"We're in counseling because Bob thinks I'm the sick one," says Linda, 37, a petite brunette dressed in an expensive designer pantsuit.
"He accuses me of being a shopaholic. I admit that sometimes I spend more than I should, but what does he expect? I need a little happiness in my life."
It's been a difficult year for Linda. Although she finally gave birth to a healthy boy six months ago after years of infertility, her mother--her best friend--died of a heart attack. Shortly thereafter, her father closed his dental practice and moved in with her and Bob. On top of that, Bob's construction business is doing poorly.
Most days, Linda reports, Bob comes home and screams at her. "Whenever I dare to cry, Bob gives me a withering look and barks: 'Snap out of it.' He thinks I have a shopping problem. Well, I'm positive he has a drinking problem." Bob doesn't drink a lot, or often, she says, but "even a few glasses of wine and he goes berserk." The other day, he shouted obscenities at her in a restaurant.
Bob, 40, is tired of being portrayed as the heartless husband who yells at his poor little wife every time she buys a few clothes.
"She didn't bother to say that her purchases put us $10,000 in debt. How can she do that when she knows I'm struggling to earn every penny?" he asks.
Although he sympathizes with Linda's loss of her mother, he believes that it's time for her to get on with her life. "I know I shouldn't yell at Linda in front of others, but her shopping sprees provoke me. And she has the nerve to suggest I have a drinking problem. That's ridiculous."
"Linda and Bob are a classic example of each partner having a serious problem but refusing to acknowledge it completely, preferring instead to blame the spouse," says Ilse Ross, a counselor with the Family Service League in Huntington, N.Y.
Grieving for her mother and saddled with the needs of a baby and a despondent father, Linda is overwhelmed. She needs someone to listen to her expressions of sadness and anxiety without being made to feel guilty about it. Nevertheless, she has to admit that she has a habit of shopping and overspending. Similarly, Bob clearly has a problem with alcohol. Frequent and excessive alcohol consumption is not the only symptom of alcoholism; people like Bob, who undergo disturbing personality changes after only a few drinks, also have a problem. Acknowledging it is the first step in controlling it.
Couples break out of the blaming impasse when they give up needing to be right, take responsibility for their behavior and make healing the relationship a priority.
This exercise will help Linda and Bob, as well as other couples trapped in a cycle of righteous blaming:
1. Think of an issue that's causing pain in your relationship.
2. In three sentences, write down your position on that issue.
3. Pretend to be your partner and describe how he or she sees that issue. Be fair.
4. Now ask yourself: What would have to change inside me for me to see the issue from my spouse's point of view? Are these changes ones I'm comfortable with? If so, why am I not making them?
The next step for Linda and Bob must be to cancel all credit cards and operate on a cash-only basis. All money should be deposited into a joint account, and both partners must reconcile the checkbook every month.