Attribution theory is a psychological concept that helps us to understand how people explain events in their lives. There are two types of attribution: internal cause/dispositional and external cause/situational. Dispositional attribution is the belief that a person’s behavior is due to their personality or character traits. Situational attribution is the belief that a person’s behavior is due to outside factors. Both attribution types can be used to explain behavior in (dating/romantic) relationships, but each attribution type is most commonly used in specific situations.
Situational Attribution in Dating Relationships (external)
In romantic relationships, we tend to offer situational attribution when a partner’s actions cause a negative event within the relationship. For example, if your boyfriend or girlfriend becomes angry and behaves badly, you may try to understand that it was not intentional and that their behavior was due to external factors (e.g., stress at work, exhaustion). It’s natural that we want to see the best in the people we love, so instead of thinking our partner is being mean to us because they’re just an asshole, it makes us feel better to rationalize their behavior as being due to something else.
Dispositional Attribution in Dating Relationships (internal)
Alternatively, when your partner does something nice for you, you’re more likely to explain their behavior using dispositional attribution. For example, if your man buys you flowers for no reason, the attribution would be that he is kind and loving by nature & that it’s due to his character traits, not because of any external factors or ulterior motives. Come on, it way far desirable to think that the new man we’re dating is just an amazing, thoughtful human being than to consider that he’s only showering us with gifts because he wants something in return. See how it works, now?
It’s not always easy to get people to see that blame is most often part of an infinite loop they get stuck in, and that the antidote is really curiosity, understanding, and connection.
The Real Problem with Blaming Your Partner
Blaming others can be an emotional defense, but it has many negative impacts. One major issue is how blaming affects the person who does so. In some cases, the person who places blame becomes so rigid in their stance that they miss an opportunity for growth. In essence, blame creates inaction. When you blame someone else for their failure to change or “fix” something (i.e., your partner), you may not be open to a new approach. For example, if you’re thinking, “He’s not going to budge on this so I may as well not waste my breath,” consider a different approach. You could start by acknowledging with your partner’s objections, but also offering your thoughts on why you feel so strongly in your position.
Blame is so hard on relationships that marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman describes it as one of his “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” — the four behaviors that cause the most trouble in relationships. I see it in my office all the time: each person sees the problem as the other person’s doing.
While attribution theory is helpful in understanding why people behave the way they do in relationships, it is important to note that attribution types are not always 100% accurate. Attribution theory is just one tool we can use to try and understand our partners; it should not be used as the final word on why they behave the way they do.
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