“Why Did You Do That?” Giving Each Other the Benefit of the Doubt

September 12th, 2011

My teacher related a story to us once about a time he got cut off when he was driving. He was at a stop sign and there was a car stopped on the opposite side. The other driver didn’t have his blinker on so my teacher assumed he was going straight through as well so he started continuing on his way when all of the sudden, the other driver turned left right in front of him cutting him off. My teacher continued to say how he started to get so angry at this other driver that he would do something like that to him. He started talking about how it was the other driver’s fault and the other driver shouldn’t be mad at him.

Then he stopped and said, “But really, I should have given him the benefit of the doubt.” What if he was in a hurry to get somewhere? What if his wife was in the hospital and he was trying to get to her? What if he thought he had his blinker on but the front light wasn’t working?

There are so many possibilities!

I tell you this story because how many times do we refuse to give our partners the benefit of the doubt?

When we’ve had a long day or are in a bad mood, it’s easy to start putting blame on our partner for every little thing. I know; I’ve done it! Way too many times.

In a book by David Olson and John Defrain called In Marriages and Families: Intimacy, Diversity, and Strengths it talks about ways to “fight fairly” in relationships. One of the tips is: Always check out your perceptions.

A lot of times we jump to conclusions too quickly, cutting off any possibility of keeping an open mind to our partner’s position. Instead, we have the responsibility to ask our partners what they are thinking or feeling in a situation.

This past couple of weeks my husband, son, and I took a very long road trip to see some family. Among the pile of snacks was a bag of sunflower seeds that my husband had been eating. I was sitting in the back with my son when he fell asleep and I decided to sit up front by my husband. When I got up there, I looked down to see half the bag of sunflower seeds spilled over the floor in the front.

Since my husband had been eating them, I immediately assumed he was the one not being careful. I accused him saying, “Why can’t you be more careful with these?” He looked at me calmly and said, “Megan, when you were moving stuff to sit up here, you accidentally moved the bag and spilled the seeds. I didn’t want to say anything and get mad because I knew it was an accident.”

Well, that certainly put me in my place! I felt so guilty realizing that I quickly snapped at him when it was really me and he didn’t get mad at me at all. Then I thought of how many times I let my emotions get the best of me and find faults that aren’t there.

I think we can all do better to give our partners the benefit of the doubt and not immediately blame them for something we don’t know much about. We should ask and talk to our spouses to figure out what is really going on before we let ourselves get too upset for no reason.

Here are four suggestions to keep in mind as we learn to communicate better with our partners and try not to jump to conclusions.

  1. Check, don’t assume. When our partner does something that upsets us, don’t silently stew about it. Ask them a question: “When you said _____, did you mean _______?” Or, “Whoa, that doesn’t sound like you! Could you say that again? I think I may have misunderstood you.”
  2. Have perspective. Most likely the person didn’t even know that what they did upset you. And also, what they did probably doesn’t even matter (or wasn’t intentional) in the first place.
  3. No one is perfect, including yourself. We all make mistakes and it is important to realize our shortcomings instead of blaming each other for them. By remembering that we are all learning and struggling together it will make our relationships more enjoyable and less contentious.
  4. Let the little things go. Pick your battles wisely and decide what is worth making a big deal of. By adhering to this rule, we can limit our conflicts and enjoy each other more.

By doing these things we will be able to be more careful about jumping to conclusions and give our spouses the benefit of the doubt.

What are some suggestions you have to avoid jumping to conclusions?