How you think can impact your relationship satisfaction
Inan eye-opening study, a trio of family and relationship psychologists investigated 130 couples in their second year of marriage. 18 months later, they collected further data from these couples.
The psychologists found that a significant factor in determining the couple’s relationship satisfaction over time was something called an attribution pattern.
What is an attribution pattern?
Attributions are assumptions we make in our minds about why a person did or did not do something. Therefore, an attribution pattern is the overall trend in the way we choose to interpret our partner’s behaviour.
In everyday life, there are several possible reasons why our partner might choose one action over another. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and explain their behaviour using whatever we consider to be the reasoning behind their choices.
Unfortunately, when we do this without taking into account the full range of factors which may have influenced our partner in the moment, we risk generating harmful, distressing attributions which may negatively affect our relationships.
This is especially problematic if our attributions are inaccurate!
Couples who strive to judge each other benevolently — interpreting each other’s good behaviour as deliberate and habitual, and each other’s transgressions as accidental and limited (wherever possible and sensible) — are more likely to be satisfied in their relationships overall.
You are most acutely aware of things that go on within your own life and inside your own head.
If you make a mistake brought about by a complicated cocktail of circumstances, you’re less prone to automatically blaming your intentions or your personality for what went wrong. This is because you are more understanding of the specific context in which your mistake occurred.
Studies have found that people are more likely to excuse and explain their own behaviour based on the external forces that shaped their decisions. However, in a relationship context, this means that people can also frequently overlook how similar pressures might affect their partner, thereby holding their partners more accountable than they hold themselves.
Research even suggests that in some cases, the effect of such cognitive dissonance can be so pronounced that people having extramarital affairs will disregard the impact of their own affairs, all while considering their spouse’s affairs to be grievously hurtful.
Obviously, even in less extreme scenarios which don’t involve infidelity, this kind of disconnect and lack of empathy can contribute to relationship dissatisfaction in the long-term.
If your partner does something which upsets you, there are several ways you can interpret their behaviour. You could attribute it to internal or external causes.
Firstly, you could assume their actions are evidence of an overall character flaw. You might believe they upset you due to an inherent deficiency in their personality or ability, or decide that their behaviour indicates a deliberate lack of effort on their part.
On the other hand, you could attribute their actions to influencing factors outside of them — such as specific situations or circumstances which can be rectified.
Research indicates that this second type of attribution gives you more scope to address relationship problems and work through them. It’s the opposite of a fatalistic approach, in which you give up and assume your partner is simply a bad person by default.
Remember — questioning your attributions shouldn’t be used a form of self-delusion to justify a partner’s violence, abuse or mistreatment.
However, practised correctly in the context of a healthy partnership, it’s an excellent tool to help you challenge your own assumptions, and navigate everyday conflicts from a place of love rather than judgement.
Over the course of any relationship, it’s natural that at some point you will find yourself upset at your partner, tempted to make assumptions about the motivations behind their actions.
At such moments, here’s a simple, three-step mental exercise you can use to help you question your attributions, increase your empathy, and approach tricky conflict situations in a calmer, more thoughtful, and less reactive way.
1. Separate your partner’s true intentions from your negative assumptions about the action.
This means asking yourself:
- Was my partner deliberately seeking to hurt me?
- Is it possible they were really well-meaning, and I’m just interpreting their actions as selfish or unkind? Could they have other reasons for doing what they did?
- Could they have been affected or distracted by external circumstances outside of their control?
2. Separate your partner’s overall character from your negative evaluation based on the action.
When your partner does something that you don’t like, don’t rush to dismissively stick them in a box with a negative label like ‘careless person’, ‘hopeless person’ or ‘selfish person.’
One action doesn’t necessarily tell you everything you need to know about who your partner is.
- Does this action really constitute evidence of my partner’s terrible overall character?
- Have I seen them behave in ways which would suggest they are the opposite of whatever horrible, lazy, or inconsiderate person I’m now assuming them to be?
3. Separate your partner’s history and typical behaviour from this particular action.
Some questions to consider include:
- Is this a consistent pattern of behaviour or is it an unusual slip-up?
- Does my partner frequently hurt me deliberately in many contexts or is this a specific issue with a very specific context?
Sometimes, we are so focused on the one mistake our partner made, or the one time they forgot to do something we wanted them to do, that we fail to remember the countless other times they showed us love and consideration.
After you’ve carefully reflected on the questions above, it’s a good idea to have a calm, heartfelt conversation with your partner in which you express your feelings. Ask them non-judgmentally about the intentions behind their actions, instead of accusing them or making assumptions about them.
While I was still in the early stages of dating my current boyfriend, he said something which I misinterpreted in a negative way. Instead of politely asking him to clarify — which I should have done sooner rather than later— I spent a great deal of time mulling over the statement in my head, trying to figure what it ‘meant’ about him as a person.
Later, I went through the three-step mental exercise above. I realised that I was possibly jumping to conclusions and attributing his statement to a character flaw — but this didn’t line up with the many positive examples of good character I’d seen from him.
The next time I met up with him, I talked to him about my confusion and asked him to clarify the statement I’d misinterpreted. He was relieved that I’d chosen to discuss the issue with him instead of making assumptions, and the sincere, mutually respectful conversation we had afterwards completely settled the problem.
You can’t control your partner’s actions, but you can control the way in which you analyse them. You can opt to assess your partner’s behaviour in ways that are empathetic, open-minded and forgiving, or jump to conclusions that are pessimistic and blaming.
The success of your relationship often depends on the interpretation you choose!
For more on mindset, Namaste Nourished has done more than enough in putting out this amazing article out there. Do your self the amazing favour by clicking the link below.
written by Zara Zareen
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