In the spirit of the holidays and gift-giving, I’d like to explain why the gift of a generous interpretation is a wonderful gift to give to yourself and others all year round!
Imagine this: Your partner announces to you that they have made dinner plans with friends this upcoming Saturday. You are crushed because that is your anniversary and it appears your partner is unaware that their plans mean you will not be spending quality time together.
It makes sense that you are disappointed. This is frustrating. You hoped your anniversary would be remembered and celebrated with dinner and alone time.
One route your mind could go down is that your partner just doesn’t care. The relationship means very little to them. They are comfortable with disappointing you. You come second to everyone else in their lives. They will always do what they want to do, and you are just expected to accept it.
This route is painful. It is also full of MANY assumptions about your partner and their view of you and your relationship as a whole. Without hearing any of this directly from them, you are building a (possibly) very false reality for yourself that is hurtful.
You may distance yourself from your partner, never bringing up the fact that Saturday is your anniversary. You may lash out at your partner, accusing them of not caring about you or the relationship. You may keep all of this to yourself and build a silent resentment. You may pick a fight about something completely unrelated to blow off steam.
A generous interpretation is a ticket out of this thinking. A generous interpretation means to assume the best in others around you, that they do not mean you malice, and that they do not want to hurt you intentionally, even when their actions may cause you pain.
When we feel someone acts with malice towards us, we are defensive, angry, and hurt. When we can create a possible reality in which we have been hurt by someone who cares for us and did not mean us harm, we can cope and create change much more effectively.
*** A generous interpretation is NOT to be applied to instances of abuse or neglect in relationships***
A generous interpretation is not making an excuse. It allows your mind to take some space away from the painful narratives it may create around WHY someone behaved the way that they did, and become more curious of other possibilities.
In this example, a generous interpretation may sound like acknowledging that your partner did not remember your anniversary date, but that they could still value your relationship greatly even if they did not recall this detail.
It may also sound like acknowledging your partner loves you and would never want to intentionally hurt you, and this hurt did not come from a mean or disrespectful place. It may sound like remembering times your partner has prioritized you and your needs, calming thoughts that you are not important to your partner.
It may also sound like acknowledging that neither of you had spoken directly about your anniversary prior to this moment and your partner may not have known that this date was important to you or something you expected to celebrate with a dinner specifically.
When we give generous interpretations to people who DESERVE them, we open the door to expressing our needs and engaging in repair work in the relationship. In the example, a generous interpretation may have allowed the couple to discuss that their anniversary is Saturday, and plans could have been changed or new ideas to celebrate the occasion could have been formulated.
That discussion would have been made possible by not presuming malice in one’s partner, but assuming that their intentions towards you are good, despite their actions causing hurt at times. We can forgive, ask for needed changes, set new boundaries, express needs, and continue on in our relationships.
A generous interpretation is as much for you as it is for the other, as it allows you to create possible realities that are less painful and can leave you still feeling loved despite a disappointing action. I hope this idea provides you relief and new opportunities in your relationships in the future!
Kelly Birkhold, LCSW (providing individual, couples, and family therapy at Houston Therapy)