Fault Finding in Relationships
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 1, 2018 (modified January 12, 2023)
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 1, 2018 (modified January 12, 2023)
The blame game intrudes. We point fingers and accentuate faults. The defensive struggle begins and closeness is destroyed. Intimacy isn't found here.
It’s not my fault; the ego swoops in and protects. The blame game of finding fault isn’t singular—both partners contribute. In turbulent relationships, partners actively participate, ducking, jumping and moving to defend against nasty accusations. Finding fault in a partner is simple; they are flawed. Fault finding becomes habitual and destroys closeness. Step back, love and accept your partner in all their beautiful weaknesses. Oddly enough, once we stop the fault finding practice, the faults no longer seem so bad.
We Easily Find Fault In Others
We conveniently deny our blemishes, while magnifying the partner’s. We self-righteously point the accusing finger and demand they change, attempting to mold them to our liking. We fantasize, “if my partner would quit being stupid, we would finally be happy.” But when our partner seeks to change us, finding fault in our deficiencies, we call foul. We subscribe to a much kinder belief when our faults are the subject of discussion. “If my partner loved me," we moan, "she would accept me as I am.”
This is referred to in psychology as the fundamental attribution error. "Fundamental attribution error refers to our tendency to attribute the bad actions of others to their character or personality (dispositional factors), while attributing our misdeeds to external situational factors (environmental factors) outside of our control" (Murphy, 2022).
We Excuse our Own Faults
We disconnect from reality, seeking philosophies that self-soothe, justifying our weakness, and pushing the responsibility outside of our realm of control. This narcissistic atmosphere blatantly expects the universe to bend, obliging to our desires. Personal responsibility bores the ego, bogging down dreams with realities.
Encouragements to act, make personal assessments, and implement adaptive changes lacks the brightness of glorified perceptions of self, we stubbornly cling to during our early adult years.
When We Find Fault in Ourselves
Of course, this isn't always the case. Many turn the demon lose on themselves. Replaying childhood scenarios of critical parents. They harshly judge themselves, finding fault in every act and word. Their minds constantly flowing with "could-have, should-have" assessments.
Whether flowing from a partner or from an inner tyrant fault finding disturbs the peace, and damages wellness. We want to belong; we want to be loved; we don't want to be constantly reminded of our brokenness—and neither do others.
A Need to Find Fault
Relationships struggle when discomforting emotions can’t be endured. The emotional immature seek escape by identifying a fault. “I feel bad; something is wrong, someone needs to change.” The discomfort urges answers and invites blame; often pointing to the partner. Discomforting emotions have many causes; relics from painful pasts; normal pains of change; rumbling insecurities.
Fears, insecurities, and inability for closeness continually resurface; no matter how graceful a partner. Projecting past troubles on present experiences prevents us from addressing internal causes—often the real culprits. Even when a partner compassionately responds, the internal issues remain—because the cause isn’t them; it’s us.
The cycle is depressing. Those blindly stuck in the arc keep address the wrong problems, never discovering helpful resolutions. Finding fault in others relieves present discontent; but the personal irritant remains embedded in the psyche.Breaking Free of Fault Finding HabitsWe must dig deeper to extract these nasty emotional thorns. Mindfully watching our interactions for the dysfunctional patterns. Notice the triggers, emotions and responses. Identify the constant nagging that constantly embitters couples.
All too often these patterns take hold, they become a source of conflict but not a catalyst for change. Faults are identified, berated, and then left to continue. The debilitating patterns of nasty fault finding must be acknowledged before meaningful changes can begin.
See Entangled Relationships for more on this topic
Positive changes surprisingly feel wrong, disrupting the comfortable but mindless cycles of dysfunction; the changes (no matter how healthy) may incite fear—or anger. Fault finding is a habit. We use it home. We use it at work. We use it with all our assessments.
See Fear of Change for more on this topic
Complaint or Criticism?
Relationships need open communication. A part of openness is expressing complaint. We can't stuff every feeling of annoyance away, thinking we are creating openness. When complaints remain unspoken, they fester, exploding into resentment.
However, this scientific fact does not legitimize every negative blast we fire at a partner. What we communicate and how we communicate matters. Are we complaining or criticizing?
Complaint and criticizing are different. Complaints are "an integral and unavoidable part of being in a relationship with another person, and reflects the desire to make the other partner aware of certain undesirable behavior" (Hirschberger, Florian, & Mikulincer, 2003).
We can complain in a compassionate manner that opens the doors for discussion and compromise. Complaints that are only a fraction of a couples communication improve intimacy and closeness.
Criticism is a different animal. "Criticism reflects a spouse's generalization from a certain partner's behavior to the entire personality of the partner" (2003). Global, negative labels are damaging. Fault finding is a symptom of underlying beliefs that our partner is inherently flawed. And, we take on the duty to point out their flawed existence. These communications destroy the relationship.
Partner Reactions to Change
Healthy action forces reactionary changes—growth or destruction. Personal growth requires protective boundaries, lines that can’t be crossed without consequence. If we are alone in the intent to change fault finding patterns, our resolution will be challenged, boundaries purposely crossed, and our seriousness tested.
Enforcing Boundaries when Partner's Continue to Find Fault
When boundaries are disrespected, and our partner wants to continue in the fault finding charade, we must respond; without consequence to violations, boundaries have no meaning. We can’t strengthen personal boundaries without enforcing violations.
Often partners won’t willingly accept changes, especially if they enjoy the comfort of how things were. Boundary enforcement sometimes destroys relationships that are firmly entrenched in disrespecting and mean-spirited fault finding. Boundaries warn of a consequence. Our self-protecting line suggests we will enforce intrusions of our independence; we show self-respect even if that means we must leave.
A choice must be made between remaining stuck in habitual fault finding relationships or courageously stepping into the unknowns. But the unknown frightens. Blaming, nagging and then accepting chaos appeals to many; not requiring painful and courageous autonomy.
We can forever drift in the dissatisfying fault finding relationships, where pointing fingers, dodging accusations and living miserably reign or we can create something better.
Hirschberger, G., Florian, V., & Mikulincer, M. (2003). Strivings for Romantic Intimacy Following Partner Complaint or Partner Criticism: A Terror Management Perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20(5), 675-687.
Murphy. T. F. (2022) Fundamental Attribution Error. Flourishing Life Society. Published 4-29-2022. Accessed 6-10-2022.
Other Flourishing Life Society articles of interest on this topic: