When a good friend tells you something came up and she has to cancel plans, what do you do? Do you make the worst case assumptions about the “real” reasons or are you good at giving the benefit of the doubt? Often, in friendship and in early dating, we are all better at giving the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go well than is true in a relationship that’s struggling. Maybe the relationship isn’t even really struggling but some bad habits are starting and you notice that you stopped assuming the best in your partner’s behavior.
In long term relationships and in families, people will make mistakes. They will do dumb or hurtful things. They won’t do things they were supposed to do and they will do things they were supposed to stop doing. Sometimes there are ambiguous situations where one of you will have to determine what’s “real” or what the motivation is for whatever happened or didn’t happen. This is where being able to give the benefit of the doubt is so important.
Humans have a tendency to engage in what is called attribution bias. The overly simple explanation is that we tend to explain things we do wrong as situational and to explain what other people do wrong as because of who they are as people. Similarly, we are more sensitive to making negative attributions than positive ones. That’s where giving someone the benefit of the doubt can bring big benefits to your relationships. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes more is going on for the other person than you may know. Often the motivation behind a behavior isn’t as intentionally negative as we can sometimes assume.
For example, let’s say that over dinner the woman is trying to tell her husband about her day that’s been particularly hard. She notices that he’s not really listening and she feels hurt. A negative assumption looks like either saying or thinking to herself “You are so selfish you can’t ever listen when I’m the one needing to vent.” A positive assumption might be “he had a pretty bad day himself and his mind is elsewhere”, not that he’s just tuning her out because he doesn’t care. Maybe in reality he knows he’s going to have to lay off several people the next day and he’s worried about their families. Which meaning is going to lead to a better place? John Gottman’s research on relationships shows that when couples can make positive attributions (or assumptions) about their partner, the relationship will be stronger.
When a situation has more than one possible explanation, giving someone the benefit of the doubt will usually not only help the relationship but will also make you feel better too. Let’s say that a husband really wants his wife’s time and attention but what he sees in her behavior is being really focused on the kids. Again, he could make a negative assumption that she just doesn’t care about him as much as the kids and feel jealous and hurt. He could also make a positive assumption, realize that the kids are having a hard time and his wife is a really caring and loving mother. That helps him feel proud and grateful even if he does still want more time with her.
So what if, in the above examples, the husband really doesn’t listen when it’s his wife’s turn to vent? What if the wife really does give the kids an overabundance of her attention leaving her husband lacking? Even in those cases, a person can give the benefit of the doubt in the moment while still making a request for different behavior in general from the other partner. That might sound like “Hey honey, I know things are tough at work right now and so maybe your mind is there but could you give me 15 minutes to vent and then I can return the favor so we can both feel supported?” or “You know, I really love how much you care about our kids and making sure they are doing well. Thanks for being a great mom. I also need some of your time and attention too though. Can we carve out time for just the adults soon?”
Assuming the most negative explanation, or taking things too personally, will make you feel bad. You will see your partner or family member in a more negative way. Giving the benefit of the doubt will not. It takes more effort sometimes to make a positive assumption but would you rather be wrong in thinking someone is better than they are acting in the moment or wrong in thinking they are worse than they are in life?