What's Your Relationship Attributional Style?

This post is a follow-up to a post from a couple of weeks about How Your Attributional Style is Linked to Your Happiness and Self Esteem.

Today, as promised, I’m writing about Your Relationship Attributional Style (best to read the post mentioned above before reading this one).

Attribution patterns are an important difference between happy and unhappy relationships. When attributions turn negative it predicts troubled times ahead for the relationship.

Attributions for “Good Relationship Behaviour”

In happy intimate relationships, people tend to attribute good things their partner does to

Internal, Global, and Stable Factors.

For example, in a happy relationship, if your partner brings home flowers, you’re likely to attribute it to the partner’s warm, loving personality. Personality is both internal and stable (people’s personalities don’t change much). Characteristics like “warm” and “supportive” are global characteristics compared to specific, positive characteristics like “good at remembering anniversaries”.

It’s more important in relationships that we have a positive view of our partners’ global characteristics than of more specific characteristics, although obviously these two perceptions are linked.

In unhappy relationships, people tend to attribute “good behaviour” from their partners as caused by

External, Specific, and/or Temporary Factors.

In an unhappy relationship, if your partner brings home flowers for an anniversary/Valentine’s you might discount their wanted behaviour by explaining it as having been caused by something like

“My partner only buys flowers when it’s socially expected”.

Attributions for “Bad Relationship Behaviour”

You can probably see where this is going…

In happy relationships, people tend to attribute (i.e. explain) unwanted relationship behaviour from partners as caused by

External (not their fault), Specific, and/or Temporary Factors

For example, in a happy relationship, if your partner forgets Valentine’s day you might explain this as

They’re under a lot of stress at work at the moment (External, Temporary), or

In general they’re warm and supportive. They might not be traditionally romantic but they express their love in other ways (The flaw is framed as a specific flaw in “traditional romantic gestures” which is less detrimental to relationship satisfaction than thinking of the partner as not warm or not caring). Or,

They’ve remembered most years (Forgetting is Temporary)

In unhappy relationships, bad relationship behaviour tends to be attributed to stable, global, internal factors. For example, if my partner forgot our anniversary it’s evidence that they’re below average in warmth, caring, or reliability.

How Understanding Attributional Style Can Help You

Check in with yourself about what attributions you’re making. Are other attributions also potentially valid?

You might be being overgenerous in your attributions because you’re caught up in love. This can lead people to make poor relationship decisions.

Alternatively, you might be making attributions that are too harsh. Sometimes this happens when people are feeling unhappy in their own lives. Other times, it’s a sign of a negative spiral that’s happening in the relationship (relationship unhappiness > negative attributions > further relationship unhappiness).

Want More? My most popular blog posts about relationships:

Self Experiments in Relationship Closeness

Relationship Self Help – psychology PhD Recommended Books

How Fluctuating and Low Self Esteem Wreak Havoc in Relationships (and How Low Self Esteem Robs People of one of the Most Important Benefits from Relationships).

Original Post about Attributions and Self-Esteem/Depression