By the time people come to me to initiate divorce proceedings, they are usually well-beyond hope that reconciliation with their spouse is possible. Each story begs the question of how these couples went from loving each other to wondering why they ever married to begin with. I once heard a family psychologist talk about this phenomenon in terms of certain mindsets, or biases, that contribute to spouses becoming so polarized that they’re ready to call it quits.
The first is the confirmation bias, meaning we all tend to only notice actions that confirm what we already believe. A study once showed that child therapists, who were convinced prior to an interview with a child that the child had been abused, almost always concluded that the child had been abused. In other words, they only focused on the evidence that supported their pre-existing biases. In a marriage, this bias “rewrites” the story of the relationship, because each spouse only notices the things their other half is doing wrong, to the exclusion of any of the other’s redeeming qualities, or their own contribution to the conflict. This combined with an unwillingness to forgive or change is a relationship killer.
The second is the bias that pain felt is more painful than pain inflicted. The best example of this is another study that asked one participant to squeeze the other’s index finger. The other participant was then asked to squeeze the previous participant’s finger with an equal amount of force. The second squeeze was always harder. If a spouse’s reaction to pain is to inflict pain on the other, it’s inevitably disproportionate, and perpetuates a cycle with devastating consequences.
Understanding these biases doesn’t alleviate pain, but it offers insight into attitudes that have to be adjusted if reconciliation can ever be an option. Both spouses have to acknowledge their hurtful actions, and stop withholding forgiveness. This doesn’t mean the pain goes away, but it allows an opportunity for healing without piling on even more wounds.