Who’s to blame?

A imagine that a husband and wife are engaged in a significantly heated argument in the small living room of their modest apartment. Tensions have been running high over the past few months due to mounting evidence that the husband may have had an affair with a mutual friend of theirs. During the apex of the argument, the couple moves into the kitchen, where both parties continue to raise their voices well into a full-blown screaming match. It’s at this point, after a particularly hurtful comment by her spouse, that the wife’s anger overtakes her; she reaches for a sharp kitchen knife and stabs her husband to death.

So, who’s fault is it that the husband was killed? Violent video games? Death metal? Or was it the husband’s fault for pushing the wife too far, to the brink of murder? If you’re rolling your eyes over the incredulous smirk on your face because you think the answer is obvious, think again.

THE ANSWER: THE WIFE 

The wife is responsible for her own anger, as well as the ways in which she chooses to express that anger. Thus, quite naturally, the subsequent stabbing of her husband is her own fault.

Let’s get something straight here: no one is saying that the husband was the good guy, or even that such a hurtful scenario wouldn’t cause anyone to entertain homicide. But what we’re talking about here is the proper assignment of blame and the responsibility one must exercise over their own emotions.

If you got it right and you think this was an easy A, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. Because while you may have come out the high scorer on this test, you’d be surprised how many people would answer differently. It has come to my attention over the years—though, somewhat unsurprisingly—that there exists a tendency for people to hold others responsible for the regrettable actions that they execute out of anger. The premise of this idea is one we’ve all heard as children: “Well, if you didn’t make so angry, I wouldn’t have [insert destructive/malicious reaction]”

It’s become far too common amongst perpetually immature adults to continue this game of, “it’s not my fault; you made me angry”. If you stop to really think about the inherent message of that statement, it’s: my emotions are more powerful than I am. Even scarier are the related implications imposed upon our most intimate relationships: you better not make me feel angry; anytime I feel upset it’s your fault; and finally, all actions committed in anger are guilt-free.

That last one is an especailly powerful idea, as it provides an incentive for members of an argument to embrace anger quickly in order to “win”. Under this rationale, by adopting “uncontrollable” anger as a “first-line of fire”, one can easily free themselves from guilt. Subsequently, this cycle then further reinforces the use of exaggerated reactions to even the mildest of disturbances in order to avoid responsibility and blame others. With the continued reinforcement of extreme reactions to unfavorable situations, people can project blame elsewhere under a social tactic that has become pervasive in American culture: emotional currency. The more emotion one brings to an argument, the more likely it is that they can “buy” their victory. Simply put: the louder I scream and the angrier I am, the more right I must be. 

Now the above scenario is an extreme example of course, but, let’s start with ridiculous and work our way backwards. President Eisenhower once said that if you grow a problem bigger, it becomes easier to solve. This is because the true problem will become clearer in a variety of contexts. In this way, an extreme example can help anyone understand the role that anger plays in our daily battles with loved ones.

Like this one…

A friend of mine called me up tonight, absolutely distraught. He had just broken up with his girlfriend a few minutes prior and began filling me in on the details. As far as couples’ arguments go, the story itself was rather common in my experience. However, the one thing that did stick out in my mind was when his girlfriend told him to, “just go and die”. Now we can sit here and argue about whether she was “just angry” and “didn’t mean it”, but I think most of us would agree that telling your boyfriend to die because he missed a lunch date with you is a bit nutty. But whatever you believe, I think it’s fair to say that such a statement was meant to hurt my friend, and indeed, was hurtful to him.

Even more unbelievable was that, when he finally confronted her and requested an apology for such a harsh remark, she declined. Her reasoning? She refused to apologize because he had made her angry and that’s how she felt at the time. She went on to further insist that the reason she didn’t owe him an apology was because he had made her angry in the first place.

…WHAT?…

Me personally? I don’t stand for that kind of stuff. I’ve already been through high school—it wasn’t all that great. And in so many words, I did suggest to my friend that he grow a pair of testicles and raid his closet to find his lost sense of self respect. But in the end, you really can’t deal with people who insist that their anger is greater than they are—that’s a tactical habit that takes DECADES to undo, and with an economy like this, no one has that much money for therapy. Anger like that is a child’s game and has no business in adult relationships.

The really sad part about my friend’s situation is, like so many who use “emotional currency”, he actually BELIEVED that her outrageously insensitive remark was HIS FAULT. It wasn’t his fault. How others deal with their own anger is NOT your responsibility—it’s theirs. And for every story you can tell me about how someone lost their cool, I can tell you one where someone stayed cool and took responsiblity. It’s completely possible to be angry, to experience deep anger, without hurting others.

Remember: Anger will always exist. Anger will always find you. But it’s merely circumstantial, and ultimately, we are in control of how we express that anger. Whether it’s counting to 10, leaving the situation, or killing our partner, we ARE responsible for our own actions.

We can choose.


“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” – Martin Luther King Jr.