The Benefit of the Doubt in Marriage

Veronica and I have pretty much given up on regular broadcast and cable television. More often than not, we find ourselves watching a Hallmark movie. These romantic comedies present consistently beautiful scenery and handsome, energetic characters. However, the plots are, with some exceptions, stereotypically the same: An attractive, sophisticated character accidently runs into a handsome, intriguing person of the opposite sex. Romance catches fire and heats up rapidly. (Quite often the couple were previously in a relationship that ended painfully.) In spite of their best intentions, the attraction intensifies. The future looks bright—they are obviously made for each other. But then at a critical point a crisis occurs and circumstances pull the couple apart. Romantic hope seems lost.

Invariably the break up occurs when one or both of the characters misjudges the motives and actions of the other. Each one assumes the worst of the other, resulting in a failure to give the each other the benefit of the doubt. The crisis mushrooms as each one fails to clearly communicate their true feelings. It seems all is lost but then the lovers are jolted to their senses and they happily reclaim their love and seal it with a kiss.

As corny as the plot can be, the fact that millions of people watch these movies over and over tells us much about ourselves.

Indeed, the failure to give one’s partner the benefit of the doubt is one of the greatest dangers to romantic relationships. In the words of the writer, Stephen Covey “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior. As we do so, a downward spiral of hurt, anger, and personal attack results. So much pain grows out of the difficulty human beings have in giving another person the benefit of the doubt. This is so true in family relationships, work situations, and certainly in a church. Without forgiveness, short term disagreements can easily grow into long term hostility.”

However, this negative scenario of pain and disappointment can be avoided if just one of the partners is willing to take that first step and seek resolution. How can a couple jump off the merry-go-round of doubt and assume the best, rather than the worst of each other? Here are some points to consider:

  • When judging your partner’s actions, assume the best of intentions on his or her part. Remember Stephen Covey’s words, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” Consider your partner having the best of intentions even when you may not understand his or her attitude or actions.
  • When there is misunderstanding or uncertainty say to each other, “Let’s talk.” And sit down and pay attention to each other. It is important to remember that communicating involves talking and listening. Try to understand your partner’s point of view. Each partner should talk about how they feel. If one of the partners hides their feelings, resolution is unlikely.
  • Use “I hear you say…”. When a couple is having a disagreement, a helpful technique is to say to each other, “I hear you saying. . .” Put into your own words what you think your partner means by his or her words or actions. Then your partner can verify if you heard correctly. This is an import step because so often the message sent is not the one received. A partner can respond to “I hear you saying. . .” with “I did not mean that at all. I am sorry I did not speak more clearly.

As we give each other the benefit of the doubt, true intimacy can occur with a wonderful, affirming marriage as the reward.