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"Who's the Bad Guy?"

It's a game you might be familiar with, "Who's the Bad Guy?" House rules often apply, but the gist of it is this: One person shares a disappointing experience and makes the other one out to be "The Bad Guy," The second person counters, maintaining their own innocence and attempting to volley the blame back on person number one. The back and forth game can go on indefinitely, with both sides trying to prove that the other is the one at fault.

It could go something like this:

Jack: "I thought we were going to leave at 9:00. I"ve been waiting for you for an hour. I told you to pack last night so we could get out on time, but you didn't listen to me."

Louise: "If you had taken the trash out and unloaded the dishwasher this morning, I would have had plenty of time. I had to do all of that before packing."

Jack: " I loaded the dishwasher last night. I cleaned the whole kitchen while you watched tv, and you always do this! You should have packed last night. You are never ready to go when we say! I am so sick of waiting for you all the time!"

Louise: You are so ungrateful! I woke up early and did all the chores, while you slept in! You are so impatient and spoiled! It doesn't even matter when we get there. We can check into the hotel a little later. It's meant to be a vacation anyway. I was enjoying my morning. You have to go and ruin everything, don't you?"

The game continues with each player coming up with evidence to back up their own innocence and the other's guilt. Each partner makes a case based on their own recollections and interpretations of past conversations, agreements, and experiences. They argue over whose memories are more accurate, who screwed up to cause the situation, and who is at fault for bringing up the current frustrating conversation. Players can escalate the intensity of the game by using words like "never," "always," and "everything." These words implicate that the person at fault is not just screwing up in the present moment, but in a whole slew of related past offenses. One could infer that the problem is recurring, caused by what is possibly a permanent character flaw. Using definitives, which label someone as "ungrateful, or "impatient" is also a good strategy for deflecting any responsibility for the situation onto the other person, implying that their negative personality traits are the whole reason they are perceiving things this way and the accuser is therefore innocent. It can turn into a very nasty game.

So how do you win at "Who's the Bad Guy?" That is the inherent problem with this game. Nobody wins. As Susan Johnson, the renowned couples' therapist, writes in her book, Hold Me Tight, "The secret to stopping the dance is to recognize that no one has to be the bad guy. The accuse/accuse pattern itself is the villain here, and the partners are the victims." She suggests that the way out of this habitual pattern of negativity is to step out of the game altogether and recognize that the game itself is the villain.

This is obviously easier said than done, but with practice in observing ourselves in the negative cycle, we can begin to recognize our own part, our own moves in the game. Anger and blame move quickly on the surface of the river of emotion, but when we slow down our reactions, we can perceive the disappointment, sadness and frustration that run in the slower currents under the surface. Sharing these feelings instead of pointing a finger is vulnerable, scary even. For many of us this is uncharted territory, and this is how we move toward each other instead of building up stronger walls of defense.

Let's take a look at the undercurrents of our original conversation:

Jack: "I thought we were going to leave at 9:00. I"ve been waiting for you for an hour. I told you to pack last night so we could get out on time, but you didn't listen to me."

It sounds like Jack was excited about heading out early on the trip and felt disappointed when things didn't go the way he had hoped. Perhaps he feels more relaxed when sticking to a schedule and being prepared ahead of time. He might be feeling excited to get out the door, and excitement is a very similar feeling to anxiousness, sometimes hard to distinguish. I would guess that Louise's initial response might be some feeling of having failed. Her partner is disappointed and anxious, which feels uncomfortable. When one person in an intimate relationship is uncomfortable or sad, the other is affected. In the close emotional system of an intimate partnership, our subtle shifts in mood are sensed, felt profoundly sometimes. It is precisely this feeling that we are trying to avoid in playing games such as, "Who's the Bad Guy?" We are attempting to slough off the yucky feeling and in the negative cycle of the game, pass it off on our partners. Alternatively, we can make an attempt to acknowledge this shared feeling of discomfort, despair or frustration. It could be an excellent opportunity to create intimacy.

Louise could have responded like this:

"You're right. We did agree to leave at 9. I totally get why you might be anxious to go. I'm excited to get out the door too, and feel disappointed in myself for not being ready when we said. I realized when I woke up that all of these things need to be done before we leave the house, and I should have done some of it last night, but I just felt so tired. Will you help me to get things wrapped up in the kitchen? I'll go finish packing quickly so we can leave.

Jack has an opportunity here to acknowledge her and share his own feelings, to choose to be on her side. He could respond with:

"You're right. I am feeling anxious. I've been stressed and overwhelmed, and really looking forward to spending the weekend with you. I want to get started and get out of here. I really need a vacation. Thanks for getting things cleaned up in here. Now go pack! Can we get out the door in 15 minutes?

Both partners shared their feelings and acknowledged each others' experience. Both are a bit disappointed in the delay and also excited to go on their trip. They are asking each other for support here, in a way that does not deny their inner experience, but brings it out in the open. They are both openly affirming that things don't feel ideal in the moment, but rather than embarking on a downward spiral of defending their innocence and blaming their partner, they are naming their discomfort, owning their part in the discord, and asking their partner to collaborate in moving forward. There is hope, connection. It's not so hard to make this shift in communication once both partners are willing. The first step is to listen to your partner's experience and notice your own discomfort, without reacting immediately. This is the path to true intimacy.

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