aggressive, or blame you. At that point, your chance for a constructive conversation is all but gone. Instead, try the following:

    1. Show that the responsibility for the problem is shared. You can do so by saying something like this: "I realize that I did not ask you this afternoon to take care of the kids so I can get some work done. That said, I wanted to talk with you about taking the kids as we had discussed because it makes me feel upset when I fall behind in my work."
    2. If you feel you can't say anything like that, try something like this: "I know you're not the only one to blame for this - I am playing a role in this as well."
    3. Tell your partner how you feel about the issue on hand
    4. Share with your partner what you need from them. Phrase your need positively. If you say what you don't need, your partner still doesn't know how to behave. It's important you tell them what you need.
    5. Do all of this in a neutral manner - do not criticize or be contemptuous.

Please note that it is often women who bring up unpleasant issues in a relationship. At the same time, men are the ones who tend to get much more easily overwhelmed emotionally and physically when they are in a conflict situation with their wife. They also take longer to calm down again than women.

So watch out for symptoms of being overwhelmed in your partner. If you see they're getting upset, defensive, or try to deflect the conversation, you may want to give them some time to calm down and continue some other time.

You can say something like "It seems to me you are upset by what I am saying. I mean well and don't want to hurt you, but this conversation is important to me. Would you like to take some time and continue later?"

Try not to get upset by your partner's unkind words. Focus not on the tone and words but on the message your partner is sending.

If you get too upset, take a few moments to regain your composure. Breathe deeply into your stomach area.  Then, try to reframe and get clear on what you've heard. You can say, for example,  "I'd really like to do you justice and make you happy, but I feel a little lost. Can you please tell me what you need from me?"

We hope these tips will be of help when you are facing a difficult conversation. Remember, it is human to get upset. And it is also very normal to get upset when you have a conflict with your partner; after all, your emotions show how invested you are in your relationship.

It takes practice to lead difficult conversations successfully, and you may need more than one try. And that's OK.

This article is part of a series on relationship killers. The first part discussed the importance of respecting each other's differences, the second part was on the crushing impact secrets can have on our relationships, and the third part was on our tendency to focus on the negative in our partners.


If you're interested in more information on unconscious thinking errors that can hurt your relationship, check out these articles:

Sharing is caring!

17 thoughts on “Relationship Killers, Part 4: It’s Always Your Fault”

  1. You can observe this behavior in children as well. Possibly this is a behavior rooted in childhood that we are not even conscious of.

  2. This is a very interesting article, but would have been so much better had actual advice been given, other than the obvious “stop the cycle.” Are there exercises partners can do, tools to work through the discussion suggested? Because, quite frankly, my husband is never willing to talk if it involves anything near an admission of him doing anything wrong. If he finds himself in the wrong (almost always only if there is a third party observer) he will deflect and start picking on anything and everything about me or things I have done, and they are almost always totally unrelated!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment and for your suggestion! We really appreciate it. We will add some suggestions that will help people take concrete action.

  3. I think we have a tendency to say “always”. The things our spouse says may occur frequently, and under similar circumstances, but always is overkill.
    When I make an observation or share an opinion, I brace to hear “No, it’s (insert opposing thought). If I share an opinion, the debate is on! I actually lightheartedly said he would have done well on a debate team in school-no reaction. He honestly thinks he knows more about/is better at skills than anybody else, hence he takes me to task for the way I see isues. He says he’s playing devil’s advocate. It’s just the 2 of us now, and it us difficult to escape his behavior. I find it at best, and demeaning at worst. I have taken to keeping conversations short, and refrain from starting them. When he bkoviates about how superior he knows he is than most of society at large, I don’t interrupt, nor do I answer. He is unphased. On the other hand, if I ask in the moment why he feels I’m wrong, he jumps into a lengthy lecture. If I say I get it and I’d rather not keep the topic going, he becomes peeved and tells me I started it! I bite my tongue so often, I fear it’ll bleed! I’m an intelligent, educated, well-rounded, quite amiable person. How can I retrieve my solid feelings of self-worth, relevance, satisfaction in deeds, and basically my identity, drive, and my sunny disposition?

