Responsibility for One’s Actions — Is There a Right/Wrong Issue Here?

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Reader’s Question

A recent point of contention between my wife and me is her refusal to take adequate responsibility for mistakes. To set a proper context — I’m not harping over trivial things, but talking about major blunders for which a simple “I’m sorry” doesn’t suffice.

The example I’ll offer happened recently and involves our oldest daughter, who has an interest in nature and gardening. She planted some rows of flowers and pointed out the location to my wife at least a dozen times. Yet for the second year in a row, my wife carelessly pulled them all up while weeding the garden. My daughter was very upset but all my wife offered was that she didn’t mean to do it and would never “willingly pull them up on purpose.” I told my wife I didn’t think that was the issue and that isn’t a good example to set for our daughters. Is there a right/wrong issue here; is there some other way to consider this? My daughter will barely speak to her mother and is still very angry. Thank you for any help.

Psychologist’s Reply

I don’t know you or your wife, so I’m wondering about some other factors that may be important: Do you believe that your wife remembered, that she should have remembered, and is capable of remembering such things as this? Is it possible that she truly did not remember, even after all the reminding and so on? If it’s possible that she didn’t remember, then she may have health concerns that go beyond your concern for your garden or daughter’s upset for the moment. When a person has a change of behavior from what was normal for them, and when that person starts losing pieces of cognition like memory, judgment, or executive decision-making, then there is every reason to go to your medical doctor and report the symptoms. If there is a possibility that your wife’s cognition has declined over the last year or two, then take her to her doctor right away. You want to rule out any physical cause for this and care for her if necessary. And taking care of family is a good example for your daughter.

If the doctor clears her medically, then you can talk to your wife directly about this problem. Ask her to explain the lack of empathy and forgetfulness. Ask her to explain her behavior, and hold her accountable for her actions.

On the other hand, if she is facing limited capacity to remember, then she may have reacted that way to her mistake in order to minimize it and deflect her embarrassment. That would not be unusual in this scenario. If this turns out to be true, then I encourage you to forgive and forget the garden, recruit your daughter into this process, and have a family discussion about your wife’s health. If the garden mistake turns out to be an early warning sign of health problems, you may be grateful that it happened after all, so you could get her the care she needs.

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