You know how sometimes you get so wrapped up in an issue — some kind of disagreement with your spouse — that you really feel like you cannot see the forest for the trees? It’s as if you no longer remember why you were arguing — you are just arguing about the arguing? Today we are going to help you take a step back so you can see the forest again and figure out why you keep misinterpreting your spouse.
We are going to be looking at attributions, and why this process of attributing or interpreting your spouse’s actions can lead to cycles of arguments and problems that don’t go anywhere. But the cool thing is that these same processes can also be used to start positive cycles in your marriage that keep drawing you closer together.
So attribution is a topic that’s definitely worth learning about. Let’s start with the big one.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
This is one of my favorite things to talk about!
The fundamental attribution error is something that we all do. When I attribute your actions to a flaw in your character, rather than to an environmental factor then I commit the fundamental attribution error[i].
Where this really gets problematic is when I attribute your actions to a flaw in your character, but I attribute mine to environmental or situational factors.
For example, let’s say you and I are both out working at our respective jobs one day. I get home late. You get home really late. I’m upset because you’re usually home before me and I had to make supper and do a bunch of extra stuff. Here’s how the fundamental attribution error plays out:
- I think to myself, she is never home on time: she is so disorganized! (see the character attribution?)
- You ask me why I was late. I tell you, “Well, traffic was really bad.” (see the environmental attribution?)
See: we could be in the same situation but you have a character flaw whereas for me, I was just caught in some circumstances outside my control!
Or let’s say a couple gets into conflict and they both say a few mean, unkind things to each other. Name calling. She thinks, “He has an anger problem!” (attribution to character) but while she feels bad about her own behavior, she thinks to herself, “If he wasn’t such a jerk she wouldn’t have to talk like that to get through to him!” (attribution to circumstances).
Now I am not defending abusive men, but you get the picture: this happens both in healthy marriages and in conflictual, non-abusive marriages.
Why Do We Do This?
We all fall into this attribution trap because it is easier to make judgments based on personality rather taking into account all the possible situational variables.
Personal characteristics are easier to identify — they help us to understand a person and make sense of their behavior. These characteristics are more stable in a person and so it is easier and faster to make snap-judgments based on a person’s nature than it is to look for other circumstantial explanations[ii].
Having these concrete judgments in place about a person’s character makes their behavior seem more predictable. Your brain likes being able to make decisions quickly based on information that’s readily available. So rather than looking for all the possible factors that could have influenced your spouse’s actions, it’s easier to just attribute them to his or her character. Easier, but not necessarily more helpful for your marriage.
Attributions = Misinterpreting Your Spouse
You need to know that this whole fundamental attribution error thing is governed in marriage by how happy your marriage is. You will interpret events and actions according to your existing beliefs about your spouse and your marriage, whether good or bad. And if your spouse acts in a way that does not fit with your perception of the marriage, you will discount or explain away the action.
As a side note: that, by the way, is how a perfectly intelligent spouse who believes she is married to a committed husband can explain away evidence to the contrary and then be completely flabbergasted months or years later when she discovers his infidelity.
I am not sharing this so that we all go on a witch hunt, but for those of you who have found yourselves in this situation I just want you to know you are not stupid or blind or anything: you are just a normal spouse. It’s not your fault because it’s not wrong to presume upon the trustworthiness of your spouse.
There’s been plenty of research into this attribution process in marriage. Now a couple researchers[iii] looked at 23 previous studies of attributions in couples and they found that if marital satisfaction was high, people would attribute their spouse’s previous positive actions to stable personality factors. For example, “He brought me flowers because he cares about me and is a nice person” or “she tidied the kitchen because she is organized and selfless”. This is attribution to character, but in a positive way.
By the same token, in a happy marriage spouses would attribute negative actions to external factors, view them as unintentional, or see them as isolated incidents that don’t reflect the spouse’s true personality. For example, “He only said that because he has had a tough day at work and he didn’t really mean it” or “she didn’t clean the kitchen today because she’s had a rough day. She normally keeps the house spotless.”
On the other hand, if marital satisfaction was low, people would assign their spouse’s negative behaviors to enduring characteristics, in line with the fundamental attribution error. The spouse would then see negative acts as being intentional, motivated by negative emotions and as being stable across all situations rather than specific or isolated. See how this has all switched around? So an example would be, “He said that because he wanted to upset me and because he is a spiteful person.”
These spouses in dissatisfying marriages would also interpret positive actions in a more negative light, seeing them as less deliberate, more isolated and more likely to be motivated selfishly. For example, “He only gave me flowers because he wants to have sex later.”
As you can see, these attributions affect two things: satisfaction with the marriage and behavior in the marriage.
Attributions Influence Satisfaction
What is important to know is that this is not just a bad habit or a little concern that you should figure out sometime, but that negative attributions themselves actually cause low marital satisfaction over time[iv]. So low marital satisfaction leads to negative attribution, but that negative attribution over time also causes low marital satisfaction.
Thankfully, the opposite is also true: high marital satisfaction leads to positive attributions (and putting less emphasis on negative events) which further enhances marital satisfaction. So you’ve got cycles going in both directions.
Attributions Influence Behavior
As it happens, attributions also influence behavior. Again, the same researchers[v] assessed couples for levels of marital satisfaction and then asked them how much they attributed problems in their marriage to each other, and then they asked the couples to discuss a problematic issue in the marriage.
