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Why We Suck At Cutting Our Partners Any Slack

And how we can reframe our thinking.

Here’s a taste of daily grievances and their subsequent reactions:  That guy just cut me off. What a prick. That guy was supposed to email me back about the job. Jerk. That guy is just sitting in his car when the parking lot is clearly full. What an asshole. 

Now here are some other explanations: The first guy was moving quickly because he has to pick up his sick kid. The second guy got pulled into a last-minute project, and your email landed in spam. The third guy’s wife just got bad news and he’s talking to her.

Could any of these guys just be pricks? Without a doubt. Could these other scenarios be possible? Of course. But you don’t know, and that’s the whole point. In therapy talk, what’s taking place is called the fundamental attribution error, a bias, fed by a lack of information, says Dr. Robyn Landow, a psychologist in New York City. When there’s a void, the brain likes to fill in the holes and it doesn’t necessarily do it accurately. Character issues of the offending person — they’re lazy, rude, clueless — are overemphasized and outside elements are discounted. More than that, if the situation is reversed and you were the one cutting someone off, you’d understand your extremely justifiable reason for possibly acting like a jerk.

More than that, if the situation is reversed and you were the one cutting someone off, you’d understand your extremely justifiable reason for possibly acting like a jerk.

Husbands believe they know all about their wives, so when there’s some deviation, however small, there’s frustration, maybe some hurt.

“We know our inner feelings and motivation, but with others, we assume they’re malicious and it’s their choice and their personality trait,” Landow says.

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Fundamental attribution error easily applies to strangers because, as far as we’re concerned, they’re a blank slate. But the tendency can creep its way into everyday relationships and your marriage. 

Our mind creates a sort of Mad Libs. The story starts being written, and we fill in the blanks with our suppositions. As Landow says, it’s not always a bad attribution. The tears you see could be because of allergies and not because a person is sad. It’s just a wrong reason – that’s the error part.

So why do we do it? It’s a reflex, deep in the brain, to protect ourselves from danger, which is why it happens before we can think about it, says Dr. Scott Bea, clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic. It’s also the easy move since it doesn’t require much thinking of the situation. Your friends do it. Your co-workers do it. Your spouse does it. This stuff isn’t simple to shut down.

Fundamental attribution error becomes trickier with loved ones because there are expectations involved. Husbands believe they know all about their wives, so when there’s some deviation, however small, there’s frustration, maybe some hurt. What wouldn’t have been a bother five years ago – and what may never have been done five years ago – is now an issue, because people get tired and are no longer on their best behavior, Landow says.

Whatever the situation, it’s good to approach it like one of your kid’s protests. That is, by picking your battles, Landow says.

The result is people tend to give less slack to those they know better. There’s more comfort and safety with them. It’s a safety value because that behavior wouldn’t work in the office. It’s reality, not necessarily the ideal. “If we treated family like strangers, it would be a better world,” Landow says.

So what’s the solution? Taking a beat and asking “What could make that person do that?” before you fly off the handle, says Professor Anthony Lemieux, director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University. Look at the facts and what you know about the situation. It’s not going to magically lead to answers, but the process shifts your brain into more logical thinking and snap judgment. In short, it’s about exercising empathy.

If it’s your boss, keep the questioning internal, says Landow, adding that however upset you are, don’t compound it by passing on your ideas, because, he says, “You don’t know.” With your spouse, first consider if the behavior is atypical. If it is, that might itself defuse the problem. But if it remains an issue, use your inside voice and ask her something in the form of, “Why did you make that choice?” The question focuses on the story, not the ending, she says, and it tamps down defensiveness, allows them to talk through her process, and explain that they got mad because “the baby was crying, the dog was barking, and stress took over” or because they had a bad day.

Whatever the situation, it’s good to approach it like one of your kid’s protests. That is, by picking your battles, Landow says. Some are worth pursuing, but others are just being cut off in traffic. When you realize that no harm was done and that life is pretty good, letting the offense slide is a healthier choice. When your blood boils, the stress hormones rush out. Accepting that living in the world brings unavoidable inconveniences is a good first step.

“If we can understand human beings, we’re not always grinding our teeth and swearing under our breath,” Bea says. “The person might be a jerk, but it’s not worthwhile.”