Pulling onto a main road I remember looking both ways before crossing the road and merging into the north bound lane. Suddenly, out of no where, a car appeared and as I entered the lane, I side-swiped the approaching car’s rear panel. Immediately both cars pulled to the side of the road. Trembling, I faced the driver of the car I had just dented. After settling the issue that no one was hurt I confessed that I did not see him. His response is forever impressed in my mind: “Your car must have a blind spot”.
Really? I had just hit him. I was clearly at fault yet his response was incredibly gracious. He blamed the accident to a situational attribute (a problem with the situation) as opposed to my driving skills (a problem with the driver). He could have blamed the accident on my personal attributes, deeming me a bad driver because I was not watching the traffic around me. The large scrape on the side of his car was clear witness to my mistake. Yet the context that he set it in made all the difference.
Situational attributions vs. Personal attribution
Researchers Thomas Bradbury and Frank Fincham (1992) studied attributions (the explanation for events) and marriage satisfaction. Their research showed that spouses who attribute their partner’s mistakes to situational factors were in happier marriages than those that blame their spouse’s faults on personal attributes. Quite simply, if you choose to attribute some of your spouse’s faults or mistakes to the situations that your spouse is in, you are in a better marriage or will have a better marriage.
Your perspective gives your spouse the benefit of the doubt and can contribute to a happier marriage. Let’s explore this a bit more practically. Let’s say that my husband is waiting for me and it is already five minutes past the time that we were suppose to leave the house. (I would be lying if I said this was merely hypothetical – as if it has never happened before!) As he’s waiting, he has two choices. He can see my lateness as a personal attribute, or as a situational attribute.
Personal attribution of me being late would sound like this: “Doris is always late. She never watches the time. She doesn’t care that I am waiting for her. She is selfish and self-centered”. My lateness is explain by my spouse by my selfish character.
Situational attribution of me being late would sound like this: “Doris is late. She probably got caught up in her work and didn’t notice the time slipping by. She is really busy and I know that she always is a bit pushed for time.” My lateness is explained by my busy schedule.
Either way, he is waiting for me – but the mind-frame in which he waits will make all the difference. His state of mind will also be very evident to me when I do arrive, albeit late. If my husband is attributing my tardiness to a selfish character flaw, his greeting to me will be very different than if he is attributing my lateness to a full schedule.
Here’s the part of the study by Bradbury and Fincham that gets interesting. The context in which you frame your spouse’s behavior sets the stage for how couples problem-solve. If your explanation of your spouses behavior is negative it makes it hard to problem solve and this results is lower marital satisfaction. Conversely, if you don’t go to “negative town”, your spouse will not feel defensive which increases chances to problem solve. This leads to martial satisfaction!
This just makes sense. Going back to my husband waiting for me… How can we problem-solve selfishness? Can’t be done! Compare this with how we can problem-solve a busy schedule. Now there is a chance for solutions! And a chance for a happier marriage.
So give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Next time you are disappointed in your spouse or frustrated with him/her take a moment and see the situational attributions that surround the event. Instead of feeling critical about your spouse, see what role the situation plays in your frustrations or disappointment. Then look for solutions or compromises to what you think would benefit your relationship. It will make a huge difference not only in this one situation, it might be the beginning of a better marriage.
Back to the fender bender story. A week later I was once again in that same fateful spot. My confidence in my driving ability was still shaken so I thought I would try to figure out why I had hit that car. Positioning my car in the exact same location I watched the northbound traffic. Indeed, for a brief second, a span of a quick glance, the approaching car was hidden from my view. The gracious man was right – my car did have a blind spot!
Bradbury, T.N. & Fincham, F.D. (1992). Attributions and behavior in marital interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 63(4).