Relationships end for a reason, which is why by the time they end most of them become messy. After the end of a romance, one or both parties tend to leave with a negative impression of the other individual. How many people do you know who are on good terms with their exes versus the number of people who hate them? I personally hear many more of the latter, and I have stories of my own.
In a messy breakup, it may well be the case that your former significant other was actually evil and entirely at fault for the split. But my guess is that more often than not, both of you think you are innocent and blame the other for whatever happened. So how is this misunderstanding possible, and who is right?
Understanding the fundamental attribution error may help us answer this question. This social psychology concept describes our tendency to attribute others’ behaviors to internal personality characteristics, while attributing our own behaviors to external situational factors. This phenomenon explains why you may assume a stranger who did not thank you for opening the door must just be an unfriendly person, while you also assume that your roommate understands that you only snapped at her because you got a bad grade on an exam. This common way of thinking can affect your interactions throughout your relationship, and it can color your memory of it.
I only recently realized that my perception of a former relationship had been affected by fundamental attribution error. For years I held a negative memory of the overall experience. Even though the breakup was mutual and we had both gotten over it long ago, I largely blamed the relationship’s problems on my ex. I believed that, based on his actions, he had never actually cared about me. Although I recognized that I had said and done things I should not have, I viewed my actions as justified reactions to his behavior.
I ran into him recently, and we ended up having our first real conversation since the breakup. The discussion began with his apologizing — unprompted — for things he had done when we were together. He clearly recognized his part in what had happened, and his apology meant a lot to me. But then he said something that surprised me: “I think we both walked away from the relationship with a bad taste in our mouths about the other person and their intentions.” This was unexpected because I had never realized that he had a negative impression of my intentions at all. When I asked, he answered that he had felt that, because of how I acted, I had not actually cared about him.
I had no idea he had thought of me that way. When I said regretful things, I had assumed he would know that I was responding to the situation; but naturally, he thought it was due to how I felt about him internally. Meanwhile, I had assumed the same about his behavior, while he would describe his own actions as reactions. Thus, we both walked away thinking that the other had been malicious or uncaring, while believing that we ourselves had had good intentions but had merely been reactive to the other.
Thanks to fundamental attribution error, my ex and I had both spent years thinking back to our relationship with distaste for the other person. Instead of considering our own behavior from an outside perspective, we blamed the other for their conduct. Of course, I cannot pretend that fundamental attribution error caused all my relationship’s problems. But by recognizing the phenomenon, I can look back at what happened and see part of what went wrong, identify where I was to blame and avoid making the same mistake next time. And in the meantime, I can enjoy no longer hating my ex.
Zoe Epstein is a junior in the College. Dating Nerd appears every other Wednesday.