... and how the happiest couples avoid a classic psychological trap.
It was the evening of Denise's 40th birthday, and she was furious. "How could he?" she thought, deeply upset that her husband Tom hadn't given her a birthday card "from" their eight-month-old daughter.
After all, she explained to Tom the next day, "You always sent me a card from the dog, so how could you not have known I was expecting one from the baby?"
Denise's distress, as funny as it may sound, is not unusual. We all give ourselves much more leeway than we give our mates.
To Denise, it wasn't enough that Tom was overwhelmed by the responsibilities that come with being a new father. It didn't occur to her that she hadn't fixed Tom's favorite dinner lately. But, really, what new mother has time? To her, her reasons are reasons, while Tom's were excuses.
In our heart of hearts, we want to be loved unreservedly. We figure that if our mate really understood us, he or she would forgive our trivial imperfections and focus on our many fabulous traits. Yet we often have a hard time giving that same unconditional affection to our partners.
The Most Common Error
Psychologists call this the self-serving bias. It's hard to be objective about ourselves. When our mate does something we don't like, we attribute their behavior to their character, rather than trying to understand the factors that created the particular situation.
We know our own good motives, but our partner's are less believable. In other words, it's obvious why I messed up, but when you do it, you're thoughtless—and you obviously don't love me anymore.
To avoid falling into the self-serving bias trap, always assume goodwill. Take the example of Lacey and her husband Madison: He's been coming home late from work a lot lately, overflowing with regret and explanations of how he got bogged down at the office. Lacey wonders if maybe he values his job more than her and their kids.
She would do better to look at it differently: Madison is caught between the demands of a stressful job, which he's doing in order to support his family, and his desire to spend more time with them. If she'd stop blaming, she might begin to understand his point of view. And then perhaps they could brainstorm ways to improve things.
Some couples' arguments go on year after year: Jonathan sits in the driver's seat "like a dummy," insists his wife LeeAnn, who directs him wherever they go. But she has a choice: She could continue to get annoyed with him, or she might realize he just has a miserable sense of direction.
Spouses sometimes complain that their mate never surprises them by planning an impromptu outing. Many of those same partners, though, never plan anything in advance. When you ask for what you want, you may get it quickly, but if you wait for a partner to plan your social life, you might end up with none.
Is Anger Natural?
Say your partner has done something utterly infuriating—forgotten to give you a phone message, woken you up too early, spent money on themselves that you'd agreed would be saved, or something more major. Anger may be a natural response. But you can go back later and do your best to get into their frame of mind. And you'd be surprised how loving you may end up feeling once you "get it." And they may be so grateful for your efforts that they'll think twice before repeating the error. And maybe you won't feel anger as your first response the next time things don't go your way.
Even if you can only stop playing the blame game with supreme effort, you'll soon find yourselves feeling more warmly toward one another.
Let's say your partner gets home very late one night and forgets to take out the trash barrels that are set to be picked up in the morning. When the truck wakes you both in the morning, and he says, "I forgot to take out the barrels," what goes through your mind? The wise response is not to assume selfish sloth on his part. Optimally, you'd accept that your partner, often preoccupied, simply forgot.
Our ways of thinking about why those we love behave in certain ways are often just plain wrong. When Sally asks Lew to pick up some coffee when he's out getting groceries and he brings back "the wrong kind," she is tempted to say, "How could you not know that I never buy this flavor? You never pay attention to anything I say or do." Whereas Lew spent a long time in front of the coffee selections, finally opting to buy the most expensive type, hoping to please his spouse.
By assuming goodwill, you can cut out 95 percent of your conflicts. When you know in your gut that those who love you are acting with all good intentions, misunderstandings diminish dramatically. Remember: The person who has pledged eternal love to you can have a bad day and make mistakes. Just like you.
4 Ways to Make It Work for You
Here are four more ways to make the no-fault solution work in your own relationship:
- Recognize that if you don't know what was in your mate's mind, you don't know the whole story. Train yourself to see things through his or her eyes. Ask, "If things were to go your way, what would that look like?" Don't try to argue them out of their point of view—the purpose is understanding. Ask, "If I could read your mind about this, what would I learn?"
- When you're upset by something your mate does, ask yourself whether they meant their actions to have the effect they had on you.
- Role-play the conflict, with each of you pretending to be the other. Try to put yourself in your partner's mind when you act out their role, verbalizing what you're feeling. Did they get close to how you were thinking? Did you get close to their mental state?
- Write down everything that drives you mad about your spouse. Then create a list of your own potentially annoying habits as you imagine your spouse would write it. Learn anything?