Article By David Ludden Ph.D.
~ November 2021 ~ Your spouse has just picked a fight with you over a seemingly trivial matter, and now you’re wondering what that was all about. Is your spouse really a petty, nasty person? Or are they just having a bad day and don’t really mean to hurt your feelings?
As we go through our social life, we’re constantly generating hypotheses about the reasons why people act the way they do. Psychologists refer to these explanations for other people’s behaviors as attributions. Of course, we never know for sure why people act the way they do. But as it turns out, the attributions we make have a big influence on the quality of our relationships.
Personal or Situational Attributions
Psychologists distinguish two types of attributions—personal and situational. When we make a personal attribution, we explain the other person’s behavior in terms of enduring characteristics. For instance, you might guess that your spouse picked a fight with you because they’re a mean-spirited person. Personal attributions also imply that they had some control over their behavior—that is, they didn’t have to act so mean.
In contrast, we make a situational attribution when assuming current or recent circumstances drove the other person’s behavior. For example, you could give your spouse the benefit of the doubt and assume something bad is going on in their life, such as a migraine or too much stress at work. Situational attributions imply less control—and as a result, less blame—than do personal attributions.
Plenty of research shows that people who regularly make personal attributions about their partner’s behavior are generally less satisfied with their relationship. The implication is that couples might be able to improve their marriages simply by changing their attribution style. In other words, you could be happier with your spouse if you got into the habit of giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming it’s nothing personal whenever they do something you don’t like.
However, modifying your attribution style—from believing people act intentionally to assuming circumstances compel them—can be just as difficult as changing any other habit. And let’s ask why people make personal rather than situational attributions. We need to consider the possibility that they’re more likely to view others’ behaviors as intentional when under a lot of stress. This is the hypothesis that Sonoma State University (California) psychologist Teresa Nguyen and colleagues proposed in a recently published study in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research.
How Stress Affects Your Attribution Style
Nguyen and colleagues started with two basic observations in psychology. One observation is that people simplify their thought processes when they’re under stress. For instance, you’re trying to lose weight, and you find it’s not that difficult to eat healthy as long as your stress levels are low. But when you’ve got a crushing deadline at work and financial problems at home, it’s hard to think long-term. Instead, you want the instant gratification of junk food or alcohol to dampen the stress.
Another observation is that personal attributions are easier to make than situational attributions. This is because we do not really know another person’s situation—what’s going on in their life that could influence their behavior. It’s just easier to assume that a person who acts like a jerk really is a jerk, rather than thinking perhaps there may be other reasons why they’re acting this way in this particular situation.
Nguyen and colleagues identified three factors in a couple’s life that are likely to bring stress into the relationship, thus affecting both their attribution style and their relationship satisfaction. The first is financial strain, how difficult it is for the couple to make ends meet. The more we worry about how we’re going to pay our bills or put food on the table, the fewer cognitive resources we have to consider situational attributions for our partner’s behavior.
The second is lack of financial capital within the couple’s social network. Young couples can often rely on friends and family members to provide material or financial support. A friend may offer a ride to work while the car is in the shop, and parents may foot the repair bill so that the couple can make their rent.
The third is how many other married couples this couple knows. All marriages have problems, and we judge our own quality by comparing it to those of our friends. If we know a lot of divorced couples, we may think a divorce is a good option for us as well. But if we see other couples working to improve their marriages, we may be inspired to do so as well.
Gaining Insight into Your Attribution Style
To test the hypothesis that external stresses can influence the attribution styles of married couples, Nguyen and colleagues recruited 231 newlywed, low-income couples. Each partner responded to questions that measured their attribution style, relationship satisfaction, financial strain, social network support, and the number of married and divorced couples they knew.
The results supported their hypothesis. That is, couples who had less financial strain and more support from friends and family and those who had more married couples in their social network were more likely to make situational attributions about their partner. They were also happier in their marriages.
Nguyen and colleagues pointed out that these results have important implications for marriage counselors. Instead of just encouraging couples to give their partners the benefit of the doubt, therapists need to consider situational factors, such as financial distress or poor role models, which push these couples to act in ways that sabotage their relationship.
We all know that we don’t act our best when we’re under a lot of stress. To the extent that we can remember the same is true for our life partner, the stronger our marriage will be as a result.