Between You and Me

Why some relationships work—and others don't

You Be the Judge: Are You Making Bad Attributions?

How we interpret other people's behaviors says a lot about our relationships

Your romantic partner surprises you with flowers. What are the first thoughts that cross your mind? Do you think “how sweet and thoughtful!” or do your thoughts tend toward the dark side, such as “That’s a look of guilt — what did he do this time?” How we interpret the behaviors of those closest to us says a lot about our relationships. When your spouse arrives home with flower, do you think he’s being sweet or is he guilty of something? If your friend is late for lunch, do you think she can’t manage her time well, or do you assume she got stuck in traffic? People who tend to interpret their partner’s behaviors in a more positive light have happier, more trusting relationships. So what exactly does it mean to interpret someone’s behavior in a “more positive light”?

Causal Attributions

In general social psychology terminology, people’s explanations about the causes of events and behaviors, such as flowers from a partner or a friend’s late arrive, are called causal attributions. In research on close relationships, attributions are often broken up into two categories: “relationship-enhancing” attributions and “distress-maintaining” attributions (Bradbury & Fincham, 1990).

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Relationship-enhancing attributions occur when people place more responsibility on their partners for their positive behaviors and less responsibility on their partners for their negative behaviors. So when your partner brings you flowers — it is because he’s sweet and thoughtful. But when he’s late for a date, it is because he got caught in traffic (something he couldn’t control).

Distress-maintaining attributions show just the opposite pattern. These types of attributions occur when people place responsibility on their partners for their bad behaviors, but interpret their partner's positive behaviors in a more negative light. So when your partner brings you flowers, it must be a result of his guilt — not because he wanted to show he cared, and when he shows up late for a date, you assume it’s because he forgot he was supposed to meet you.

Are bad attributions a reflection, or the cause, of a distressed relationship?

Research has shown that people who don't trust their partners as much tend to make less relationship-enhancing attributions over time (Miller & Rempel, 2004) and its easy to see how viewing your partner has untrustworty, and not being satisfied with your relationship might lead you to assume the worst when your partner behaves badly. But there is also evidence that the types of attributions you make influence how your relationship turns out (Fincham & Bradbury, 1993). In one study, people who made worse attributions for their spouse’s negative behaviors at the beginning of one year became less satisfied with their marriages over the course of that year. So blaming your partner for his negative behaviors instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt may just be your downfall.

Down the rabbit hole

The attributions that you make for your partner’s behavior influence not just how you feel about your relationship, but also how you behave. If you think your partner showed up late to your date because she forgot about it, you are likely to find yourself responding with your own negative behaviors. This kind of thinking, and subsequent behavior, perpetuates a negative downward spiral (your partner arrives late, you get pissy, your partner gets defensive, cue awkward scene in nice restaurant). However, if you assume she was late because of something outside of her control, like traffic, you are more likely to be in a positive mood, thereby lifting her sprits and preventing you both from falling down the rabbit hole. And hopefully, the next time you are the one who is late (you know it's gonna happen sometime!) — your partner will respond in kind.

A few final words:

First, you may be thinking… it is all well and good to make these types of attributions when you haven’t talked to your partner yet, but what happens when they show up and confess they forgot about the date? In this case, their behavior is no longer up for interpretation, they admit they did it! Not true — there is always room for interpretation. Even if you find out your partner forgot about the date, you can still choose to think she forgot about it because she doesn’t care, or you could assume she forgot about it not because she didn't care, but because she was stressed at work and hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night.

Finally, although painting your partner’s behaviors in a positive light may help you be happier in your relationship, there may be times when relationship-enhancing attributions are not beneficial. The research I've described today looks at attributions for relatively mild behaviors in relatively healthy relationships. If your partner is engaging in extreme negative behaviors (such as violence), or you are in a really unhappy relationship, trying to put the best spin on things is probably not the way to go.

What info about the situation do you utilize when you make attributions? Let me know in the comments!

Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

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