It was 7:00 p.m. on a Friday, and after a string of exhausting weeks, Kathryn couldn’t wait for a long-planned and much-needed romantic date with her husband, Josh.The kids were finally at Grandma’s house (hallelujah!), the favorite meal was cooked, the table was set beautifully and there were candles in the bedroom for later. But as the minutes ticked by . . . no Josh. And no call. Finally at 7:40, a quick text: Boss grabbed me 4 last-min client call. So sorry. By 8:30, Kathryn was trying to hold back the tears. She found herself thinking she just wasn’t a priority for Josh, so she put away the beautifully cooked food — and the candles.
Have you ever been in Kathryn’s place in some way, thinking that your husband just doesn’t care? Or maybe you’re a husband who tackled an all-day honey-do painting project to surprise your wife, only to hear, “Um . . . I thought we were going to do a texture in this room.” Maybe you’ve had the angry feeling: I just can’t do anything right for her.
It is easy to have those thoughts when we are hurt, but it is poisonous to the relationship. Why? Because we’re assuming that our spouse is hurting us on purpose. And we’re almost always wrong. In my research study, I found that nearly all spouses — even in struggling marriages — deeply cared about their mate. But if we want to have a great marriage, we’ll have to force ourselves to believe that truth. We have to believe that our spouse has good intentions toward us, even when we are legitimately hurt.
In Josh and Kathryn’s case, here’s what it looked like in practice. Kathryn later told me that after she had the initial “I’m just not a priority” reaction, she purposefully switched that train of thought. No, she told herself, I know he was looking forward to this date as much as I was. There must be another explanation. And it entirely changed how she approached him.
When Josh finally came home at 9 p.m., he was stressed, anxious and a bit defensive. Kathryn was honest but calm instead of furious. “I’m really disappointed,” she said. “What happened?”
Surprised at her measured tone of voice, Josh’s defenses dropped. “I’m so, so sorry,” he said. “I heard today that the company is probably being acquired, and our team may be downsized. When Monty asked me to jump on that last-minute call with a big client, I didn’t feel like I could say no.”
Kathryn disagreed with how Josh handled the situation, wondering why he couldn’t have pulled away for 60 seconds before getting on the call, just to let her know. But she saw the heart behind what seemed to be a heartless action: Josh loved his wife and family and didn’t want to risk his ability to provide for them. By assuming the best about Josh’s motives — rather than the worst — Kathryn preserved the happiness in their marriage instead of hurting it.
We can all do the same in our marriages. When we are hurt, as all of us will be at some time, we can remind ourselves that our spouse almost certainly wants our best. And then we can look for the best explanation rather than the worst. And when we do, we’ll see the signals of love and care that were likely there all along.
Shaunti Feldhahn is a social researcher and the author of The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. For more on Shaunti’s research, visit Shaunti.com.