As a psychotherapist, I teach people to take responsibility for their own actions, but not for the actions of others. As a husband, though, I find that married life often goes more smoothly with a slight modification of this principle. Fortunately, my wife and I are in agreement on this, and as a result, we rarely squabble over life's foibles and frustrations. Basically, we each take the blame when there is no blame to take.
Here's how it works: Let's say my wife has been preparing a big dinner and then manages to knock the entire pot of beef stew all over the kitchen floor. As soon as I hear her anguished yowl, I put my hand on her shoulder and say, "Honey, I take full responsibility for this." It's nonsense, of course, but it's helpful nonsense. We laugh, begin the cleanup, and order takeout.
Sometimes, my wife will anticipate our little ritual and launch a preemptive salvo. "You must have hidden my reading glasses!" she'll say with mock annoyance.
"It's true," I reply. "I take full responsibility for this unconscionable theft."
On some level, my upbringing probably prepared me for this role since, in my family, feeling a little guilty about something was not at all uncommon. And who knows? Maybe I did hide those glasses and then repressed the whole thing. Freud would not have a problem with this, so why should I?
This mutual arrangement works out well for me, too. If, while driving with my wife, I happen to miss that critical exit, I can safely sputter, "It's all your fault! You were distracting me."
And I can count on my wife replying cheerfully, "I take full responsibility. It must have been those darn distraction rays I was beaming into your brain."
For Nancy and me, it's all an elaborate game. But I believe our willingness to take the blame – even when blameless – has its roots in an ancient ethical tradition. In the Jewish faith, shaming or humiliating another person – especially in public – is considered a mortal sin. Indeed, rabbis teach us to go out of our way to avoid such a thing.
One story relates how Rabbi Judah, while lecturing, became annoyed by the strong odor of garlic in the room. "Let the one who ate the garlic go out!" he intoned harshly. Another distinguished sage, Rabbi Chiya, immediately stood up and walked out. It later emerged that Rabbi Chiya had left simply to avoid embarrassing the real garlic-eating culprit, a student of lower status who would have been crushed by Rabbi Judah's rebuke.
"A person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar," the Talmud also tells us. Yet how many marriages are wrecked by the obdurate insistence of one spouse or the other that he or she is right? Why not bend a bit in the wind of discord, even when you are not at fault?
A little creative boundary-blurring, combined with a sense of humor, can help couples surmount their everyday predicaments. Or, as that great rabbinical sage, Milton Berle, once put it, "A good wife always forgives her husband when she's wrong."