When people learn that my husband of ten years abandoned me with a text message, avoided any communication, committed marital fraud and carried out felony bigamy, the first reaction I get is often surprise and disbelief. The second? Blame.
I've heard it all. He must have left because we didn't have sex. Or, perhaps it's because I gained weight and let myself go. Maybe I was a shopaholic and spent his paychecks at the mall. I must have nagged him to death, berating him out of the marriage. And, of course, since he disappeared and refused contact, I had to have been abusive, causing him to fear for his safety.
The reality? None of those assumptions are remotely true. We had an active and healthy sex life until the end. The largest I've ever been is a size four and I exercise regularly. I'm frugal, preferring Goodwill to the mall on most occasions. I'm not a nagger and he was never one to avoid work, anyway. And, finally, I doubt he was afraid of me since I stand a full foot shorter than him and I've never even yelled at him in anger. Not to mention that the only weapons I owned at the time of the divorce were a pair of rusty foils from when I used to fence in high school.
Why is it that some people are so quick to blame one spouse or another for the divorce? I mainly hear these types of reactions when abandonment or infidelity is involved; the expressed assumption is that the spouse on the receiving end must have somehow invited that behavior. It is not unlike the victim-shaming often applied to sexual assault victims or the way an abuser lays the blame at the feet of his or her abused. This mindset can be damaging for those who are trying to come to terms with what has happened to them. Those who are trying to ascertain if they are damaged or not worthy. Those whose world has been torn asunder and who are looking to right themselves again.
There is a difference between accepting responsibility for your own behavior and taking the blame for another's actions. In my own marriage, I accept responsibility that my intense nature and tendency to worry helped to create an environment that was supportive of his dishonesty. I was fiercely independent and may have given the message that I did not need anyone else. I had high expectations of him and even higher expectations of myself. Regardless, that did not make it okay for him to lie for years, embezzle money from the marriage, leave with a text message and no discourse or commit bigamy.
The blamers say he did those things because of me. In the early months, I felt he did those things to me. Now, I believe that he did those things despite of me. He was sick, he was unhappy, he was fighting addictions and I just happened to be collateral damage.
So why do we play the blame game at the end of a marriage, assigning guilt like we're tallying points in a shuffleboard match? Why does it have to turn into a bride vs. groom match with everyone taking sides?
The blame frequently starts within the dissolving union. One partner often holds the other responsible for the destruction of the marriage. They can be quick to list the faults and transgressions of their ex, pointing fingers at another as a way of avoiding having to look at themselves. This is frequently performed behind a shield of righteousness, painting the blaming spouse into a victim role where they have no responsibility for their own actions and their own happiness.
Not all blame comes from within. Some of the most painful and damaging blame comes from those outside the marriage who feel the need to pass judgment on its demise.
Marriages are strange things. The union itself is public, yet the true nature of the relationship is known only to its partners. As a result, we have to make assumptions about the inner workings of the marriage. Because we don't know another's marriage, we superimpose what we do know onto their experience. We project our own pasts and beliefs onto their story, reframing it into something familiar. This is a natural reaction; we try to make sense of what we do not understand by relating it to what we do know. It's natural, but it's also important to realize that it is not necessarily accurate.
Blame also arises from a desire for fairness and order in the world. We may have outgrown fairytales, but we still want to believe in a world where good is rewarded and the wicked, punished. It's difficult to understand and accept that this equanimity is not always the case and that 50-50 doesn't always ring true.
It is also easy to lay blame when you're on the sidelines. You can act like an armchair quarterback with a bird's eye view of all of the action. For those on the field, the plays are subtler and are made even murkier by the waves of emotion that accompany divorce.
Finally, we place blame out of fear. We want to believe in the security of being able to control our own lives. In the case of divorce, abandonment fraud and infidelity, people seek comfort in the idea that they can avoid those outcomes if they only act a certain way. We want to think that we are safe, that it can't happen to us.
Ultimately, blame is a distraction from the core issues in trauma and healing. It is a winless game; it's best just not to play.
If you find yourself quick to lay blame, please pause for a moment and think about the appropriateness of the label. Think about the consequences of the assumption. Try to examine the situation from multiple viewpoints.
If you find yourself being blamed, especially after your partner has committed adultery or left without notice, please understand that the blamer is lashing out due to their own insecurities and narrow views. You are not responsible for another's actions.
We need to reach out in kindness, not lash out in blame.