The Blame Game

blame1Blame always causes damage, either to oneself or to others.  To blame others is to defend oneself from uncomfortable feelings and to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions; blaming oneself reinforces one’s lack of self worth.  Blame breeds resentment and prevents resolution of conflict.

Blame is a defensive response to pain – instead of allowing us to express hurt, it prompts us to act out and attack.  It is always tinged with anger and produces no result.  Blame alienates and pushes away.  Over time, blame destroys relationships.

In my work with couples I have seen blame exacerbate the rupture that brought the couple into treatment in the first place.  Unless both people in a relationship take responsibility in a conflict, they will express their feelings through blame.  This prevents understanding and enflames problems in communication.

Even if the blamed person takes responsibility for her/his partner’s hurt and apologizes, it may seem like the problem is being addressed when, in fact, resentment and guilt are simply buried and end up being acted out in other areas of the relationship.  While blame and subsequent apology may create the impression that the rupture has been dealt with, it in fact has simply been camouflaged until it presents itself in other problematic areas that the couple may or may not be dealing with.  While not always apparent, in any conflict there is shared responsibility in preventing understanding and healing.

Suspicion or discovery of infidelity is one of the most volatile areas that come between couples, leaving the psyche gripped with feelings of insecurity and rejection.  What drives a partner to explode in rage when experiencing the pain of betrayal?  What role does each partner play in a rupture precipitated by infidelity, either real or imagined?  And does responding with rage when infidelity strikes address the problem?

When both people in a couple discover their own responsibility in a rupture, including infidelity, it does not illustrate “blaming the victim”.  In every dyad, there is action and reaction, and I have found that even in the most blatant breaking of trust, the injured party can look at her/his contribution to the breakdown in the relationship.  If blame is the only response to being hurt, after time the blamed member of the couple will start to resent her/his partner.

A couple who had been together for 11 years came to see me after discovery of a workplace flirtation.  The wife had found a romantic-tinged text from her husband’s co-worker and confronted her husband.  He admitted the flirtation had gotten out of hand and, while confused, he said that he did not want to leave the marriage, loved his wife and the life that they had, and wanted to work on the marriage.  The wife was devastated and enraged.  She acted out her pain and devastation with attack and accusation and, as she attacked, her anger only deepened.  As we worked together, many past problems in the relationship came up that had never been addressed.  But the blame and attack from the wife continued unabated until the husband was distraught and resentful.  I tried to focus on the wife’s pain, the husband’s confusion and on working on the past unaddressed problems that contributed to the flirtation and fantasy.  After a couple of months, the wife’s constant blame and accusation and the husband’s growing resentment ruptured the relationship in a more substantial way than the initial out-of-hand flirtation.  The wife refused to look at her role in the ruptures and continued to blame her husband in total for the problems in the relationship.  The conflict deepened and healing was elusive.

A married man I have worked with for many years struggles with tremendous guilt and self-recrimination over his pornography addiction and for his occasional hiring of escorts.  Although his addiction has been a life-long struggle, during his marriage and until recently he has refrained from pornography and sexually acting out.  During his 10 years of marriage, he has had two children.  For a long period of time he has felt neglected by his wife, who has been focusing on the children and has neglected intimacy with him.  When he brings up the lack of sex and suggests working on it, she avoids the topic and lets it drop.  Lately my patient has succumbed to his porn addiction and is worried that he may act out further.  My patient is filled with self-blame about his addiction.  He thinks of his addiction as a weakness and moral failing.  While he has enormous empathy for his wife, and understands why the intimacy has left their relationship, he has no empathy for himself.  Instead of confronting the issue of sex with his wife and not letting the subject drop when he brings it up, he blames himself for needing to fulfill his need for sex though porn.  Because I fear that his self-blame will further isolate him and may develop into resentment towards his wife, I encourage him to persist in bringing up the subject to his wife and to develop empathy towards his addiction disease.

When one is hurt and responds with blame, she/he is unconsciously motivated to hurt the other.  That way, she/he is not suffering alone.  This only further alienates the person causing the pain and breeds resentment and isolation.  To express hurt brings the other towards the one hurting; blame pushes the other away.

Infidelity, Guilt and Honesty: Should I Tell?

When cheating ruptures a relationship, sexually and/or emotionally, any semblance of trust is shattered. There is a breakdown of trust, intimacy, and security accompanied by rage, guilt, dishonesty and paranoia. It takes a long time down a very difficult road to reestablish this trust.

Perhaps the most difficult question a cheating partner must ask him/herself is “Should I tell my partner?” While on the surface the answer to this dilemma may seem obvious, it is vital to asses what motivates the impulse to make this disclosure.

A cheating partner is assaulted with guilt, dishonesty and anxiety while his/her partner will feel rejected, insecure, and paranoid. Someone who seeks intimacy outside his/her relationship will immediately be confronted with the decision of whether to disclose the breech. Rationalization is almost always present: “My partner has let him/herself go” or “My partner doesn’t want to have as much sex as I do.” While such justifications may indeed represent the truth, acting out by cheating is, of course, dishonest and ethically unsound. In a monogamous relationship, cheating only exacerbates the original problems that motivated the cheating in the first place.

To keep communication open and healthy, each partner must be honest. However, I disagree with the assumption, often made, that secrets between partners constitutes dishonesty. It’s essential to respect and understand that everyone has private thoughts that they want to keep to themselves. This is not inherently dishonest. But when the essential structure of a monogamous relationship is breeched and the breech hidden, the intimacy so vial to a healthy relationship is poisoned.

To admit infidelity is to be fraught with guilt, fear, and regret. Congruent with these feelings is the desire to be honest and ethical. It’s important to explore the motivation behind admitting an infidelity and to examine what such condor will accomplish. Is such honest intended to assuage guilt? Is it to ensure that such infidelity won’t happen again? Or is it a passive-aggressive attack on the partner, designed to elicit certain feelings?

When I work with individuals struggling with this decision, I find that most want to tell their partner because “it’s the right thing to do.” On further exploration, however, it often turns out that the real reason motivating such an admission is to assuage one’s own guilt. This may help the individual who cheats but it does nothing to help the relationship. In fact, admitting infidelity under these circumstances can be fatal.

For many years I have been working with a man who has struggled with pornography and sex addiction throughout his adult life. As he acts out his addictions, he is wracked with guilt and shame. His sense of self-worth is shattered. Fortunately, as he has been in treatment with me, he has been able to address his addictions and avoid falling prey to his compulsions. During our work together, my patient has gotten married and has had a child. His wife knew nothing of his past struggle as he feared she wouldn’t understand and would feel rejected. As his treatment progressed, he was able to forgive himself for his behavior and resist his impulses; his level of shame diminished remarkably. We successfully terminated treatment after a decade.

Two years later, my patient contacted me and told me he wanted to come back into therapy. During this period he had succumbed again to his addictions and, while away on business trips, spent hours on the computer looking at pornography or in chat rooms looking for women to hook up with and had a number of brief affairs. When he returned to treatment, he was overwhelmed with shame and desperate to stop. After recommencing treatment, he did manage to stop and in the last year has had another child.

My patient and I have often explored whether he should avow his addiction to his wife. After much work, he was able to see through his shame and guilt and realize that it was best for his relationship not to disclose his addiction and past infidelities. His marriage is now strong and his family sound. We continue our work to avoid future triggers to his addiction.

I’m working with a couple who have a child and have been together many years. One partner discovered e-mails and text messages revealing that her partner had been having an affair. We continue to work together to understand what happened and to heal the broken trust.

When I see a couple for the first time, I recommend having individual sessions with each partner before our second session as a couple. When I met with the partner who was cheating, she revealed a history of another affair. While this history of infidelity was not something she wanted to admit to her partner, she was committed to working on her relationship and to reestablishing trust. I was willing to allow to keep this past from her partner as long as she honored her commitment and remained monogamous. Had I insisted she reveal all to her partner, the relationship would probably not have survived.

If a couple wants to stay together and work on their relationship, complete honesty may not always be helpful. It is often clear that sharing an infidelity can cause irrevocable damage to a relationship and that disclosing the behavior may not be in a couple’s best interests. If, however, a couple does manage to address such a rupture and build trust and honesty, admitting such lapses may strengthen the couple’s bond with a new-found intimacy based on understanding and respect.

Getting High and Sexual Intimacy

Alcohol and drugs are often used to relieve anxiety during sex. However, in addition to leading to dependency, they can also lead to psychic and physiological dysfunction. While getting high may ease the discomfort involved in “hooking up,” it can also become a prerequisite to sex and damage one’s ability to create authentic intimacy.

Even though having sex while high may create the impression of deep connection, this experience is largely illusory. Because this depth of experience is mistaken for reality, the need to be high becomes an integral part of sexual relatedness. In addition, those whose anxiety is relieved by drugs are even more likely to become addicted to being high when physically intimate.

The establishment of healthy sexual functioning is a virtual minefield. For adolescents, coupling sex with getting high can abort the normal learning process that occurs during experimentation. Getting high then becomes a prerequisite for sex early in life.

