In his article “Marriage Problems: The Road to Ruin Begins with Blame,” relationship expert Steven Stosny, Ph.D., asked 400 couples to “think of the last three times you’ve experienced negative emotions that you blamed on your partner.” His findings show that 70 percent of the couples reported that the negative emotion attributed to the spouse was preceded by a string of negative events.
Reflecting on the first Torah portion, Bereshit (Genesis), and the tragic aftermath of Chava (Eve) and Adam eating from the Tree of Knowledge, I am always struck by what seems to be the cycle of negative emotions and blame in this relationship. This is clearly seen when Adam says to Hashem (G-d), “The woman that you gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree and I ate.”
What was Adam really thinking? Surely he was not blaming Hashem for giving him his ezer knegdo (soulmate). Surely he was not blaming Chava for manipulating him into eating the forbidden fruit. And what are we to believe from Chava being beguiled by the serpent?
The answers to these questions are for theologians and rabbinical experts. They are not the subject that I want to address today. But they do bring up questions that often form the core of what relationship expert Dr. Howard Markman and his colleagues in the book “Fighting for your Marriage” define as destructive patterns.
According to the book, one of these destructive patterns is escalation. Escalation occurs when partners respond negatively to each other, volleying back and forth with increasingly harsh accusations. Often, this spirals into anger and frustration, and “sadly enough, without realizing the danger, the escalation leads to hurtful words that become hard to take back.”
One common example cited in the book clearly illustrates this issue:
Man: (sarcastically) You would think you could put the cap back on the toothpaste.
Woman: (equally sarcastic) Oh, like you never forget to put it back.
Man: As a matter of fact, I always put it back.
Woman: Of course, I forgot how compulsive you are. You are right, of course.
Man: I do not even know why I stay with you. You are so negative.
Woman: Maybe you shouldn’t stay. NO one is barring the door.
Man: I am not really sure why I do stay any more.
Returning to Bereshit, there is no question that one of Hashem’s crowning achievements was the creation of a couple whose potential for greatness was the result of working together as one entity. King Solomon, in his epic work Koheles (Ecclesiastes), further elaborated on this point by stating that two are better than one.
So how do we keep the blame from escalating? What brakes can we put on negative emotions before they destroy the relationship and send us out of our own Garden of Eden? If you honestly evaluate your interactions with your spouse or partner, can you come up with a list of topics that ended up as part of the blame game and their impact on your relationship?
Chava and Adam might have been the first couple to highlight the blame game, but we must all take responsibility for letting it continually refuel and not extinguishing it.
Any thoughts on the subject are welcome and appreciated.