Taking Responsibility

By Ernest Isaacs, MFT

A lot of my work with couples is based on the stance of taking responsibility. I have a pretty standard rap I give them during the first or second session, and keep referring back to the theme as therapy progresses. It is a very powerful intervention, one that I learned several years ago in an Esalen workshop with Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, authors of “Conscious Loving” and other fine books.

I begin by listening to their stories. Sooner or later, usually sooner, I start by telling them that when couples come to see me and I hear about what brings them here, there is a common thread that lies below the content. Generally speaking, A says that if B were only different, things would be fine and B says the same about A. I go on to point out that each is probably right, at least to some extent, but that fundamentally A has no control over B and vice versa. A can request, demand, threaten, and so on, but still B will go on living his/her life in whatever way they want to.

This is where responsibility comes in, I tell them. By responsibility, I do not mean fault or blame, like when your mother asked you who was responsible for the spilled milk. That is a different meaning of the word, like ball means something you throw and also a place to dance. Taking responsibility in relationships means acknowledging that the only person who has the power to change the situation and to make things better is myself. It means realizing that I am the creator of my world. It means knowing that I am the chooser of my actions and nobody else can make me do or say anything. It is not about being harsh or vicious, but being in control of my own life.

The moment one person considers their partner to be the cause of the suffering, they are abandoning their responsibility. B may be doing all kinds of strange or crazy or harmful things to A, and it is still the challenge for A to figure out what to do about it. This may involve washing the dishes themselves or filing for divorce, but either way, A is the one who needs to take the action. Taking responsibility is a stance of empowerment.

The opposite of taking responsibility is playing victim, being caught in the Blame Game. So long as A assumes that B is the one causing the troubles, A is abandoning his/her sense of capacity and strength and seriously affecting the possibility of finding a way out. There are situations in life where all the choices are bad, but to play victim is to ignore the fact that choices always exist and pretend that the other has all the control.

Another way of saying the same thing is to understand that instead of 100% responsibility in a relationship that needs to be divided 50/50, there is 200%, and each partner needs to take their 100% of it. Taking more is being co-dependent and taking less is being a victim.

The basic question that emerges from this position is “What are you going to do about it?” This is a very powerful intervention to use when the couple starts going back and forth at each other about who said what and how bad a person the other one is and so on. I am currently seeing a couple locked a codependent dance right out of the textbook. She comes in and complains about his drinking and using, and is gradually coming to see her part in it as I keep asking her “What are your choices?” and “How do you stop yourself from taking action?” He blames her nagging for his drinking, and is moving toward recovery as I keep asking him “How is your sobriety going and what are you doing about it?”

Using this responsibility stance, reminding your couples about it on an ongoing basis, and asking these kinds of questions can cut short a lot of wasted time and energy. Try it with your clients and for yourself as well. You’ll like it.

Ernest Isaacs graduated from JFK and has been licensed since 1981. He is in private practice in Lafayette and Berkeley where he sees individuals and couples. He is trained in Gestalt work, and practices and teaches meditation.