A few years ago, cognitive therapist and bestselling author David Burns did some research to find out, once and for all, what makes for a happily mated couple. As Burns describes it, he and his colleagues included in their study pretty much every conceivable idea about what traits affect couple satisfaction over time.

Twelve hundred individuals participated, representing thousands of permutations and combinations of couples’ feelings and behavior in the areas of “finances, sex, recreational activities and leisure time, the sharing of duties and household chores, the raising of children, and relationships with friends and relatives, how much love they felt for their partners, how committed they were to their relationships, and how guilty, anxious, trapped, depressed, inferior, frustrated or angry they felt.” Pretty much everything you can think of about a relationship, in other words.

And not only did they measure each individual in these areas, they analyzed the satisfaction levels of combinations of personality types to see what happens when different kinds of people get together in a relationship. Do submissive personalities do better with more dominate mates? Are dependent types more satisfied when they are attached to independent spouses? Again, through their interviews and questionnaires, Burns and his colleagues identified a long list of personality features and combinations, which they evaluated for relationship satisfaction levels.

So long was their list of factors and permutations, in fact, that they needed the University of Pennsylvania’s mainframe computer to do the calculations. It was an ambitious undertaking.

Imagine their disappointment, then, as the researchers combed through the data only to find almost no consistent correlations anywhere. After all that work, no set of attitudes or personality traits and no combination of personality types predicted higher satisfaction. Except one.

To Burns’ surprise, the only factor that made a difference across all survey participants was a couple’s willingness to accept joint responsibility for their problems. Couples who scored high on this reported significantly more satisfaction. Couples who blame each other for their problems, conversely, were significantly unhappier.

This seems almost too simple, doesn’t it? Actually, I think it is — slightly. I’ll get to that below. But Burns is unequivocal. He calls blame the “atom bomb of intimacy,” destroying everything in its path. “I’m not aware of any techniques that are powerful enough to help people who blame others for the problems in their relationships. You might do better to focus on a different relationship with someone who’s more important to you.”

Any therapist who works extensively with couples will recognize the sentiment Burns is voicing. When couples are deeply unhappy but can only point the finger at each other, it’s discouraging to sit with them. If neither partner can say, “Well, I know I must have a part in this, too,” or “I know I’m hard to live with” or even “maybe I’m only seeing one side of this, but …” — if there is simply no perception of the egocentric bias in their thinking, in other words — you know they’ve got a longer road to travel back to a satisfying relationship. So, in this way, I agree with Burns that a) the level of blaming in most relationships is inversely correlated with happiness, and b) the first step in healing a high-conflict relationship is finding a way past the blame.

But here is the problem. Couples who are stuck in conflictual patterns of relating are almost always stuck in cycles of blame. There are variations on the theme of blame, of course. Critical, attacking blame is different from defensive blame (Me? What about you!). Contemptuous blame meant to shame you is distinct from that silent, withholding blame intended to freeze you into submission. And self-blame, while slightly less corrosive to the relationship, is merely the shadow expression of partner-blame. It also needs to be unwound if couples are going to heal.

Because Burns is a cognitive therapist, he sees human unhappiness as primarily a problem of cognition — of interpretation. But if you’re not willing to examine your interpretations about issues in the relationship — if you continue to insist it’s all him or all her — working with your cognitions is already pretty much moot. Unfortunately, partners in conflict are often deaf to the logical argument that it takes two to tango. Often, especially with couples in chronic conflict, to suggest that both parties share the blame is to become the enemy.

So, what do you do? Mary feels disrespected and says, “I’m tired of you coming home late and delaying our dinner every night.” John feels scolded and put down, and replies, “I’m sorry for working so hard to keep food on the table.” Mary feels a) completely unheard and b) dominated by his assertion of the superior breadwinner status. “Really. It would be too much to pick up the phone and let me know? Because I’ve been sitting on the couch doing my toes all day, so really, don’t bother worrying about my schedule.”

John and Mary are each fighting for self-esteem and respect in the relationship, and they are each far more aware of the hurt they are feeling than the hurt they are inflicting. Yes, they need to reach an awareness of their own part in the cycle, but, in most cases, that won’t happen until something else occurs — something related to a tectonic shift at the feeling level, where primitive emotions of fear and anger can frustrate a more rational understanding of what’s happening between you.

So, it doesn’t help to change your thinking?

A change in thinking is the easiest way to make your relationship happier. Recognizing that you are at least as blameworthy as your partner for the conflict is the most basic shift you can make. But are you ready, willing and able? Most of us, frankly, are not — at least not right away. Burns has a pretty good test to separate the couples who might benefit from cognitive exercises from those of us who struggle with urges anchored in deeper emotional waters. Here it is.

Take a piece of paper and divide it down the middle with a line. Label the two columns “advantages of blaming ______ (your partner)” and “disadvantages … etc.” This is going to be a cost/benefit analysis to help you determine your willingness and motivation to stop blaming your partner, just as a matter of rational choice.

Burns’ examples of advantages include:

» You can tell yourself that you’re being honest, because the other person probably is acting like a jerk. “Truth” will be on your side.

» You can look down on the other person.

» You can feel a sense of moral superiority.

» You won’t have to feel guilty or examine your own role in the problem.

» You can play the role of victim and feel sorry for yourself.

» You won’t have to change.

» You can try to get back at the other person. After all, he or she deserves it.

» You can be angry and resentful — anger is empowering.

» You won’t have to feel guilty or ashamed.

» You can gossip about what a loser the other person is and get sympathy from your friends.

Disadvantages (more obviously):

» You’ll feel frustrated and resentful because nothing will change.

» The other person will feel judged and insist that it’s all your fault.

» The conflict will be demoralizing and exhausting.

» You won’t be able to get close to the other person.

» You won’t experience any spiritual or emotional growth.

» People may get tired of your complaining.

» You won’t experience any joy or intimacy because you’ll be hopelessly enmeshed in the conflict.

Now look at both sides of the page and decide. Which is more compelling? Of course the examples are a little slanted toward the disadvantages (Burns is a therapist, and wants you to stop fighting, of course), but even if you include some more emotionally primitive, less rational concerns in the list of disadvantages (“I’ll be defenseless and vulnerable to his attack” or “I’ll be dominated by her”), you might well come down on the side of not blaming. If you can see the net benefits of not blaming, and as a result, stop blaming your partner, then you are a prime candidate for Burns’ approach, and I would encourage you to go out and buy his book.

For those of us whose conflicts don’t surrender so easily to a rational debate, we can take some comfort in an emerging consensus among experts on couples. Deep, intimate relationships are largely ruled by the swirls and eddies of emotion between partners — the dance — which is governed in turn, not by reason, but by the invisible gravities of archaic, evolutionary survival mechanisms, and early childhood experiences. True intimacy comes — for us — through lifelong efforts to become aware of and to share these deeper sources of shame and blame with our partners, even when they don’t seem rational.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.