By Lizzy Wood HoChing
“You always leave your socks on the floor!” “Well you always leave your hair everywhere!” “You don’t even care about me!” “You’re so selfish!”
These are just a few general examples of things couples might say in the midst of an argument. Besides the fact that these phrases are full of contempt and criticism, they all have another thing in common: Each of these phrases attacks by assigning blame to others.
Many have lightly nicknamed this kind of back and forth banter described as the “blame game,” but is it really a game if no one is the winner? Is it really a game if no one is having fun? And is it really a game if couples act more like rivals and less like teammates? There is enough heartache and hardship in life to play games where everyone loses, no one has fun, and you have to fight alone. There is a better game to play.
In the “name game,” couples spend more time and energy working together to solve the problems, rather than figuring out exactly whose fault it is. Learning the rules of the “name game” can ultimately help couples to focus on working as a team rather than fighting against each other.
Rule 1: Name the Need
Sometimes, when arguments are heated, emotions run high, or the argument has gone on far too long, it’s easy to forget what you are arguing about. That’s why the first step of the name game is to identify or name the real issue. This can be trickier than it sounds. Some problems are easy to identify—the car that needs fixing, the bills that need to be paid, or the chores that need to be done. Other issues lie deeper within ourselves and are related to psychological needs that we may not even recognize at first.
Dr. Leon F Seltzer, a clinical psychologist, said that when couples come into his office for therapy, he usually recognizes that there are “far more fundamental [problems] underlying [the couple’s] professed difficulties.” In other words, when couples come in arguing about one problem, he can usually find an underlying need from one or both partners that they have yet to identify and clearly express—which is actually the reason why they are arguing. Our argument about socks laying on the floor may really be an issue over whether we feel appreciated or respected, especially if we talked with our partner about this issue before. Ultimately, it’s not really about the socks.
Recognizing these unmet needs can be difficult, but sociologist Dr. Miki Kashtan has a trick to help you identify them. She explained that “[blaming]…is an expression of some human need of yours” that is not being met. When you recognize that you are playing the blame game, you need to stop and take time to think about why you are actually upset. Is it really about the overspent budget or is it actually a deep concern about trusting your partner? In the end, playing the name game invites us to clearly identify our needs, rather than starting with the blaming that tends to push our partner away and make our conversations less productive.
Rule 2: Name the Type of Problem
Experts have identified two types of problems in relationships—solvable and perpetual problems. Solvable problems are those that have relatively simple solutions or can be resolved with some discussion and compromise, such as what a couple is going to eat for dinner that night or which car to buy. Perpetual problems, on the other hand, are more complicated to solve because they arise from differences related to individual beliefs or values. Some examples of perpetual problems include dealing with divergent ideas about how frequently to have sex, how to prioritize saving versus spending, when and how many children to have, where to live, how to handle holidays, etc.
Recognizing and naming the type of problem is essential because it can help couples identify what the goal for the conversation should be. Solvable problems will have solutions that both partners can agree upon. When couples deal with perpetual problems, they may find that they never truly 100% agree due to different perspectives, personalities, or firmly held opinions. For conversations on these issues, they can set a different goal: helping their partner feel heard and accepted, looking for common ground, and finding ways to compromise.
These dilemmas can be big or small. For example, a personal example of a perpetual problem in my marriage is the amount of time we spend watching TV together. I think TV is a waste of time, but my husband disagrees. I’m not sure we will ever be on the exact same page on this issue. Since it’s not easily solvable and comes up frequently, we’ve realized that it is tied to fundamental beliefs we each hold about leisure time. We’ve made progress, not because we have changed one another’s opinions, but because many of our discussions on this topic have helped us to understand each other better. He understands why I have such strong feelings about using our time together in other ways, and I have come to appreciate the positive memories my husband has of watching TV with his family. Now, the times that my husband turns off the TV to spend time with me are so much more meaningful because I know he is making an active choice to connect with me. And sometimes, after a long day, I choose to spend time watching a show with him because I know how much he enjoys it.
Naming the type of problem helps couples to identify the goal of their discussions and can bring them closer. With the right goal in mind for their perpetual problems, couples can acknowledge differences, increase understanding, and look for opportunities to make meaningful sacrifices for each other—acts that strengthen teammate bonds and increase trust.
Rule 3: Name Your Part
Taking responsibility, or naming your part, is a critical rule in the name game because it eliminates the opportunity to slip into the blame game—a game that thrives on looking for any other source of the problem except ourselves. This may seem intimidating at first, but if you break down the word of responsibility to response + ability, new insights emerge. Those who are willing to take responsibility in these situations have greater ability to see the problem well, help resolve concerns, and create healthier relationships.
Couples who want greater power to improve their circumstances and to tackle the obstacles in front of them, can fortify their skill of taking on responsibility. Taking on responsibility can be approached in a variety of ways, including understanding your own motivations and intentions, listening to better understanding your partner’s perspective, monitoring your own emotions to avoid spiraling out of control, and helping conversations move productively toward a healthy resolution. What it does not look like is saying to your partner, “you are the problem.” That’s worthy of a targeting foul or the penalty box in the name game and evades the kind of approach that could help the relationship.
Solely blaming our partner can blind us to the power we have to change our relationships, taking us down a path that could potentially lead to a “dead end.” In a study of failed marriages by Amato and Previti, they “found that more people blamed their ex for their marriage ending (33%) than blamed themselves (5%)…[and] that most people (73%) believed that they had worked hard enough on their marriage but that their ex-spouse should have worked harder (74%).”
Ending the Game as Champions
Nancy Colier, a licensed social worker and interfaith minister, explained that a reason the blame game doesn’t work is that it unconsciously diverts the energy and attention of the blamer to something they can’t control, leaving the original problem unsolved. In the end, participants of the blame game spend a lot of energy attacking each other and defending themselves, rather than addressing the problem.
Abiding by the three rules of the name game can help keep each partner’s attention clearly fixed on the real opponent—the problem. Couples who name the need, name the type of problem, and name their part can come out victorious. They have worked together as teammates to confront their problems and find ways to reconnect. With both more concerned about the team’s success than pointing a finger of blame, they find ways to build healthier relationships.
 Seltzer, L. F. (2017, October 25). Couples: Do You Argue About “A” When the Real Issue is “B”? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201710/couples-do-you-argue-about-when-the-real-issue-is-b
 Kashtan, M. (2014, May 9). From Blame to Power. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/acquired-spontaneity/201405/blame-power
 Fulwiler, M. (2020, October 8). Managing Conflict: Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/managing-conflict-solvable-vs-perpetual-problems/
 Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Sadberry, S. L., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006, August 14). Sacrifice as a Predictor of Marital Outcomes. Wiley Online Library, 45(3), 289-303. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2006.00171.x
 Pratibha, A. (2017, February 19). Response ability. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/response-ability_b_58aa3178e4b0b0e1e0e20ce2
 Stanley, S. (2017, April 10). Reasons People Give for Divorce. Institute for Family Studies. https://ifstudies.org/blog/reasons-people-give-for-divorce
 Colier, N. (2016, January 8). 4 Steps to Stop Blaming. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inviting-monkey-tea/201601/4-steps-stop-blaming