You think it’s you.
Your marriage isn’t working because of you.
He agrees. You’re the problem. Everything would fine if it weren’t for you.
Is it you?
That’s what was going through Debbie’s head.
She and Eric had sought the help of a marriage counselor, because it just wasn’t working. He was angry, she was sad, and divorce was on the table.
In her first solo session with the counselor, Debbie explained that her goal was to find out what she was doing wrong.
Because if she knew what she was doing wrong, she could fix it.
She’d tried to get feedback from Eric. He willingly told her all the things he didn’t like about her. But when she pressed him for things she could do to change—like how she could make him feel more loved, for example—he wouldn’t give her a concrete answer.
A thought sneaked into the back of her mind. She suspected Eric preferred it like that. He would always be the righteous victim. There was no way she would ever be able redeem herself to him, no matter how hard she tried.
She squashed the thought as soon as it arose. That wasn’t fair. They were trying, weren’t they? They were getting counseling.
No matter what had happened, Debbie loved her husband. She shouldn’t judge him. He was having a tough time, too.
Debbie later found out that, in his solo session with the counselor, Eric claimed that something was seriously wrong with Debbie. He just knew something bad had happened to her when she was a kid. Something that made her the way she was. Maybe the counselor could help Debbie admit the truth at last.
If you were Debbie’s best friend…
And you knew what was going on…
What would you tell her to do?
Here’s what I would tell her.
I’d ask if she thought she might be the scapegoat.
It’s Never Just You
An unhealthy family is not the product of just one messed-up person.
According to family systems theory, everyone in the family contributes to that unhealthy dynamic.
They play out roles and agree to certain tacit rules that keep the family stuck.
So it’s never just one person’s fault.
In fact, by taking all the blame, Debbie was making things worse.
It’s like she was driving a car that had gotten stuck in a swamp. Every time she hit the gas, hoping a burst of energy would break them free, the wheels spun. Mud splattered everywhere. Her efforts to get them out actually dug them in deeper.
So what could she do?
If working harder on your marriage won’t get you unstuck, what will?
Debbie needed a new perspective on her marriage problems.
A perspective that went beyond: She’s bad, he’s good.
For starters, Debbie could start looking at the roles she and Eric were playing in their marriage…
Like who was playing the scapegoat and who was playing the hero.
The Scapegoat is Responsible
Every dysfunctional family has someone to blame their unhappiness on.
Usually, it’s the kid who’s not doing well in school or at home. Maybe he’s got ADHD, or she’s dabbling in drugs, or he’s got anger issues, or she’s sleeping around. But it could also be an adult, such as an alcoholic father or a mother with fragile health.
The family focuses a disproportionate amount of time and energy on the scapegoat. They believe that, if only the scapegoat got better, everything would be fine again.
What the family doesn’t realize is that the scapegoat is just a distraction from the widening cracks in the family’s foundation.
The scapegoat is acting out the family illness, but he or she did not cause the disease.
The Hero Saves the Family
Another common role is that of the hero.
The hero does everything right. He or she holds up the family. As long as the hero appears to be a success, the family looks good.
The hero of the family could be the kid who’s the captain of the football team, or the girl who’s Homecoming Queen. The hero could be the successful executive dad who provides a lavish lifestyle, or the mother who manages to keep an immaculate house, raise polite children, attend every PTA meeting, and volunteer on the side.
When the hero hogs the spotlight, the rest of the family ends up in shadow.
A family’s health and well-being rests on everyone’s shoulders, not just one person’s.
Maybe, instead of casting herself as the dark to Eric’s light, Debbie should be asking whether she was playing the scapegoat to his hero.
Debbie wasn’t doing herself any good by embracing the role of the scapegoat. Eric wasn’t doing himself any good by assuming the role of the hero.
Until they addressed those dysfunctional roles, their marriage wasn’t going to get any better.
But why hadn’t Debbie seen this already?
Why did she persist in believing it was all her fault?
Couldn’t she see that the blame lay on both their shoulders?
Of course Debbie knew, deep in her heart, that Eric was contributing to their marriage problems, too. But she thought the world of Eric, and she was used to doubting herself. It was easier for her to pin the blame on herself than doubt the man she loved.
If Debbie hadn’t been so used to taking all the blame—even for things that weren’t her fault—her marriage would have played out very differently.
She might have asked Eric to take responsibility for his role in creating conflict. She might have claimed some of the credit for herself for the ways in which their marriage did actually work.
Have you ever been in a relationship where one of you was the scapegoat and the other one was the hero?
Share your experiences in the comments.