Blind spots and marital satisfaction

CLEARITI was in a fender bender. Granted, it happened years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday! In my minds eye I can see the whole event:

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).

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Seeing Green

20060210075705_img_0270Don’t look around. Just stare straight at these words and try to remember all the green objects around you. No peeking. Got your list? Now look and count all the objects around you that are categorically green. Didn’t notice how many green things were around you before, did you…

This is a simple test which proves a simple point: You will not necessarily see the things that you are not looking for. Conversely, you will see the things that you are looking for.  It is called ‘The Green Test’ and it was presented to me by one of my colleagues 1. The main point I pull from it is that if I am actively looking for something I will see more of it! Here’s a real life example. Have you had the experience of shopping for a new vehicle and then you become aware of how many of those cars are on the road? When we bought a silver car manufactured by a particular automobile industry, I was amazed by how many other similar brands of cars we passed in the following week. Obviously many people decided that week to buy that same car, right? Uhm…

Now, take this principle and apply it to your close relationships. If you are looking for the things that irritate you – you will find them. If you have recently been offended by someone, chances are you will continue to feel this offense in various forms in the next while and you will continually feel offended and hurt. Conversely, if you are actively looking for the good characteristics in your relationships – you will also find these attributes.  And if you are focusing on a particular thing that you really appreciate in your relationships chances are you will see them more often than you realized before.

At one particular juncture in my marriage I became keenly aware of how hard my husband worked. I often say that my hubby doesn’t have a lazy bone in his body and I can clearly remember the time in our marriage when I recognized the amount of energy he gave to tasks. Because this was the ‘green’ I started looking for, my whole perception of him shifted.  I saw his work ethic expressed in all types of ways; how he got the day going immediately after the morning alarm clock woke him up, how his dishes ended up in the dishwasher and his clothes rarely were left lying around. I saw how he gave full effort not only to his career but also to his volunteer efforts. I saw how the family benefited by his high level of intensity. Had he changed? Nope.  I noticed things that I had taken for granted or just never recognized. I did ‘The Green Test’.

Now, I can just as easily point out that the green test can also bring out negative aspects. My husband could count the times I hit snooze button before I tumble out of bed and he could focus on my pile of cloths or the plethora of coffee cups scattered around the house. Green is neutral in itself; what it represents provides the response on how you ‘color’ it.

Look around! What ‘green’ are you going to see today? As we start the New Year I would heartily wish you all the best in choosing to focus on the attributes that will enrich your relationships. This might mean focusing on the good characteristics that you might have taken for granted in this last while. Or, it could mean recognizing some patterns of behavior that are destructive to your relationships. There are many hues of green and you will be amazed by how much you will see once you start looking for it.

Need some help focusing on the ‘green’ around you? Check out this advice:

Philippians 4:8 (NIV) 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

1. Neal Black. I have learned a lot from this man. He and his wife have co-spoken with my husband and I at FamilyLife events. Check out more interesting stuff from him

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Read all about it!


The youngest Born has left for university and thus it is official: Will and Doris Born are empty-nesters!

So… they have also left the nest and moved straight into a senior’s complex!


Extra, Extra! Read all about it!

We have decided that the next stage of our lives will be focused on me earning a Masters of Arts in Counseling Psychology. We have moved to Vancouver and as of September Will is the property manager of a not-for-profit organization that provides low-income housing for seniors. This job also includes housing and we are renting an apartment in the complex. As it is part of the job to be on-call for most days and nights in the week, the rent is a quarter of the cost of typical Vancouver housing. We also are living on a major transit route (bus/skytrain) which brings me to within a block of my school in downtown Vancouver.

The next two/three years will be designated to studying full-time in order to develop skills enabling me to practice as a therapist and psycho-educational speaker. My hubby is looking at his new position as a ‘working sabbatical’ as this job will be very different from the work he has been involved with in the past 25 years!

Behind the Story:

We are excited about the changes in our lives. For me it is a dream come true and Will is looking forward to the whole Vancouver experience. But it is also a bit of a weird thing to do. And living in a senior complex is not the weird part I’m talking about! For me the weird part is that all these changes have evolved around me. How many women in their mid-forties get to do what I am? Perhaps applying for a huge student loan isn’t really on any mid-life person’s wish list, but I have had a number of women look me in the eye and state that I am living their dream. I am blessed to have a husband that is willing to leave the comforts and familiarity of home and regular job and move.. for my dreams and aspirations. That is a lot to ask.

Especially for a woman. Now don’t get too excited about the last comment, but honestly, if I had a dollar for every person that asked “what will Will do?” when they heard about our plans, I probably wouldn’t have had to apply for that student loan. Will and I came up with a pat answer that turned more into a private joke between the two of us. When the inevitable question came up about how our plans would affect Will, we would answer: “He’s going to move to Vancouver and find a job”.

But God was before us all the way. Our Heavenly Father knew exactly what both his son and daughter needed at this juncture of our lives and he has blessed us both. Our new home is amazing, Will’s job is an absolute gift from God and I get more training to do what I feel called to do. I’ve don’t believed that God would bless one spouse at the expense of another, and God has proved this.

By the way, living in a senior’s complex has many benefits. We are constantly called ‘young folks’ and we always win the footrace to the elevator. Seriously, I am looking forward to learning not only from my studies but also from the beautiful people around me. And I am constantly learning life-lessons from my husband as we both strive to follow God – where ever that takes us! Empty nest, seniors complex or even downtown Vancouver.