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Solving Relationship Problems -Attribution Bias

Updated on May 8, 2018

Attribution theory and relationships

Solving Relationship Problems. Who is to blame when problems arrive, as they surely will in any relationship?

It is important to realize that in marriage (or any serious relationship) acceptance of the fact that you are dealing with two imperfect humans is perhaps the most important realisation that will make that relationship work. While we often come to the understand that our partner is not as perfect as we once believed them to be, the acceptance that we are not quite as perfect as we think we are, is not quite so obvious.

In order to maintain our own ego and image of ourselves as a "good" person we overlook the actual reality that our behaviour is probably a part of the relationship that needs to change.

Social Psychologists refer to attribution as "the process by which we observe others behaviour and then infer the causes behind it in a relatively systematic way." The cues that we observe are both verbal and non-verbal with the latter often being more important. It is how we make sense of our world. “I am what I think” the famous statement goes. I develop an image of myself as I interact with others. So I decide who I am because of the messages that I receive from my world. If someone smiles at me I receive a different message than if that same person frowns at me.

We are somehow selective in which messages we take note of and in so doing we protect our feeling about ourselves. If I behave in a certain way and I receive positive messages I increase those behaviours in order to receive more of those messages.

Attribution bias occurs in a relationship, and specially in one that is facing serious challenges. It takes place when the partners ascribe to the other person negative behaviour as the cause of the problems. They then see their own behaviour as the result of conditions outside their control. So the couple in a conflict marriage situation will feel that if only their partner will change their negative behaviour, everything will get better. "It is because of his/her behaviour that we have problems".

Men will often complain that their partner is emotionally unstable. Woman will respond in claiming that their partner is controlling and not able to understand how they feel. So the situation develops where each person blames the other person for the crises that they are facing. To protect their ego they lay the blame of the breakdown squarely at the door of the bad behaviour of the other. What is happening is not their fault, but rather the result of factors beyond their control. In this way they make sense of their world and protect their self image (ego).

So the conflict continues and because each blames the other, or conditions outside their control, it continues to be a war zone. “If only he/she will change” puts one into a lose/lose situation because thing are probably not going to change in the way that we would like them to.

Because of this a different mindset has to be developed. "I am responsible for my own behavior. How I behave is not dependent on the circumstances that I find myself. If I feed into the situation a positive input it could in fact improve and change our situation. If my behavior is based on a knee jerk response to what happens around me I am in trouble. If I can avoid any negative behavior that hurts others and therefore ultimately myself, then my world will become a better place".

Changing my world has to start with the only person I really have control over and that is me. In counseling we call this 'the change first' principle. But it is so difficult to accept responsibility for my own behaviour. It is much easier to blame the situation on someone else or the circumstances that I find myself in. Sometimes the only way to cope is to run away, but this is usually not the best option.

Here the help of a trained counsellor can come in handy to help each person to listen carefully to how their partner feels. If the pattern of negative behaviour (attribution bias) can be broken then improvement is possible.

Here a 'caring days' approach often has dramatic impact. Both Stuart and Wright outline this relatively simple counselling technique that really is powerful.

References: Stuart, R.B. Helping Couples Change.

Wright, H.N. Marital Counselling - A Biblical Based Behaviour Cognitive Approach.


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    • kj force profile image


      7 years ago from Florida

      Johan Smulders..first off in any relationship there are the takers and the givers..I say if they switch roles..ther relationship may survive , but only if they are takes two to make a relationship and sometimes they grow sour, just like a garden if you don't maintain..and some use the excuse of growing older to justify their negative actions...I think sometimes it's just too much work for some to be flexible..that's why I just answer " yes and no" who can argue with that ?

      Loved your hub, found very interesting...alot to think about..hmmm

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      7 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      It is necessary to face things head-on and not lay blame. Laying blame only causes negative emotions and solves nothing.

    • Johan Smulders profile imageAUTHOR

      Johan Smulders 

      7 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Amen, well said!

    • abbykorinnelee profile image

      Abigayle Korinne 

      7 years ago from Plymouth WI

      The worst thing my psych professor told us is to assign blame to anyone in a relationship. That when you assign blame to one person, that it damages the relationship and creates further problems. And to think you aren't to blame at all is egotistical in my takes two to tango


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