Assigning motive: a good way to kill a marriage

Upset couple © Scott Griessel |

When your spouse does something wrong, or something you dislike, do you assign motive?

  • “She did that because she doesn’t like me.”
  • “She wants to hurt/manipulate/punish me.”
  • “She must be having an affair.”
  • “She is going to divorce me.”

The problem with this is the motive you think is behind her actions may be less than accurate – or dead wrong. Even if you know why she did the same thing in the past (and you probably don’t have as clear an idea as you think) she may not have the same motives and thoughts this time. When we assign motive, we can create in our minds an offence that does not exist. How is she supposed to deal with an offence that exists only in your mind? Even if she knows it’s there, it’s not like she should apologise for something you thought up! Even worse, you may unintentionally push her towards the motive you assume she has. Treat her as if she feels something, and she may actually start to feel it.

Of course it is probably human nature to assign motive; it’s part of what we do to cope with and understand our world. My suggestion is to work at assigning the best possible motive – or at least the least bad motive. See her actions as a result of stress, tiredness, PMS, being overworked, being worried, or not being aware. When you do this you are less offended by what she does, and more sympathetic to her troubles and needs.

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8 Comments on “Assigning motive: a good way to kill a marriage

  1. It would seem like a better suggestion would be to openly communicate and say, “Honey, I just do not understand why you did what you just did. I am sure you have a good reason, can you help me understand what that reason was?”
    Even if we assume the best possible reason, it may be way off the mark and so we are still left to respond inappropriately and inaccurately.

      • Larry’s response describes the way I have tried to understand things that my husband may do, but what it did would put him on the defensive and make him clam up. “Assigning Motive” has made me look at the situation in a new light. Instead of urging him to open up, I should work at making him want to open up and share.

  2. After a while the disrespect, the lack of trust, the habit of doing the opposite of that requested all seem to be intentional and with malicious motive. 20 years we lived this way and with each passing year I ascribed more her behaviors to ill intentions, and my loathing of her grew geometrically.

    For 20 years we were watching our marriage die. Then we found Shaunti and Jeff Feldhans books (for men only and for women only) on understanding how the other’s mind works.

    Turns out we were the classic examples of what they discussed. Two people believing they were communicating love clearly only to discover that our “message” while understandable to us was not understandable at all. Indeed we discovered our “messages” were doomed to only be understood, by the other.

    Truly knowing that it was never intentional opened the door for a quicker reconcilliation. I had to be willing to admit she wasn’t doing it on purpose and that I was wrong in concluding it was.

    By accepting the truth I could see things differently, she wasn’t kicking me in the shins and never had.

    All that was happening was we both wanted to dance but we kept stepping on each others toes!

    Knowing that has made it easier to communicate, learn to dance together and create levels of trust we have never before enjoyed.

    If we are assigning motive then we had better be sure that is the truth. Otherwise, we are poisoning our marriages as surely and as completely as the plague of death.

    No matter it be truth or supposition, we need to find out why we are at odds and figure a way to talk about it with our spouses so we both understand what is happening rather than what we think is happening.

    I look back now and realize that though I signed the license 26 years ago, we finallystarted to have a marriage 6 years ago. Brothers, don’t waste time like we did!

  3. I was reading this earlier and it made me uneasy and I’ll tell you why. I’m pretty sure the reason that we assign motives to actions, is that the actions are bad (duh!). The problem is that bad actions are tolerated in almost any circumstance and therefore the affected has to come up with some reason for what happened. They may be largely inaccurate in their assigned motive, but they are putting across and idea that is very accurate: I have been hurt by the actions of someone that could have been prevented.

    I’ll give a stupid example, since they work best. My wife burns dinner and it stinks. For some reason I’m still supposed to enjoy this and act like this is the way life is supposed to be. So, I often, as many others, think to myself “She doesn’t care about me.” Now this may or may not be true as stated, but it conveys a point. It is most likely that she forgot something, spent most of the day on FB, is not a very good cook, and just really doesn’t care about cooking, amongst other problems.

    The first problem here is that things just go on the same way. No one fixes the problem and no one cares (except the afflicted). We are expected to put up with faults even though they easily fixable and go against biblical teaching (sins).

    The second problem is that the observation is actually quite accurate when you take off the fluff. Clearly the problems were a symptom of “not caring”. Most people will make up excuses for the person because they don’t have to deal with the problem and they don’t care either.

    I’m convinced that most of the world’s evil is done by people who just don’t care as opposed to “on purpose” and that makes it OK. I suppose we should fix the real problem, before we start telling people to stop assigning motive. It may be our only shot at fixing the real problem before it gets covered up.

    • Take Two – I understand what you are saying, but just because something is “bad” does not mean the motives were bad.

      I don’t think I said that anyone should act like something is fine when it’s not – that would be lying.

      It may or may not be “not caring”. If I am currently unable to list 300 pounds, it does not matter if I care or not, I can’t lift it. If I need to be able to lift it, then I need to work towards that. I might not work towards it for a number of reasons, and not caring is one of those, but not the only one.

  4. It can be really hard to overcome negative feelings towards your spouse! Case in point… I once dreamed that my husband cheated on me (he has never been anything but faithful to me, thankfully). I felt so hurt by that dream and was kinda mad at him all day, even though I knew it was just my imagination and completely unfair of me. Such a stupid reaction, but the feelings were real even though the cause was completely false! I’m sure that assigning motives can result in the same type of situation, except that you have convinced yourself that you know the real cause of the spouse’s behavior. I can imagine how tough that would be to overcome.

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