8. Habitual Responses & Attributions - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

8. Habitual Responses & Attributions

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > I Don't You Don't, DepAnxiety-Cple

I Don't… You Don't… It Don't Matter, Depression and Anxiety in Couples and Couple Therapy

As noted earlier, individuals tend to have habitual coping styles.  Each person tends to have typical, and even stereotypical responses to depression and anxiety.  The therapist should help partners and the couple identify habitual responses when either individual experiences depression and anxiety.  Even if partners or the couple is not sufficiently aware to avoid triggering each other, they may be able to use recognition of the behavior as cues to try interrupting the dysfunctional process.  Recognition can be of the other's behavior or self-awareness of one's own behavior.  Rather than simply continuing the behavior, especially if it intensifies or adds to the negativity, awareness can be used to attempt planned interventions previously discussed in therapy.  Some partners may be sufficiently aware to delve more deeply experientially into the process for further insight and awareness.  Jayden finds himself immersing himself in his work, working non-mandatory overtime and avoiding coming home at night.  This in turn, triggered repercussions from his partner, Ella.  From the previous work in couple therapy, Jayden had become aware that avoiding interactions is his typical response to depression.  When he recognized that his increased time and focus on work was avoidance reacting to depression again, Jayden then reflected on what he also learned in therapy… about what normally triggers his depression.  Previous to making these connections in therapy, he believed his poor choices and behavior was another sign of his inherent dysfunctionality.  He had always been told that he just wasn't good enough… not like his brother, the "golden child" who could do no wrong.  Believing himself flawed, he became depressed.  Being depressed and self-soothing dysfunctionally or acting out confirmed his inherent flaws.  Now that Jayden better understood and accepted himself, he was able to instigate some of the alternative behaviors to dealing with depression (also previously discussed and planned in therapy) that were less harmful to the relationship.  Jayden was able to come to this realization largely on his own.

On the other hand, his wife Ella's awareness of his process of avoidance in response to depression could have instigated her recognizing and productively challenging the behavior as well.  Prior to therapy, Ella was prone to believe Jayden's late hours were a way for him to avoid being with her- the unlovable wife.  Her father had worked late hours and then stopped off at the bar on the way home to avoid the spiteful and tense interactions with her mother.  Ella had always thought she should have been able to love her father enough into coming home and being a good daddy to her.  As Jayden's partner, she could have broken the cycle by using her insight about him to engage in a more productive discourse about the depression.  Or, the therapist can present this insight in therapy.  The therapist can easily be drawn into a discussion about the problematic behaviors (not coming home or coming late home at night) and miss deeper and older issues, if therapy had not explored the patterns of behavior and motivations from the family-of-origin.  Hill (2009) offers another example where self-awareness and insight can lead to relationship growth.  Greater awareness and insight can and must lead to changes in behavior.  However, change even if desirable or more functional may be disrupting nevertheless.  "...the anxious, but formerly inattentive husband, now fearful of losing his distant and withdrawn wife seeks frantically, but unsuccessfully, to reattach.  In therapy he gains understanding when the therapist suggests the metaphor (a window of opportunity for new meaning) of pouring boiling water in a cold glass only to have the glass shatter and break.  In other words, the husband's passionate efforts toward connectedness appear 'strange' to his demoralised wife.  Thus, his newly energised attentive behaviours must be softened and allowed to become 'familiar' to his wife with time, patience, and renewed trust" (page 3).

In Hill's example, the wife was so accustomed to her husband's habitual negative inattentive behaviors, that she had difficulty accepting his "better" behaviors.  The wife cannot immediately trust if the new behavior is real or contrived, or a part of an old pattern with occasional positive behaviors or part of a new pattern of relatively consistent and stable positive behavior.  "This means…" or "This behavior must mean…something negative" eventually transitions through "This might mean… something negative or positive," and hopefully with relationship stabilization to "This almost certainly positively means…"  Attributions or explanations for life events, specifically partner behaviors significantly affect depression/anxiety and relationship problems.  "A number of researchers have posited that depression may evolve as a consequence of an individual's causal attributions about life events (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Miller & Norman, 1979).  Depressed individuals tend to display a style that attributes negative events to internal, stable, and global causes.  This style has been shown to lead to a sense of hopelessness about future negative events, which subsequently may leave the individual at risk for depression (Byrne & MacLeod, 1997; Joiner et al., 2001; Miller, Klee, & Norman, 1982; Peterson & Seligman, 1983; Sweeney, Anderson, & Bailey, 1986; Swendson, 1997)" (Gordon et al., 2005, page 877).

Depressed individuals such as Jayden tend to have more negative cognitions in response to both interpersonal and non-interpersonal situations.  They tend to blame themselves whenever anything negative happens.  It appears that the cognitive and attributional of depressed individuals and those individuals with relationship problems show some similarities.  Both groups have cognitive distortions.  Cognitive variables relevant for depression include self-blame, negative self-efficacy, poor self-esteem while variables relevant to marital distress include blaming the spouse and responsibility attributions (Heene et al., 2005, page 414-15).  Enduring and all-encompassing attributions about the partner's negative behaviors tend to coincide with greater relationship upset in both the short and long term.  Responsibility attributions such as attributions of blame, selfishness, and intent about the partner constitute evaluations about his or her character.  "These attributional dimensions measure the extent to which an individual believes (a) his or her partner engaged in the negative behavior on purpose to hurt the individual, (b) the behavior was done for selfish motives, and (c) the partner should be blamed for the behavior" (Gordon et al., 2005, page 877-78).  When attributions are negative- that is, believing intentional harm, selfish motives, and wrongdoing, they would lead to negative responses.  If attributions are habitually negative, then responses would also be habitually negative.  As a result, it is not surprising that causal and responsibility attributions contribute to both causing and maintaining marital distress.  Assumptions about the meaning of behavior would affect partner interactions and the quality of the relationship.  If negatively experienced partner behaviors are attributed as unintentional or behavioral or characterological anomalies, then the offended partner is not as likely to react negatively.  Conversely, if the individual attributes the behavior to intentional malicious motivations, then the individual will more probably view the partner and the relationship more severely and respond harshly.  This would further relationship distress and dysfunctionality.