Many substances heighten sensation and create a sense of the profound. This heightened physical and psychic experience leads to an intensity that is, of course, purely chemical. While alcohol may cause a dulling effect and even lead to blackouts in which memory becomes blocked, other substances create a false sense of connection. When two people have taken substances that blunt anxiety around sex, we have a couple coming together in a hazy and unreal way. Some substances even create the sense of intimacy while actually blocking one’s ability to relate to another person. When the substance is removed, one’s partner may suddenly seem like a stranger or become, all at once, dull and boring. The end result is that sex without substances may seem uninspiring at best.

I worked with a gay man who was addicted to crystal meth. He claimed that the drug allowed him to feel uninhibited around and during sex. We worked on the addiction and my patient started going to 12-step Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Because of our work and the support of the program, he was able to stay clean and get his life together. Being able to relate sexually with others, however, was proving to be a more difficult endeavor. Because he had used meth for his whole adult life—he was now near 40—the prospect of having sex without being high was unimaginable. Because of his frustration, he avoided sex, never having learned how to relate sexually while sober. Eventually over time he began to engage sexually, while being clean, and entered into a long-term relationship. It had been a difficult road.

By no means is this phenomenon limited to crystal meth; I had an almost identical problem with someone who used marijuana.

Many people go to bars to look for a date or to hook up for sex. This, of course, leads often to drinking. While alcohol indeed reduces anxiety, it can impede relating in a realistic way. I’ve often been told tales of people hooking up in bars only to realize in the morning that they brought someone home whom they can barely relate to or to whom they’re not even attracted. And while the result of such experiences is typically embarrassment and regret, these are rarely enough incentive to stop the behavior.

Sex is most meaningful and intimacy most real when the mind is sharpest. When sexually stimulated by another human being, and not a chemical, authentic intimacy can flower and profound connection can be established. Instead of a chemically induced fantasy, the groundwork is laid down for genuine relatedness.

Gay Men, Sexual Addiction, & Society

It is commonly held that gay men have greater problems with sexual addiction than their heterosexual counterparts. This may be because of a broad misunderstanding of the origins and nature of gay mens’ sex lives.

The societal influences on gay men’s sexual expression cannot be overstated. Because of society’s deep-rooted prejudice against homosexuality and the overwhelming predominance of the heterosexual culture, adolescents are expected to conform to the heterosexual norm. Positive gay images and role models – in advertising, media, education, and social outlets – are near non-existent. In forty years, homosexuality has come from a subject only mentioned in hushed tones to a publicly debated issue with gay rights at the forefront. Yet, the typical young person sees no positive reinforcement for being gay. (Although some of what I am describing may also pertain to lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, in this post I will restrict my observations to gay men.)

While adolescence presents obvious challenges – hormones are exploding and sexuality is blossoming – there is pervasive support and guidance for heterosexual young people. Madison Avenue is awash in images of boy meets girl. Schools institutionalize social opportunities for children and adolescents to meet each other and interact. There are proms and dances and discussions of mating and dating. Questions are asked with the opposite sex in mind that always assume heterosexuality:

“Do you have a boyfriend / girlfriend?”

“I have a nice girl / boy for you to meet.”

“What do you think of him / her?”

“Do you want to get married someday?”

When parents try to discuss sexuality with their children – an already fraught subject – homosexuality is rarely mentioned. Elaborate sets of boundaries, rules, and curfews govern the adolescent without regard to the possibility that the adolescent may be gay. How does this heterosexual-centric culture affect the child who is gay or questioning his sexuality?

Given peer pressure, parental discomfort, a puritan social culture and a lack of modeling at home, at school and in the society at large, the gay boy learns to keep his blossoming sexuality hidden at all costs. There are no outlets for gay adolescents to explore relationships and learn about intimacy through dating, social events, and talking among friends. Because there exist no avenues to normalize gay sexual development, gay adolescents learn to experience lust and sex as the sole outlets for their sexual expression.

This absence of social outlets for gay boys restricts the possibility of connecting to the object of their romantic desire except through sex. The whole process of socialization and integration of sexuality becomes truncated such that sex becomes the only initial way for many gay adolescents to explore their sexuality. Initial encounters are based on sex first since there are so few avenues to connect in other ways. If the adolescent is lucky, he may go on to develop a romantic relationship, but only after the initial sexual encounter. As the adolescent becomes a young adult, this behavior becomes a template used to meet prospective partners. Sex first becomes the norm for developing romantic relationships.

Failure to understand society’s role in gay adolescent development leads to the common interpretation of gay men’s sexuality as sexual addiction. This misconception leads to the erroneous assumption that gay men suffer from sexual dysfunction because of their sexual orientation. This misjudgment absolves society of the responsibility of guiding gay adolescents during the maturation of their sexuality.

We can only hope that in the future society will recognize its responsibility for guiding young people through their sexual development regardless of where they fall on the sexual spectrum.