Sometimes people offer apologies or make self-deprecating statements as a defense mechanism. This can cause difficulties in the relationship when it interferes with communication and problem solving. Learning to recognize this as a defense mechanism and a barrier to resolving the issue can help people develop a strategy to respond to this. People who use this tactic benefit from learning new skills to deal with their distress.
Amanda and John had been married for three years. Whenever John would bring up a concern or an issue, Amanda would immediately blame herself. John tried to talk to her one day about their budget. She was guilty of splurging at times when they couldn’t afford it. As soon as he brought up the subject of money she said, “I know, I spend too much. I’m sorry. I just can’t help it. I always mess everything up all the time. I’m such an idiot.” Soon, John found himself consoling her and trying to convince her she was a good person. This pattern repeated itself frequently. John thought she had low self-esteem and he thought that he was responding appropriately by trying to tell her she’s a good person. However, their issues never got resolved.
Amanda’s tactics shifted the conversation from the problem at hand to herself. It was effective in avoiding the topic and she was able to get lots of affirmation from John. But it didn’t change her spending habits.
If your partner is guilty of frequently blaming himself, making negative statements and apologizing profusely whenever you talk about difficult subjects, it is likely that he is uncomfortable confronting the issue. These tactics are a way to avoid feeling distressed and dealing with the underlying problem. Respond by pointing out what you see. Say something like, “You’ve changed the subject. I want to get back to talking about our budget and what we can do about it.”
If you have a habit of doing this, consider the reasons. Spend some time thinking about what would happen if you didn’t do this? What could you do instead? Learning new skills and trying something new can be hard, but it is likely to benefit your marriage. If you are having difficulty making changes, consider therapy to learn new strategies to deal with your distress and to learn new ways to communicate more effectively with your spouse.