The benefit of giving the benefit of the doubt

Updated: Aug 23

“I can tell by the way you sigh that you think what I’m watching on TV is stupid.”


“Yeah, well I can tell by your face that you think what I’m doing is all wrong.”


Are you and your partner in one of those states where you’re both really frustrated with each other, always on the verge of snapping at each other, and too often falling into a big fight?


We’ve all been there. I know I have. And we all know the ingredients. You’ve been annoyed and thwarted by each other too many times. And you’re pretty sure you’ve got your partner’s number, that you know exactly how to read them.


And so like people bruised from head to toe, we go through our relationship lives over-sensitized to hurts.


When I see this with the couples I work with it breaks my heart. It’s a self-perpetuating dynamic based on little but fear.

If I’ve been hurt by my partner—and we all have—then I will build up a degree of vulnerability and irritability. I don’t want to get hurt again! So then if my partner steps into the territory of doing something that might hurt me—like the sky producing not rain but just clouds—I respond as if I’ve just been shit on.

Now here’s the crazy part. I take my outrage as a measure of my partner’s criminality. “If I’m so upset, he must have done something really wrong. I would certainly never be upset over...nothing!”


God forbid!


It’s just that sometimes, yeah, the clouds are real, but, nope, there really isn’t any rain. Yeah, he sighed. And, yeah, sometimes his sighs are pointed and meaningful. But come on. Most of the time he’s sighing, groaning, moaning, making all kinds of eerie and obnoxious sounds and they don’t mean anything!

And sometimes a person sits there thinking dark and murderous thoughts. But most of the time that person just has a resting bitch face—the way a bulldog has an “I want to beat the shit out of you” face—when in fact she’s feeling just fine.


Sometimes we say, “You’re wrong,” and think, “You’re stupid,” but most of the time we can say, “You’re wrong,” without thinking anything negative about the other person at all.


Sometimes I omit to do something nice for you because I don’t feel very caring towards you. But most of the time if I don’t act wonderfully caring I actually AM still very caring. It’s just that I’m busy, or stressed out, or tired. Every sin of commission or omission can’t be a referendum on my caring for you or not!

The point of all of this is that when we bring our over-sensitized selves into our interactions with our partners, we make things ever so much worse.

We can make things ever so much better by deciding to give each other the benefit of the doubt. We can follow this rule:

Nothing bad has happened, no crime against us has been committed, unless it is something that

  • would be obvious to anyone and

  • is confessed to by your partner

Now, sure, if everyone in the world would go, “Oh my God, did you see the horrible way he sighed at you!” then you have the making of a case. And if your partner would go on to say, “Yes, I was sighing because I couldn’t believe how fucking stupid that show you were watching was,” then boom! you can file charges!


Now this last bit—“is confessed to by your partner”—might raise a few eyebrows. If my partner forgets my birthday, well, he’s done that whether he’s confessed or not. In that case, I surely do not need a confession!


But if my crisis over what happened is that his forgetting my birthday means he doesn’t care about me, well, now it’s complicated. Of course, I am the world’s leading authority on what his forgetting my birthday means to me: that he doesn’t care about me. Because if he did, he’d have remembered.

On the other hand, he’s the world’s leading authority on how he feels. In the real world, there are people who care about their partners and who forget their birthdays. This can happen for lots of reasons. The way their brains are wired, the lives they lead, the stress they’re under, the meaning birthdays have for them.

Sometimes couples need to try to understand this fundamental principle:


Even if something isn’t important to me, if it’s important to my partner it becomes important to me.


Like birthdays, for example. Understanding this can take learning and time.


What all this adds up to is both of you giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Unless there’s a real crime, as defined above, nothing has happened. Nothing to see here folks—move along. And the fact that you’re feeling hurt is like your jumping when you hear a barking dog. Wait a minute: the dog’s tied up. It hasn’t bit you and can’t bite you. Your jumping doesn’t mean he has bitten you.

Giving each other the benefit of the doubt—just saying, “Nah, that was probably nothing”—will make it possible for you to avoid stepping into countless bear traps a day. Every time you give each other the benefit of the doubt you’ve won a great victory for peace and harmony.

Of course, there’s the very real bear trap of two people in conflict over their needs. And getting into huge power struggles as a result. That’s where Why Couples Fight comes into play.

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