"Furthermore, studies suggest that this negative appraisal process is indicative of an attributional style that precedes the development of marital distress (e.g., Fincham & Bradbury, 1993; Horneffer & Fincham, 1995; Johnson et al., 2001)" (Gordon et al. 2005, page 878).  Negative attributions can create a sense that problems cannot be solved.  This adds to relationship distress and feelings of doom.  They can create a sense of victimization and betrayal as well.  These and other negative attributions would predict a history of problematic relationships.  The therapist should explore the attitudes and history of each partner to see if pessimistic attributions are habitual.  Does Jayden or does Ella tend to see things as half-empty or expect bad things to happen?  Does either or both of them describe prior relationships they entered with expectations they would be disappointed?  Negative attributions may result in tentative relationships that repeatedly fail to take off, a series of unfulfilling and unfortunate relationships, or it can be the borderline personality individual's series of dramatic volatile failed couplings.  Borderline reactivity would be an example of individuals having extremely negative causal and responsibility/evaluative attributions and intense reactions/responses.

Benign or accepting attributions for the relationship correlate to low depression, while negative attribution of malicious intent correlate highly with depression.  Negative marital attributions are significantly correlated with marital disharmony and disaffection.  It is particularly true for depressed and discordant women that responsibility attributions are the strongest predictor of marital adjustment within a depressive and discordant female population (Gordon et al., 2005, page 878).  This may be another reflection of women's historical status as the disempowered gender and a consequential propensity, and a subsequent instinct to be hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive to potential harm and intrusion.  And/or it may be consequential of a female individual's experience of personal experience of emotional vulnerability and harm.  Since marital satisfaction affects depression through the explanations partners make for each other's behaviors, the therapist should evoke these explanations to make them overt issues to struggle over and reconcile.  An important thrust of therapy would be to determine if the upset partner believes that his or her partner's negative marital behaviors are "stable, global, intentional, and maliciously performed."  If he or she holds this deterministic perspective, he or she "also may experience an emotional shift toward depression or anger or helplessness" (Gordon et al., 2005, page 879).  Some individuals or couples initiate immediate processes including therapy to work through fear or anxiety that one's partner has negative intention and beliefs for oneself.  "…increasing the insight of the spouses regarding their respective parts in maintaining depression and marital distress can be a primary aim of therapy.  Accordingly, this may be an opportunity to change beliefs and interpretations in a positive direction, even to interrupt interaction patterns that may stabilize negative perceptions (see also Katz, 2001)" (Heene et al., 2005, page 434).

The therapist can use attribution theory as a way to understand thinking/beliefs, perceptions, and challenging behavior in relationships.  "…the fact that the commonly held association between marital distress and depression is halved when negative attributions are not present indicates that the way in which couples cognitively process their relationships has great implications for their own individual well–being, and not just their later marital satisfaction.  These findings suggest that simply teaching communication skills and problem-solving strategies in couples counseling and premarital intervention programs is not likely to be sufficient, and that attention must be paid to individual's attributional style regarding their relationship difficulties, particularly if the therapist wishes to prevent or address concomitant depression" (Gordon et al., 2005, page 890).  Unfortunately, many individuals or couples endure years of negative attributions creating anxious reactions that are interpreted as behavioral confirmation of negative intent.  There may be significant subsequent damage before the couple seeks assistance.  Early entry versus late entry in couple therapy is itself an important therapeutic assessment.  Later access after years of distress of couple therapy may require the therapist to see if a partner can let go of and evolve an absolute attribution.  In other words, the therapist must see if the individual can consider that there might be other reasons or motivations for the negative behavior.  If this is difficult or blocked, then attributional style may need to be a focus of therapy.  The relationship quality would probably already be less problematic if the individual sees his or her "behavior as changeable or not blameworthy, and thus it would be less likely to lead to depression" (page 880).  Once again this is simultaneously assessment information and a potential direction and complication of therapy.

The therapist should consider that "Alternatively, these attributions may not represent a "style" but rather an accurate view of an unsatisfying relationship and spouse" (Gordon et al., 2005, page 888-89).  It is possible that an individual has a habitual negative attributional style along with a problematic partner with negative intent who holds him or her as less than honorably.  For example, Jayden may be predisposed to interrupt Ella negatively, while Ella also tends to be dismissive to abusive of him.  This relates to an alternative perspective of adult attachment insecurity where it is not necessarily seen as resulting from early childhood attachment experiences.  Adult attachment may be highly impacted by the quality of the current relationship.  That is, negative attributions and insecure attachment might be related to depression because the current poor relationship has distorted the working models of oneself and the other partner.  When one partner is depressed, the couple's interactions may create hostility in both partners  This can result in both partners developing negative attributions and models of self and the other. "The depressed person may perceive conflict with the partner as rejection and feel unlovable.  Partners may develop negative working models of others as a result of their interactions with a spouse who is hostile and self-absorbed.  Thus, when one partner is depressed, both partners may develop negative working models" (Wiffen et al., 2001, page 579).  The therapist should be vigilant regarding his or her counter-transference.  The therapist may be as likely to be triggered by an off-putting negative (even paranoid) personality, who may be telling the truth (perhaps, mixed with exaggerations) of the partner's negative behavior.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu