Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Problem With Judging Your Partner on a Pass-Fail Basis

Relationships are complex. Your judgment of them should reflect that.

Consider the following three scenarios, all of which are based on real people and real incidents:

  • Karen became really angry when her husband returned from the supermarket without two of the items on her list.
  • Norm was unable to squelch his frustration when he realized his wife had yet again, neglected to get him a gift for his birthday.
  • Leslie became irritable and snappish when her boyfriend made early dinner reservations that forced her to go straight from work without having time to change clothes at home.

What caused each of these strong reactions was a two-step psychological process: First, each perceived their partner as having failed "a simple task," which elicited feelings of dismay, disappointment, and irritation. They then assumed their partner’s failure reflected a lack of caring, which caused feelings of hurt that compounded their disappointment and anger.


While these kinds of emotional responses are completely understandable, they are founded on two faulty assumptions that can lead the "offended" person down an unnecessary and unfortunate path: That their partner indeed "failed" the task, and that the "failure" actually reflected a fundamental lack of caring.

Let’s get back to the three real-life examples: Karen’s supermarket list had 50 items on it, two of which her husband could not find, despite asking a store clerk for help. Norm's wife did not have a gift of her own to give him because she gave the gifts she had carefully selected to her children so they could enjoy giving their father great birthday presents. And Leslie’s boyfriend was so excited to take her to the hottest new restaurant in town that he took the first reservation he could get, as a later table wasn’t available for many more weeks.

In other words, the significant others in these all made significant and even thoughtful efforts to complete their "tasks" successfully. So why did their partners perceive them as failing? Because Karen, Norm, and Leslie graded their partners on a pass-fail basis in which they considered incomplete or imperfect efforts to be failures.

I asked each of them (my clients, whose names have been changed) to answer a simple question for me: What grade would their partners have earned had they graded their efforts using percentages instead of pass-fail? Karen stuck to the numbers and admitted her husband’s grade would have been 48 out of 50, which translates to 96 percent out of 100. Norm gave his wife 90 out of 100; and Leslie, a generally "harsh grader" gave her boyfriend an 85, which correspond to an A, an A-, and a B+, respectively—hardly failing grades.

Re-evaluating their partners’ efforts using percentages had an immediate impact—all three felt slightly chagrined by the harshness of their initial reactions and admitted to feeling less angry, closer, and even warmer toward their respective partners. None had actually realized they had been judging their partners on a pass-fail basis, nor had they realized how doing so was distorting their perceptions of their partner and making them devalue the relationship as a whole.

Indeed, we rarely articulate aloud the operational directives with which we approach life; as a result, we are often entirely unaware that such assumptions exist, let alone how significantly they influence our perceptions, decisions, behavior, and consequently, our very happiness and life satisfaction.

Grading your partner on a pass-fail basis leads to unnecessary conflict because it sets an unreasonably high bar. Since there are only two possible outcomes—excellence or failure—and given how few people attain true excellence in the day-to-day management of their lives and relationships, most partners are much more likely to fail than they are to exceed expectations.

These failures then give rise to self-fulfilling prophecies in which the disappointed party expects the other person to fail in the future and consequently becomes more prone to judge their partner’s efforts on a pass-fail basis going forward.

The give-and-take in relationships is always complex and nuanced. Pass-fail evaluations are likely to lead not only to relationship strife but to become unnecessary self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.

For the most common way our minds trick us into making false assumptions watch my TED talk here. And for scientifically proven ways to catch self-defeating cycles, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

Also, join my email list

Visit my website and follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch

Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

Images by

More from Guy Winch Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today