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Thursday, 22 March 2001

Personal Responsibility

Written by  Michael Tobin

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Personal responsibility is one of the least understood concepts in modern psychology. A person who would say about himself, "I'm responsible. I get to places on time. I pay my bills. When I promise to do something, I do it," would be describing very fine qualities. However, being reliable and conscientious are not definitions of personal responsibility.

Perhaps, a way of defining personal responsibility is by telling you what it's not. Personal responsibility is the opposite of blaming. When we blame others we are relinquishing control over our lives. In essence, what we are saying is that the person whom we blame is responsible for how we feel and what we do. It may be harsh to say it, but when we believe another person's behavior makes us feel and act in a certain way, then we're no different than Pavlov's dog who drooled upon hearing a bell ring. Believing that is to believe that we have no choice or freedom in our lives. All we are is what other people's behavior dictates us to be.

True freedom is knowing that each of us responsible for our lives. The experience of personal responsibility is rooted in the knowledge that every act, be it as a subtle as a feeling or as direct as a harmful attack, results from choice-- not coercion. I alone choose how I will respond to another. If you get angry at me, I don't have to respond in kind. If your partner is in a bad mood, you don't have to be miserable. His bad mood is his creation and responsibility. That's not to say you should be cold and indifferent. On the contrary, you'd probably be able to help him if you didn't feel overwhelmed and reactive.

To more fully understand the concept of personal responsibility, let me share with you the following rather exaggerated vignette. On Monday, your partner comes home from work, hardly acknowledges your existence, lies down on the couch and without a please or a thank you tells you to fix him a martini. Your reaction - you make his drink and then pour it on his head. On Tuesday, he repeats the same routine. (Okay, I'll accept the fact that among blockheads he may be the biggest and the densest.) However, this time rather than dumping his drink on his head, you hand it to him while you ask him how his day was.

So, explain - what happened during those 24 hours? How did the same behavior elicit such radically different responses from the same person? In truth, there are many possible answers to that question. For the sake of simplicity, I'll suggest one possible explanation:

The following morning after our enraged woman has cooled off, she realizes that she needs to learn new communication skills. Last night's sweet revenge has lost its taste. Winning in marital combat seems less desirable to her than succeeding at marriage. So, she goes on line and visits the WholeFamily Center and learns that anger and revenge are only two of her many possible choices. She discovers that a loving relationship is the creation of two partners, both of whom take full responsibility for its success.

She leaves the site knowing that if she wants a fulfilling marriage, than she needs to take responsibility for making it happen. She learns her lesson well; blockhead softens and begins to talk about his troubles at work and his fears about the future. The woman in our vignette has discovered an essential truth - CHANGE YOURSELF AND YOUR PARTNER WILL CHANGE.

To understand more fully how you can take responsibility for creating a successful relationship, let me suggest the following exercise:

  1. Take a piece of paper and write answers to the following question: What do I need to change in myself that will help create a loving, respectful marriage?
  2. Prioritize your list starting with the easiest behaviors to change.
  3. Pick the easiest behavior and for one week put it into practice.
  4. Notice what it was like for you and how your partner responded.
  5. As always, be in touch with us.
Last modified on Sunday, 22 January 2012 20:44
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Michael Tobin

Michael Tobin

Dr. Michael Tobin has been a psychologist since 1974, specializing in marital and family therapy. He is the author of numerous articles on marriage and family relationships and is the founder of WholeFamily.com. He's  been married to Deborah for 38 years and is the father of four children and grandfather to five.

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