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Can unhappiness in the family be lessened by avoiding blame? by Magdalini Agrafioti, M.A (psy)

Dad wanted the children’s assistance to clean the yard from the fallen leaves. None of the two responded. In fact, they were arguing with each other that the other one should go and help. Each one of them thought about themselves that they do most of the house chores. The previous week the parent bought them each one a bicycle.  He hoped they would show some appreciation for the gift by being willing to do some chores. It did not work. Dad was feeling bitter and thought how ungrateful they are.  The children were sensing the resentment, felt guilty and misunderstood by him. There was a lot of tension in the air.

Small incidents like that accumulated to the point that everyone’s actions were interpreted as stemming from bad intentions.

Why the family members were so disconnected from each other?  From talking with them it turned out that they related on the basis of blame. In this case, the blaming game went something like this: the parent did not request their willingness to help.  Instead, he gave them bikes as a way of emotionally coercing them to act in the way he wanted them to rather than inspiring them to help of their heart. The element of ‘should’ was present very strongly. What could be the alternative in this case?  The parent could be open that it was not just about cleaning the yard, it was about his need for appreciation. The children then stood more chances to know where he was coming from. Chores are usually seen negatively as a rule. They are seen as ‘slave’ jobs and who wants to be a slave?  At the same time he could have given the emotional freedom for the children to say ‘no’ without implying they are ‘bad’.  He could still express his discontent for not receiving the assistance. The core point here is that they are still not bad.

What I have observed throughout the years that family members could enjoy each other far more by liberating themselves from the  ‘binary system’ good/bad, caring/indifferent, generous/stingy, smart/stupid, or notions like “you betrayed me” , you abandon me” you… you..  you …

Alternatively,  we could pay attention to what our needs are when we are not satisfied with our relationships. Our feelings give us the message what goes on inside us. For example, we feel open when a loved one expresses generosity. We feel hard and closed when we do not receive the response we would like to have.  Our judgements could be the departing point of understanding what is important to us. If we think of someone as uncaring or as caring, that reveals our need to be cared for.

The Benefit:
That shift of attention from judgement to what is important to us saves us from wasting a lot of energy.  It helps us in reversing the vicious circle of unnecessary unpleasant times. And we are all aware how small incidents can accumulate and lead to big fights and disconnection.  
At least in the western world expressing our needs directly and positively is not necessarily accepted.  We fear of being labeled as “needy’ as though there is something wrong with that! I am indebted to the late Marshall Rosenberg, PhD for articulating the significance of focusing on needs ours and that of others as a way to connect, as a way to get the sense of belonging. His method is called Nonviolent Communication.

Experiment:
Suppose you want to talk to your spouse about something.   Instead, he/she keeps paying attention not to you but to the ipad. Are you feeling left out? Are feeling frustrated and disconnected?  Are you about to shout (fight) or are you leaving by banging the door behind you (flight)?  Observe how your spouse will respond, “oh, honey I am so sorry, I am not good enough, let me make it up to you!”,  or he/she get defensive and not give what you want.
Could you turn your feeling and thoughts upside down and find out what your needs are at the moment? Are you thinking “oh that…” What adjective do ‘decorate’ him/her with?  

For example, what you really want is to spend time together.   Would you be willing to take a few breaths and pay attention to what you want, not what you do not want?

Would you state what you really want, for example “I would like to enjoy your company right now, can you give some time together?”

Get curious if you want to do the experiment in the first place. If not, would you notice why not?


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Magdalini Agrafioti, M.A in Counseling,  is a Registered Member of the Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. She has been practicing individual, couples and family counseling for many years. Contact: 647 460 5085

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