Barry and Carla have been together 2 years. It started off well enough, or so it seemed. Barry is in a corporate job that has a lot of social events and he expected Carla to attend. Carla found the social events really boring, but she was willing to attend for Barry’s sake. All relationships, after all, are give and take.
What made Carla even less happy than attending the events, however, was when Barry started telling her what to wear. Not just the dress, but the accompaniments, down to the shoes.
The first time, she couldn’t believe it. She objected. Barry explained, patiently, that these events were really important to his career, and unfortunately, the corporation was one of those conservative ones where they actually counted not only that the partner showed up, but that they were dressed in a fashion the corporate bigwigs considered appropriate.
Carla felt like puking, but she certainly did not want to be responsible for Barry’s failing to be successful on his job, so she followed his dictates.
Carla let it go. But she was surprised again—unpleasantly--when Barry started telling her what to wear even when they did not go to corporate social events.
She objected again, but at this point, his tune changed. He informed her that, although she had many strengths, choosing clothes was not one of them. They lived in a community where people watched what other people wore, and he had received a few comments about the way she dressed. This was not helping them blend in well with the community.
Carla was really upset. She did not even know what to say. At first, she thought that maybe Barry was joking, but then she realized he was serious.
She tried to object—as she had before—but when she did, Barry started acting very distant, very remote. He made her feel horrible.
At first, Carla was going to hold out, but after a while, she just couldn’t take it anymore, and then she decided it just wasn’t worth it. She let Barry choose her clothes. What did she care?
Soon it was not just clothes, but more and more things. Barry was telling her she should do things this way, that way, or the other way.
When she objected, Barry would not argue much, he would not scream, he would not shout. He just would withdraw. He knew that this was much more effective than his confronting her directly.
Soon, Barry was telling her what she could do, what she couldn’t do, and when she could do it. She realized that he was just extremely controlling.
This was not part of the original deal. If he had exercised his control in all of the domains at once, she probably would have left. But it was gradual—one thing after another, until she just stopped arguing.
The worst part was that Carla had come to believe that she really needed Barry to tell her what to do. She was finding it harder and harder to make decisions on her own.
Finally, Carla decided she needed help. She went to see a therapist. She did not tell Barry, because she knew he would not approve and likely would not allow her to go.
After a month with the therapist, she told Barry that his controlling-behavior days were over. She was reclaiming her own life.
Barry didn’t scream or shout, of course. He laughed at her. He told her that she was so incompetent at living her life that, if she wanted to ruin it for herself, that was up to her.
It was not that he was controlling, he explained. It was that she was utterly incompetent to make choices and had proved it over and over again. She was lucky to have him, he explained.
Carla did not argue. She left.
Some partners are controlling. Others are screamers. Still others are drinkers. And yet others cannot get their life together.
They need help. But they do not all want help. Some of them just want someone else to blame, like Barry.
Barry was a control freak. Unbeknownst to Carla, he always had been a control freak, and had failed in other relationships because of it.
But the biggest problem was his utter failure to accept responsibility. He would never change—not really—because he refused to accept any responsibility for his own freakish behavior.
If you are with a control freak, a screamer, a substance-abuser, a gambler, or anyone else with a serious problem, you need to help that person realize they have a problem.
You may or may not succeed. Some of these patterns of behavior are very deep-seated, and they simply may not change.
At that point, you will have to decide whether you can stick it out.
The behavior you have to watch out for
But there is one pattern that, I believe, you seriously have to think about leaving behind you.
That pattern is the partner who will not only not admit responsibility but who will blame you for their problems.
That’s not something you can deal with over the long term.
They are sometimes, in psychology, called “externals.” They always view their behavior as someone else’s problem.
Or they view it as due to the unfortunate situation they are in.
They won’t accept responsibility, because to do so would be to recognize that their inadequacy is in themselves.
At some point you start believing them...
But there’s a rub for their partners. The rub is that chronic externals often repeat their other-blaming, again and again and again. They reinforce it, and then reinforce their reinforcement. They simply never except blame.
And when people keep hearing the same thing over and over again, from a source they want to trust, they often start to believe it.
Unscrupulous leaders of various persuasions know this. They know that, often, the big lie is much more effective than a bunch of little ones. But to be effective, that lie has to be repeated over and over again, in as many different contexts as possible.
That’s what Barry did. And eventually, Carla came to believe his big lies and thought that she was incompetent. Years of hearing it from Barry, over and over again, in one setting after another, convinced her it was true.
If your partner is an other-blamer—an external—you need to deal with it. If you don’t, you may start believing them.
Chronic externals are not likely to change
This is not behavior you want to hang around for. It’s probably not going to change. It likely will get worse.
And you may find that as your partner crushes you and your spirit, and as you become weaker, they only become stronger. Because they are so insecure, they feed off your submission to their blaming.
Don’t feed their maladaptive behavior. Talk with them and share the impact their behavior has on you. Give them a chance to change.
If they don’t, seriously consider whether it is not time to move on. If you don’t, you risk losing not only your freedom to act, but your self-esteem.
A caveat: Does your partner indeed chronically blame others?
In this article, we are talking about those people who chronically blame others for their own failures and misery. Such a pattern of behavior is hard to change.
Everybody deserves a chance, or two, or three. So give your partner a chance as we suggested above.
But keep in mind that your partner may not actually fall into the category of chronic "externals" that we discussed here. Rather, he or she may solely be falling prey to the same psychological mechanisms that are at work for all of us (in this case, the actor-observer effect).
There's nothing chronic or pathological about this; it's just human.
If you want to know more about the actor-observer effect or are interested in specific tips regarding how to lead a conversation about touchy subjects, check out this article.
How do you tell the difference though?
In chronic behavior, your partner shows that behavior always (or almost always) and with a variety of people. What I am calling a "chronic external" is someone who always blames others or external circumstances.
In the case of the normal actor-observer effect, you'll sometimes see the behavior, and sometimes you won't. The partner also won't constantly blame you for their failures.
It's sometimes difficult to tell the difference, particularly when you're in the middle of it all. But give your partner a fair chance when you assess what's going on and take a close look.