They found that maladaptive attributions (thinking things are all your spouse’s fault and that those problems are indicative of your spouse’s character overall) were linked to both spouses using less effective problem solving, to higher rates of anger and negative behavior, and higher levels of reciprocal negative behavior.
This is just amazing and so sad at the same time because now we’ve gone from something we think in our head to something we are actually doing and reinforcing in our marriage — in a destructive way. That is why it is so important to get this whole attribution thing pointed in the right direction.
Practicing Positive Interpretations
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much appreciated supporters called “Practicing Positive Interpretations”. While you are learning what to do on this show, this guide will really show you how to do it and how to break out of that negative cycle and actually shift your thinking so you can shift the direction your marriage is going. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
So we’ve seen how our attributions affect our marriage satisfaction and even our own behavior in the marriage. Make sure you download the bonus guide for this show and if you need help working through that as a couple because you’ve been doing this a long time, reach out to me via our website. I’d love to do some marriage counseling with you and help you get this turned around and pointed in the right direction.
How To Overcome Attribution Biases
So now let’s look at some ways you can stop these attributions causing such problems in your marriage and get them working in your favor instead.
Assign Attributions More Consciously
You can outsmart your brain with this one.
Remember that the Fundamental Attribution Error and these attribution biases are actually mental shortcuts that your mind uses to make quick evaluations based on limited information. It is your brain trying to quickly categorize what you are seeing into the nearest bucket.
You can choose to carefully think through actions and the possible reasons behind them in order to bypass or overcome these reflexive biases[vi].
Stop and give proper consideration whether your spouse’s actions can be explained by situational or environmental factors rather than attributions. Are their actions really indicative of their deep personality traits? Would you interpret your own actions in the same way? These kinds of questions can help you avoid this error and give you enough space to objectively evaluate your spouse’s actions.
Start a Positive Cycle
Remember the cycle piece: negative attributions lead to lower marital satisfaction which leads to more negative attributions. But high marital satisfaction leads to positive attributions.
This means that if you choose to increase your marital satisfaction through some other route (e.g., learning better communication skills, more intimacy, better sex, better shared leisure) then this increased satisfaction will make you more likely to make positive attributions of your spouse’s actions. And this in turn will further increase marital satisfaction. So have a browse through the list of topics we have on the website and see if you think brushing up on any of them could get a positive cycle going in your marriage.
Conflict and Expectations
Negative attributions lead to poor conflict resolution and unhelpful behavior. That behavior escalates conflict rather than solving it. This then reduces marital satisfaction. However, the link between attributions and marital satisfaction is mediated by something called “efficacy expectations”. Efficacy expectation is your own beliefs in your own ability to solve the conflict.
If you attribute conflict and problems in the marriage to the universal characteristics of your spouse then you will have a low level of efficacy expectation: you will think that your spouse is fundamentally bad in some way and won’t expect to be able to improve things.
This is a fundamentally disempowered position: you cannot change the marriage because your spouse is ________ (whatever character attribution). However, if you choose to believe that you can learn new conflict resolution and communication skills then you are empowering yourself to solve problems.
This will increase your efficacy expectation. And the research shows that a higher level of efficacy expectation will mean that negative attributions do not impact your marriage satisfaction. You’ll feel more in control of your situation and that confidence and positivity can make all the difference.
Here’s an interesting study from 2004[vii]: 75 couples rated their levels of trust in each other and their attributions of each other’s motives, and then were observed discussing a conflict point. 2 years later they were again assessed for levels of trust and attributions. The researchers found a cyclical link between “partner enhancing” attributions (attributing spouse’s actions to positive motivations) and levels of trust.
What we’re seeing here is that trusting your spouse causes you to attribute more positive reasons to their actions, and to see them as more positive overall. These positive attributions further increase trust. So making the effort to see the best in them or working on your trust issues is another way to work on your attributions.
Another useful way to combat your attribution errors is to get them out in the open. A study in 1985[viii] found that people are much less prone to the F.A.E. when they are expecting to have to justify their appraisals and attributions to a third party. When they know they will have to explain why they have formed their attributions, people take more account of situational variables and make less all-encompassing attributions. Within marriage this accountability could be provided through friends and family, or from a counselor.
So, practically, you could choose someone to hold you accountable for how you interpret your spouse’s actions. All this person needs to do is to ask you: “Can you think of a different way of interpreting that? Another way that doesn’t assign your spouse’s behavior to a negative character flaw? What else might have been going on?”
This is awesome as well — of course, it is challenging to find the right kind of friend who won’t just commiserate with you. That is where a qualified marriage counselor can be a big help.
Attributions are such a fascinating topic in marriages because negative attributions can color every aspect of your marriage and cause you to only see the bad. On the other hand with a bit of work you can get into the practice of focusing on the positive in your spouse and that becomes a really powerful force for good in your marriage.
[i] Jones and Harris, “The Attribution of Attitudes.”
[ii] Bradbury and Fincham, “Attributions in Marriage.”
[iii] Bradbury and Fincham.
[iv] Bradbury and Fincham.
[v] Bradbury and Fincham.
[vi] Tetlock, “Accountability.”
[vii] Miller and Rempel, “Trust and Partner-Enhancing Attributions in Close Relationships.”
[viii] Tetlock, “Accountability.”