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Anyone who has had small children knows that when they are incredibly cranky or crabby, they make us miserable too. But as parents, we try hard to be understanding. We explain away their testiness by telling ourselves, "He must be sleepy. He probably needs a nap," or "Maybe she's hungry," or "He must be teething." These explanations thwart any possible hostility or anger while eliciting our utmost compassion.
But then there are our partners. When our mates are cranky or crabby, do we assume their motivations to be benign? Do we tell ourselves, "He must be sleepy," or "She must be hungry"? Heavens, no! We assume the worst! We nail them! We convince ourselves that they are undoubtedly out to spite us at every turn. When our partner arrives late for dinner, do we tell ourselves, "He must have gotten caught in traffic," or "Poor thing, his boss probably detained him after the meeting," or "I'm sure there must be a good reason he's late"? Hardly. We think, "He never takes my feelings into account," or "Why does he have to be so insensitive?" "That's it, I'm never making dinner for him again."
Now, the problem with these negative perceptions is that they greatly influence how we feel, how we treat our partners, and how they treat us as a result. For example, I know a woman who, because of several failed relationships in the past, needed more than the average dose of daily affection from her husband. If, on any particular day, he failed to profess his love to her, hug her and rub her back, and share his feelings openly, she assumed something was wrong. She told herself, "He's probably mad at me, " or "Maybe he's not in love with me anymore," or "I'm obviously not important to him." Each time she had one of those negative thoughts, she clammed up. She went into a shell. If he talked to her, she was short with him. It wasn't long before he started to feel something was wrong because she was so moody. Rather than confront her directly, he withdrew even more. The distance between them grew.
Hearing her story, I couldn't help but think that she was misreadiing his behavior. I asked her, "If you felt completely confident that he loved you and wanted to be with you forever, how do you think you'd handle the 'off days' differently?" She replied, "That's easy. I would relax. If he were preoccupied or inattentive, I would just assume he had a lot on his mind, and I would go about my business and be cheery around him."
I suggested she try an experiment. "Rather than think the worst," I told her, "assume he just has a lot on his mind when he is quiet or inattentive." She agreed to give it a whirl. Several weeks later she returned telling me that their relationship had improved dramatically. On one occasion when he had been somewhat distant, she told herself, "He must be preoccupied with a project at work. I know how important it is to him to do well on this project and I'm proud of him." Instead of feeling insecure, as she had in the past, she remained upbeat and made his favorite snack to ease his burden. He so much appreciated her kind gesture that he stopped what he was doing to give her a hug and tell her how much he appreciates her.
If we give our partners the benefit of the doubt, we treat them lovingly and respectfully. If, on the other hand, we assume the worst about our partner's actions or intentions, we behave in self-defeating ways. We turn inward. We get mad. We become suspicious. We declare war. Approaching one's mate with boxing gloves is not likely to bring out the best in him or her.
The moral of the story is simple. When you feel angry, hurt or disappointed by your partner, stop a moment. Ask yourself, "Is it even remotely possible that I am jumping to conclusions?" "Is there another, somewhat more benevolent way to look at my partner's actions?" If so, give your loved one the benefit of the doubt. After all, s/he might be teething.
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