    1. If your husband believes that he knows everything, and that he always needs to play devil’s advocate, then you do indeed have what could be a serious problem. There are lots of people like that, and living with them is a challenge that can become overwhelming. As he ought to know, such a belief usually stems from deep-seated insecurity. The question is whether he can hold it in check in his behavior with you, even if that is what he believes. We suggest there are three steps you can take.

      1. The first is to tell him that his oft-expressed belief in his own superiority is a problem for you and for the marriage. Ask him whether he can hold that behavior in check. If he can, then you might be able to continue on an even keel.

      2. The second step, if he cannot hold it in abeyance–meaning that the deep-seated insecurity is so severe that he is essentially a “slave” to it, even if it costs the marriage–is to ask him whether he would be willing to seek individual psychotherapy, marriage counseling, or ideally, both.

      3. If the answer to the first two steps is that he cannot hold the behavior in abeyance and that he is unwilling to do anything, then you might have to tell him that the marriage is seriously at risk. If the behavior continues, you might want to go for individual counseling, which may lead you to further steps regarding what the future holds for the marriage.

      We wish you the best of luck!

      1. Chinedu S Mbama

        Your steps are one sided, pointing only to men. It would be great if that of women are included. Remember any of the spouse could be the one causing more problems.

  4. Thank you for the advice but my wife picks faults in me always to a point I have started seeing myself as a problem I love my wife so much but this one is too much I’m deeply hurt

    1. Today’s blogpost is relevant to your comment. It is on the need for positive reinforcement–praise–in relationships. I suggest you talk to your wife and tell her the problem. You might also show her today’s blogpost and ask whether, if she feels she must be so critical, can she at least mix in some praise? Meanwhile, you should do the same. Some people are just very critical. They have what I have called in my writing a “judicial style.” See if there is any value in the critiques. Take what is valuable; ignore the rest. Consider marital counseling if that is an option. Good luck! Best, Bob

    2. Try talking to your wife about the problem. If that does not work, you may need marriage counseling. Some people who “pick” see themselves as doing the partner a favor, even when they are not!

  5. It is very upsetting to be continually told how to do everything. Sometimes my husband is angry if I don’t do something the way he told me to do it. He raises his voice and just makes the matter worse. He is so wonderful in many, many ways but he can do a hundred nice things around the house or for me and he just ruins it with his overbearing interference in many things I do. For example, we had a fight when we were covering the pool at night and he got all upset and nasty because I wasn’t “doing it right”. Every time I think about it I want to cry. He really hurts my feelings with this unnecessary behavior.

    1. This is a surprisingly common problem. Some people just are (a) very controlling and (b) convinced that their way is the right way to do things. Ideally, you will be able to talk to your husband about this issue and your need for him not to be so controlling and also convinced that his way is the right way. In these kinds of situations, marriage counseling often is advisable, because people who are controlling often do not see themselves that way. Rather, they see themselves as doing others a favor by “setting them straight.” So, if honest conversation does not work, please consider counseling. Best, Bob

  6. How to convince a husband – who thinks “he knows it all” to a marriage or relationship counselling???? It’s impossible to make him understand , there is someone better than him in anything.

    1. Robert Sternberg

      People who know it all are very hard to convince. Perhaps the key ingredient of wisdom is epistemic humility–knowing how little you know. Socrates, one of the wisest men who ever lived, showed it when he said “I know that I know nothing.” People who lack epistemic humility are both unwise and worse, lacking insight into their own lack of wisdom. I have studied relationships since the 1980s, have published many highly cited articles and books, and realize how little I know. So, if he will not go for counseling, you either can accept that you are married to someone who is unwise and probably will stay that way, or tell him that counseling is so important to you that you would stake the continuation of the marriage on it, or suggest a trial separation in the hope he will see you are serious. If he doesn’t, that tells you a lot–unfortunately, more than you might have wished to know. If, for financial, religious, or other reasons, this will not work, you may in the end have to suck it up.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top