The Power in Believing the Best

One of the best and simplest pieces of relationship advice that I’ve given out over the years is to simply believe the best about the other person whether that’s your spouse, child, boss or friend. I’m sure that I didn’t come up with this on my own but I can’t remember where I learned it. Regardless of it’s origin, I think that it can make a real and significant difference in your relationships.

Let me explain how it works. We live life based not on what actually happens but based on our interpretation of what happens. Here’s an example: A husband works late. That’s a fact that neither he nor his wife disputes. But his wife has to interpret the fact. Is he working late because he’s more interested in his career than his family or is it because he’s working hard to provide for the family he loves dearly? How she interprets the fact of her husband working late, will determine whether she’s feels hurt and upset or thankful and loved.

So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is recent research to support this idea. In his new book on leadership and management Marcus Buckingham cites a study by Dr. Sandra Murray in which she and her colleagues worked with 105 couples who had been married for an average of 11 years. Their findings challenged the conventional wisdom that good marriages are based on knowing and accepting each others strengths and weaknesses.

Instead the research showed that in the happiest marriages the husband rated the wife’s character and personal qualities higher than she rated herself. And vice versa. After looking at all the data Buckingham concludes that one key thing you need to know about happy marriages is…

Find the most generous explanation for each others’ behavior and believe it.

Our tendency is to see our spouses’ strengths and weaknesses as balancing each other out. On the one hand he’s sarcastic but on the other hand he’s funny. But the research shows that this balancing act doesn’t develop strong marriages. Buckingham says that the reason for that is that by naming and describing the weaknesses, one gives them more power to negatively influence the relationship. Instead the study encourages us to recast any perceived weakness as a strength. The example the author gives is, “She’s not impatient. She’s just intense.”

Returning to the research once again, it shows that your perception of your spouse not only color your current reality but also shape your future. If you have more positive vibes about your spouse, you are more likely to feel secure and willing to forgive. This environment leads to more intimacy and love.

Now I get that this can be characterized as “mind games” or “psychobabble” or “superficial”. Perhaps those labels are true. But remember that they are just confirming what I’ve observed in my relationships (and others) for a long time: Things go better when you choose to believe the best about another person.

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