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How Do You Choose To See Your Spouse?

Jeannine Crofton - Calgary Marriage Counsellor


The field of Social Psychology has something to teach us about how we see others and we can apply this to our marriage. If our partner is late to pick up the kids we might conclude that “He or she is always late and isn’t able to be on time” yet if we are late we are much more likely to believe it was the traffic, or a colleague catching us at the door that caused the late behaviour. This discrepancy is called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is a tendency to explain our own behaviour in situational terms and others’ behaviour in terms of character deficits.”
The Fundamental Attribution Error is a tendency to explain our own behaviour in situational terms and others’ behaviour in terms of character deficits. Attributions are another word for explanations and we can become quick to explain our partner’s behaviour in ways we would not judge ourselves. Over time, these evaluations can become lightning fast conclusions.  These ongoing and habitual conclusions can lead to contemptuous treatment of our partner. John Gottman, a renowned Psychologist and Relationship Researcher, has identified “Contempt” as a indicator that your relationship is highly vulnerable.

One of the antidotes to seeing our partner in a dispositional way is to take a broader perspective whenever possible.  If our partner is late, we can pause and think about the many variables that could have impacted them that day.  Another strategy is to practice empathy with our spouse.  Dr. Brene Brown has a lovely two-minute video that aptly describes empathy Empathy allows us to appreciate the experience from another person’s perspective. It does not always mean we agree with them or hold them blameless but it does mean that we can relate to a time when we had a similar feeling and can communicate that we have been there. For example, we may remember a time when we felt we needed to be in more than one place at the same time or had more on our plate than we could handle. From an empathetic place we can be supportive.

Brené Brown on Empathy
If the same circumstances arise repeatedly then it may be an issue to be addressed.  Perhaps the issue is that the pick up time is really difficult on the best of days. Considering the situation or addressing the issue can be an effective intervention when the Fundamental Attribution Error phenomenon is knocking at our door.

So, the next time we recognize that we are judging our partner’s character we have the option to pause and ask ourselves if the Fundamental Attribution Error phenomenon is contributing to our belief. Then we can choose to see our spouse in a way that builds a positive view of them or to address the issue at hand.

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