After finding herself on the receiving end of her husband’s hurtful behavior one too many times, Andrea questioned me about a principle I shared in my book The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages: it’s important to believe the best of your spouse’s intentions. As she saw it, all that principle does is give your spouse license to hurt you again and again without consequences. “Who cares what their intentions are,” she said, “if the result is pain?” Andrea’s husband says harsh things to her and the kids, then tells her, “I never wanted to hurt your feelings.” Andrea shared her frustration with me: “Who cares that he didn’t want to hurt my feelings! He did. And to me, it seems like if he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t! Why should I let him off the hook, when doing so will free him up to just hurt me again?”
Andrea’s experience sounds like the stories of so many people I’ve talked to. But many of those people started out exactly where she is and ended up with radically wonderful marriages. When I started investigating what they did differently to get there, guess what the number one change was? They decided to believe the best of their spouse’s intentions toward them, even when they were legitimately hurt. In other words, it’s not me giving that advice, it’s them: people who used to be standing exactly where Andrea is, and maybe—if you’ve had similar experiences with your husband—where you are too.
Let me share an example that shows why the principle of believing the best can be such a game-changer:
Look For A Generous Explanation Of His Motives
One woman whose marriage used to be really troubled told me she used to believe many of the same things Andrea did. Then she realized she needed to do something differently or her kids would end up in a broken home. She explained, “Up until then, I perfectly fit that definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” She said, “My counselor said we were caught in a cycle of negativity, and the next time I was upset I should look for a more generous explanation about his motives. So that night, I decided to start over. I texted him to tell him I was making his favorite lasagna—something I hadn’t done in ages. He said he’d be home at 7:00 pm. And then, as usual, he was really late. Almost an hour. I was steaming mad and assumed he just didn’t care enough to get home on time. But I had promised to look for a more generous explanation. So I held my fire and said ‘Hard day?’ And he started sharing about how difficult this one customer was, and how he couldn’t get out the door. And it was clear he was just waiting for me to start yelling at him.”
“Did you?” I asked. “No. I wanted to. But I forced myself to smile and told myself that it was client demands, not a lack of care, that kept him. It took everything in me, and it honestly felt fake, but I said, ‘Well, I’m glad you’re home. I kept the lasagna warm for you.’ And I served him dinner and ate with him like nothing was wrong. And then it hit me, really strongly: what if nothing was wrong? What if he truly was trying to care for me, and I was always assuming that he wasn’t? We were having this perfectly normal dinner together simply because I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. And I realized: my ability to have this sort of peace all the time is kind of up to me.”
Showing Grace Can Make Your Husband Want To Do Better
You might protest that this is unfair. As one woman indignantly told me when I shared that story with her, “But that is just letting him off the hook! All he’s learned is that he can take her for granted!” No. I eventually interviewed the husband, too, months down the road. And he said he learned the opposite. He said, “I learned that I’m married to an amazing woman. Even when I’m a bonehead, and don’t handle something right, she has grace with me. She believes in me. That makes me want to do better next time, and do whatever I can to not disappoint her again.” Because he felt he didn’t have to be defensive and protect himself all the time, her husband started to open up. They were able to talk about the things they did that hurt each other (like her feeling that his being late signaled that he just didn’t care) and try to make changes. But it started with one person’s willingness to not assume the worst of the other—and then keep it up over months as they tried to get on a better path.
Assume The Best . . . And Break The Cycle
If you’re like Andrea and assume that your man’s motives are to hurt you, my concern is that you may never get to that place. If you’re apt to assume that your husband will always take advantage of you, that’s all you’ll see. You won’t see the man who loves you, even though, statistically, he almost certainly does. As I told Andrea: yes, you can and should question how your husband handles things sometimes. At some other non-emotional time, you can discuss the behavior that hurt your feelings. But don’t assume the worst of why your husband sometimes does it wrong. In other words, be sure to say, “But I know you love me and I don’t think you realize how much this hurts in the moment.” As you deal with hurt feelings, consider breaking the cycle. Don’t continue to fit the definition of insanity. Choose to look for the best . . . and you’ll very likely see that he becomes willing to break the cycle with you.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands.
Visit www.shaunti.com for more.