Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

Couples Therapy: Shifting from Blame to Compassion

The research on couples therapy and relationships is crystal clear: for successful repair and resolution, each partner must take responsibility for their contribution and role in the dynamic.

Taking responsibility reflects a shift from blame to compassion. The shift must occur not only in the context of taking responsibility for your own role in the negative or destructive dynamic. It also means holding your partner accountable for the pain or hurt they caused you.

Compassion is an essential component in this shift. To activate self-compassion, each person must take accountability for the harm and hurt they caused and be able to understand what past experiences or blind spots led to their own missteps. Self-compassion allows us to tolerate both the harm we caused and the recognition of our own wounds by being kind and generous with ourselves in spite of those constraints.

Without self-compassion, each partner’s owning of their part could lead to a spiral into shame. Also significantly, taking responsibility for your part does not mean taking responsibility for the whole conflict or disconnect. It is important to emphasize this point, because blaming yourself for all of it will lead to getting stuck in shame, which blocks the pathway to connection and healing.

Compassion for one’s partner is necessary as well. If we are unable to have empathy for our partner’s pain, it puts us at risk of being dismissive, and ultimately defensive.

We cannot have true compassion for our partner without holding them accountable for the pain they caused us. If we do not acknowledge the hurt they caused us, we are just letting them off the hook. In a way, it is like saying they couldn’t help themselves, and they are not capable of doing any better. That, in fact, is a position of pity, not compassion.

Though it might seem unlikely, holding your partner accountable is a way of showing love and will actually be a relief to them. When one is held accountable, they have a chance to confront their missteps and make amends. It is the process of making amends, recognizing the hurt one caused, and deeply feeling and expressing remorse, that ultimately heals the rift.

Our instincts as humans tell us to protect ourselves from the difficult exposure of what we would rather hide. It is scary to look at your own pain points and hurts, in order to understand your own missteps and take responsibility for your role, and to take in your partner’s pain while holding them accountable for the hurts they caused you. Even though it is scary, it is also enormously courageous. Taking those steps to expand your capacity for compassion will transform your relationship, giving both you and your partner space to mess up and repair and ultimately deepen the trust and love between you.