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I’ve Always Known You’re No Good – How the Confirmation Bias Hurts Your Relationship

Harry and Jeannette had a generally happy marriage.  But they did have one sticking point.  When Harry and Jeannette married, they had finally agreed on a pact: no kids. 

Both of them were on the second time around.  Harry had two children from his first marriage; Jeannette didn’t. 

Jeannette would have liked to have a couple of kids, but Harry was adamant that he was done. He was already well into his 40s and did not want to spend the rest of his life raising children. 

 His first set of kids was into their early teenage years and just caring for them in a joint-custody arrangement was as much as he could take. 

He knew Jeannette wanted children, but they agreed that this was a sacrifice she would make for him, and that as time went on, there would be sacrifices he would make for her, such as moving to another nearby town. They lived in the same small town where their ex-spouses lived and the town did not seem quite big enough to hold all four of them. 

Jeannette wanted to move, Harry didn’t, but they agreed that Harry would do it for Jeannette. So far, however, he had not gotten around to starting house-hunting.

Lately, Harry was finding himself in a state of high anxiety.  He had always had a lingering suspicion that Jeannette might trick him and get pregnant.  For the most part, he trusted Jeannette, but he knew how much she wanted to have children.  So he was vigilant.

A couple months ago, Jeannette had had an appointment with her gynecologist. Why?

Moreover, Harry had seen Jeannette reading material about prenatal development on the Internet.  She said it was for a course on child development she was teaching in her part-time job at a local community college, but that explanation sounded thin to him.  Did they even cover prenatal development in a child-development course? 

And to add to it all, Jeannette had gained a few pounds lately.  In the past, he might not have noticed. But now he definitely noticed.  He had gained some weight too, but he knew he wasn’t pregnant! 

The more he thought about it, the more he thought that Jeannette had tricked him. 

If so, she was in for an unpleasant surprise.  He was going to insist on an abortion.  He was not going to do the child-raising thing again!

That was the deal they had made, and she was going to have to stick to it.  Harry was getting ready to confront Jeannette, and he wasn’t going to sugar coat it.


Does everything you see prove your point?

Harry has worked himself into a dither.  He has convinced himself, on the basis of what he sees as multiple sources of evidence, that Jeannette may well have tricked him and purposely gotten herself pregnant, a violation of their standing agreement.  The problem is that the evidence is incredibly thin.

Women have gynecological appointments on a regular basis. That supposed evidence means nothing.

Child-development courses do teach about pregnancy, something Harry easily could find out for himself if he bothered to check.

And adults gain weight all the time. Harry was gaining weight himself.  So, he basically had no evidence.

Confirmation Bias - Seeking out information that confirms your views

Everything Harry saw led him to a serious confrontation with confirmation bias, when we only seek out evidence that confirms our point of view and interpret evidence we are presented with as confirmatory of what we already believe, regardless of whether it really is.

In the present day, we see rampant confirmation bias among people who self-identify as “conservative” or as “liberal.”  Many often read only information consistent with their ideology and are ready to be suspicious of almost anything the others do as showing ill and possibly destructive intentions.

Confirmation bias can undermine any intimate relationship.  As soon as we start suspecting something less than positive about our partner, it becomes easier and easier to interpret any new source of information as confirming what we already believe.

Of course, confirmation bias also can work in a positive direction, leading us always to interpret our partner’s actions in the most favorable light.

But such confirmation bias also can be destructive when we discover that we have built up an image of our partner that does not correspond to the reality of who they are.

What can you do about confirmation bias in your relationship?

How do you combat confirmation bias? You do four things.

1. Be your own critic.

When you find yourself interpreting what you believe is evidence in just one way, ask whether there is another plausible way to interpret it. All of the evidence Harry interpreted in one way had a ready counter-interpretation.

2. Seek counter-evidence.

Harry easily could have looked at a child-development textbook to find out that pregnancy is covered in the course. He just didn’t bother to seek disconfirming evidence for this hypothesis.

3. Talk nonjudgmentally to relevant parties—hear them out!

Harry should talk to Jeannette, but nonjudgmentally. He should tell her in a positive way that he has concerns that he knows may well be ridiculous.  But he needs to talk to her about them in an honest way.

4. Don’t let yourself fall into the confirmation-bias trap in the first place.

Don’t live your life waiting for something suspicious to happen.  Think positive, realizing of course that the time may come when you have to reconsider. But living life the way Harry is may mark him for an earlier grave than he would like!  He can do better; so can you!

Keep these four things in mind when you're wondering about your partner's actions. Your beliefs may well be right, but don't let your relationship fall prey to faulty reasoning.

Are you interested in reading more about how psychological biases can distort our thinking?

You may like this article about the actor-observer bias that explains why your partner may always find fault in your action (rather than in theirs).

And if you or your partner tend to dwell on the negative, check out this article on the negativity bias.

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