What’s your attribution style? How positive beliefs can create positive relationships

Attribution Style and Relationship Narratives
Illustrator: Cat Finnie

Megan and Amal have been dating for a while, and things are going great. But suddenly Amal’s being secretive about his text messages. And Megan’s pretty sure she just saw her best friend Gina leaving Amal’s apartment building…. 

We’ve all seen this sitcom-esque setup. Amal’s planning a surprise party, of course. After we sit through Megan’s accusations and Amal’s attempt to defend himself, we’ll get the payoff of seeing Amal redeemed and Megan sheepishly apologizing. While this scenario might make for engaging TV, it’s not that funny in real life. The party goes off without a hitch, and Amal might be out of the doghouse, but he’s left wondering: what kind of a person does Megan think I am?

We can risk a promising relationship by making negative assumptions about the person we’re dating. It’s important to understand the difference between our partner’s (or prospective partner’s) actions and the stories that we tell ourselves about those actions. This involves what psychologists call “attribution style.” 

In short, are you someone who “attributes” positive intentions to others, or do you have trouble giving others the benefit of the doubt? 

What Difference Does Attribution Style Make?

Every relationship has its share of missed texts, puzzling comments, and forgotten “special” days. But we have the power to choose how we interpret—and react to—these disappointments and misunderstandings. We can see them as proof that our partners are bad people, or we can assume that circumstances are to blame. And this choice just might make or break the relationship.

“People who believe the best about their partners are often happier because they are actively looking for the good in each other,” says Dr. Michelle Byrd, a licensed clinical psychologist who serves as both a professor and the Director of Clinical Training at Eastern Michigan University. 

As Frank D. Fincham and Thomas N. Bradbury note in their study “Marital Satisfaction, Depression, and Attributions: A Longitudinal Analysis,” the opposite is also true: “Compared to happy partners, distressed partners tend to locate the causes of negative relationship events in the other person and to see the causes of those events as stable and global.” 

Brian Ogolsky’s comprehensive review of studies on making relationships work, “Relationship Maintenance: A Review of Research on Romantic Relationships,” concludes that people who see their relationships and their partners in idealized terms—attributing positive intentions to their partner’s actions and giving them the benefit of the doubt—are much more likely to have successful relationships.

Kelly* and Jonah* are a great example of the difference attribution style can make. About three months into their relationship, Kelly almost broke up with Jonah. To Kelly, Jonah seemed cold—a little distant and disconnected. He seldom touched her unless they were about to be intimate. He didn’t talk about his feelings about her. He didn’t ask her the kinds of questions about her job, her family, and her interests that she was used to from other guys. 

Luckily, though, when Kelly was at a barbecue at Jonah’s parents’ house, Jonah’s sister casually mentioned that Kelly was “so much nicer to Jonah” than his last serious girlfriend. In the conversation that followed, Kelly learned that Jonah’s previous girlfriend had criticized him constantly for “smothering” her. Jonah wasn’t a cold, distant person—he’d just been trained to behave that way by his ex’s criticism. 

This was an eye-opening revelation for both Kelly and Jonah. Now, Jonah and Kelly try harder not to make negative assumptions about each other. When disagreements or disappointments arise, they try to react with genuine curiosity instead of angry judgment. 

Attribution Style Forms Our “Narratives” About Our Relationships

Whether we consciously realize it or not, we interact with people based on a characterization of them that we form within the first few meetingss. It’s a good idea to critically examine that portrait we’ve created, because telling ourselves that the person we’re dating is the “bad guy” sets up a self-reinforcing cycle that can poison relationships. 

Just ask the Breaking Sad lab at Western University, which states that “recent research from our lab suggests that the beliefs we hold about our romantic partners may be especially important in understanding dysfunctional relationship patterns.” Their study “It’s Not Me, It’s You: Self- and Partner-Schemas, Depressive Symptoms, and Relationship Quality” found that partners who create a negative “partner schema”—a characterization of the partner focused on negative qualities and information—tend to have poorer relationships overall. 

When we believe negative things about our partners, they tend to “live down” to our expectations. But when we assume that the people we’re in relationships with are good people and that they will treat us the way we deserve to be treated, says pioneering “Love Lab” researcher John Gottman, we generally get what we expect.

Of course, there are people out there who aren’t good for us and just can’t be trusted. As Byrd points out, “no one should be expected to set aside their values for the sake of their partner.” Attribution style comes into play when you’ve found someone who’s compatible with your values and has real potential as a partner. That’s when the “story” that you tell yourself about your partner and your relationship matters. 

In fact, in a metastudy of more than 40 other studies about romantic satisfaction, Samantha Joel and her fellow researchers found that the stories that people tell themselves about their relationships matter far more than what their partners actually do or say. 

How Our Narratives Contribute to Outcomes

A potential partner who we believe is a bad and inherently flawed person is someone whom we can never trust to have our best interests at heart. Everything becomes a power struggle as we try to advocate for our own interests against those of this supposedly “bad” person. It’s hard for either person to relax and grow in this type of relationship. Our negative beliefs are bound to lead to a decline in intimacy, trust, love, and passion—four vital factors in relationship satisfaction.

On the other hand, imagine being with someone that you see as a teammate. When one of you makes a mistake, you both assume that circumstances or a misunderstanding caused the error. 

“When we see our partner’s behavior contextually, it gives us hope that we can grow together in ways that improve the lives of all involved,”  explains Byrd, who is also a practicing therapist at McCaskill Family Services in Brighton, Michigan. “Change and evolution become possible. When we give people the benefit of the doubt, we show them grace, and that sometimes makes room for them to do the next right thing.”

Positive beliefs about a relationship increase our ability to express love and passion, feel trust, and be truly intimate. In a relationship like this, it’s easy to relax, have fun, and be your authentic self. The relationship is more likely to last, and it’s far more likely to be a happy one. 

*Names changed at interviewee’s request.

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