Talking with students this past week, I offered up one of my basic tenants of “niceness” in relationships:
Always assume the other person is doing their best.
They didn’t like it.
They found the idea that someone could be doing their “best,” when what they were doing was really not even “good enough,” totally unpalatable.
And can you blame them? “Isn’t it disrespectful to assume that a person isn’t capable of more?” they asked. Fair point.
“But wait!” I said, “They may be capable of more, just not under THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES. This idea of assuming a person is doing their best requires that we take into account the environment in which they were making decisions.”
We talked about how maybe the word “best” was making the idea of “people are doing their best” feel weighted in a way that didn’t reflect my meaning. We wondered about other language that might replace that.
“Trying their hardest?” Well. Trying their hardest, given the other demands on their energy. It’s always contextual, it’s always effort and ability within a social context. Then again maybe “trying” isn’t right because it’s not just about ability, but about PRIORITY, and priorities imply choice in a way that simply ability does not. It’s complicated.
So eventually I boiled it down to, “Assuming that people are always doing their best is the starting point of compassion and forgiveness.”
I have to say, that sentence sorta stumped them.
The original question, let me clarify, was something along the lines of, “How do you live with a highly critical person?”
And I suppose we could have short-circuited the whole conversation if, instead of saying, “Assume they’re doing their best,” I had said, “Try compassion and forgiveness.”
I would add that “trust” is not a necessary component of either of those. Trust, John Gottman teaches us, is believing that the other person will try to make life better for you, all else being equal. And when a person is critical, we often can’t help but feel the opposite.
So look, hey. Be nice. Start with compassion, empathy, kindness, and the assumption that you will eventually forgive the person. And none of that implies trust and none of that implies lack of righteous anger or hurt. It just implies a leap of faith that the other person might have chosen differently in a different context.
So much of both relationships and sexuality is understanding context.
(PS – Uh, my new guide, A Scientific Guide to Successful Relationships, just got posted at GoodInBed, if, like, you’re interested in a more complete discussion of the science of functional relationships.)