Blame shifting is something that everyone does, to one extent or another. But in the context of an abusive relationship, it can be a potent coercive tactic. One or both parties to the relationship might struggle to accept responsibility, or to communicate their true thoughts.
What is blame shifting?
Picture the scene: your significant other has failed to lock the front door after coming home late at night. But when confronted about this, they do not accept responsibility. Instead, they shift the blame back onto you.
Blame shifting is powerful because it’s much more subtle than other forms of verbal abuse. Your significant other might imply that it’s your fault for worrying too much, and imply that the true cause of the issue is your being highly strung.
Why is blame shifting a form of abuse?
This tactic might seem innocuous. After all, accepting blame isn’t always an easy thing to do, and just about everyone habitually shifts blame from time to time. It’s only when it becomes the default tactic that we can justifiably call it abusive.
Blame shifting achieves several things. Firstly, it pretends that the failure to take responsibility is actually perfectly rational. Second, it robs the target of their agency. Whatever the facts of any given situation, the fault is always pinned on the same person.
Of course, few abusive tactics appear in isolation. You might therefore see blame-shifting alongside gaslighting, which involves getting the other person to doubt their own perceptions and memories of what’s happening.
Blame-shifting doesn’t always occur between two parties in a relationship. If you’re shifting blame onto a child, then the child might well internalise what you’re saying as an immutable truth. They might believe that what’s being said is true, and continue to believe it for years afterwards.
In many cases, blame-shifting can only occur when there is a power imbalance in a relationship. One person, for example, might be financially dependent on the other. These imbalances might discourage victims from filing an abuse claim – especially if they doubt the seriousness of what’s going on.
How to spot blame-shifting in your relationship
One of the biggest problems with blame-shifting is that it’s subtle, and therefore hard to spot unless you know what you’re looking for. Let’s run through a few tell-tale signs.
If you can’t remember the last time your spouse apologised and accepted full responsibility for something, then that might be a signal that you’re dealing with this form of abuse.
Within a few minutes of any argument starting, they will have tried to pivot to your reaction to their behaviour, rather than the behaviour itself. Finally, they might bring up trauma from their past to excuse their behaviour. What they probably won’t do is hold their hands up and say sorry.