Responsibility in Relationships

“If my loved one is hurt, I am responsible.”

What does it mean to be responsible?  Too often, we say these words to mean, “It was my fault.”  Guilt and responsibility have become almost synonymous, which can be a very dangerous confusion in relationships.  It is dangerous because guilt is connected to a host of other feelings—shame, fear, anger, insecurity—many of which directly conflict with meeting the very responsibility we are discussing.  Instead of addressing the pain our loved one is experiencing, we shift the blame off ourselves to relieve our own discomfort, or we become lost in thoughts of shame and guilt, criticizing ourselves for what we have done.  The discussion (internal or external) of fault prevents us from doing what is actually necessary in this moment: responding.

To be responsible is to be duty-bound to respond.  Perhaps we did cause the hurt, and if so, responding is even more important, as this response will be how we repair the rupture in the relationship.  But even if we had nothing to do with it, the hurt is present before us, and now we must respond.

Consider if you were walking down a staircase next to someone, and they trip and fall.   What is your response? Should your response be any different, depending on whether you bumped into them or they tripped on their own?  If someone else knocked them down? The secondary response may be different. You may apologize, or offer sympathy, or feel angry toward whatever circumstances caused them to fall.  But the primary response, the one that should always come first, is to respond to their injury. Do they need an ambulance? A bandage? Ice? Help getting up, or out of harm’s way? Apologies and blame can come later, if need be.  Right now, someone is hurt, and they need your help.

Responsibility and guilt are linked because, in many situations, we need to determine who was at fault in order to determine who should respond, and how.  But in relationships, we already know this, and so guilt becomes less important. Because if someone you love is hurt, the person who should respond is you.

Andrea Medarisrelationships