Presumption of Innocence

Posted on March 9, 2018


When accused of a crime in America, we have the presumption of innocence.  Essentially, we do not have to prove that we are innocent of whatever we are accused.  The assumption is that we are innocent until proven otherwise.

A few decades back, I was in traffic school as a result of a speeding ticket.[1]  It was right around the time when California changed the law with regard to legal intoxication from a blood alcohol level of .10% to .08%.  It was near the end of the year and the instructor was admonishing the class in anticipation of New Year’s Eve revelers.  The instructor told us that even at .05% you have lost your presumption of innocence[2] and that this is a big loss.

This is not a blog about traffic safety, alcohol abuse, or drunk driving.  It is about relationships.

In distressed relationships, couples get into what the Gottman research calls Negative Sentiment Override.  Negative sentiment override is that state in which the presumption of innocence has been lost.  When you say, “Thank you for doing the laundry,” and your partner hears “it’s about time, you worthless slug,” you are in negative sentiment override.  Rather than the base assumption being that you love and care about me, you attribute malevolent motives to what your partner does and says (and vice versa).

Losing that presumption of good will is a big loss.  The negative sentiment not only colors current interactions, but also one’s interpretation of the relationship history.  Happy couples tend to look at their history in a positive light.  Distressed couples tend to rewrite history such that it is viewed as always having been bad.

You probably notice this if you are on the receiving end of the negativity.  When you are the one interpreting things as negative, you just judge that you have accurately discerned what is going on.

The obvious question is, “What do you do about it?”  Even in therapy, negative sentiment override is a difficult area to work on directly.  For our purposes, let’s split this into two questions.  1) What do you do when you are the one who assumes that your partner is acting/speaking with malice?  Let’s throw into this category that your partner really does have bad intent (just to hedge our bet).  2) What do you do when your good intentions are continually misjudged?

First, recognize that you cannot change your partner.  You can only change you.  The focus needs to be on how you speak and act in the relationship.  Second, you need to understand that relationships are systems.  Systems strive to maintain homeostasis.  When you make your first attempts to change the relationship dance, the system is going to try to push you back into line.  It will take commitment and perseverance to make any sort of real change.  Third, you two have history together.  There is a reason you respond to each other the way you do.  Some of that may be what you brought into the relationship from your family of origin.  Much of it is probably a result of cumulative hurts in the relationship.  We have all loved each other imperfectly.  Any and every comment or act that was not loving was a violation of love and/or trust that helped sculpt the current dynamic.

When your partner is intentionally saying or doing things to hurt you (or that is the way you have made sense of his/her behavior), merely coming to that conclusion involves a certain amount of mind reading.  Essentially, you hear was is said or observe what is done and you draw conclusions from that.  And it makes sense that you do that.  This is how we learn to make sense of our world.  The potential problem is that we can be wrong.

For example, you are cruising down the freeway, and someone cuts you off.  The conclusion you draw is

  1. This is a self-centered aggressive person who thinks they are more important than everyone else on the road.
  2. This person was just oblivious to your presence and did not see you.
  3. This person is angry with you and essentially flipping you off by cutting in front of you.
  4. This person is unfamiliar with the area and distracted while trying to get to their exit.
  5. This person is having a health crisis and is trying to get over as quickly as possible.
  6. This person got flustered by the person who had been tailgating them and made a mistake.

Any of those may or may not be true.  And in that situation, you probably have no way to reality test which situation it is.  However, we naturally make a story to fit the data based upon our own experiences and biases.

Of course, you do the same thing with your partner.  And you might be right or you might be wrong about your partner’s intent.  If you just stick with the first story you tell yourself, you are engaging in mind reading.  You are discerning what is in the mind of another without any confirmation as to whether that is actually true.

The antidote to mind reading is reality testing.  It makes sense that you tell yourself a story about what is going on, it just might not be accurate.  You can reality test by simply asking your partner about his/her experience.  If the tone sounds harsh, you could keep it simple with “Are you mad at me about something?”[3]  If you say something and your partner has a negative reaction, try leaning into that.  “When I said __________, you seemed angry.  What was it about that upset you?”

Another effective approach is to share what the story is that you tell yourself[4].  “When you said, _______, the story I am telling myself is that you were saying it just to hurt me.  Is that true?”

One of the things about reality testing is that your partner’s reality may be very different from your own.  If what your partner shares with you sounds like “2+2=7,” do not try to set your partner straight.  Your partner has a reason for the things he/she does and says.  Your mission is to understand your partner’s experience.  Even if your partner says, “You said ‘x’” and you are confident those words never left your mouth, you can still do this.  You don’t have to agree that you said “x,” but you can agree that “if you understood me to say ‘x,’ it makes sense why you would have been hurt by that.  Can I share with you how I remember and what I thought I said or meant to say.”  The mission is not to determine what really happened, but to understand each other’s reality.

If you are the one whose motives are being continually misjudged, you can apply this also.  The mission is still to understand your partner’s experience.  If you can get to a place of saying, “this makes sense” that can be really powerful for soothing your partner’s distress.

Then there is also the issue of your tone of voice.  With all of this, the delivery is critical.  If you are approaching from a place of genuine concern and wanting to understand, you will likely find your partner more responsive than if you are approaching it from a place of criticism.  If your tone of voice conveys “you idiot” or “what is wrong with you” your words will land more as contempt than as genuine caring.

Whichever side of the negative sentiment override you are on, you have a powerful tool available to you.  That is empathy.  For empathy to be effective, it requires three components. 1) I understand what it is like to be you.  2) I care what it is like to be you.  3) You have a felt sense that the first two components are true.  You might really understand and care about your partner’s experience, but if he/she does not have the sense that you do, you will not get the relationship healing you are after.

You are striving to convey understanding, so it may seem counterintuitive to tell you to not use the words “I understand.”  Using those two words will likely result in being told that you don’t understand.  The way to communicate understanding is to reflect what you think your partner is experiencing.  “You were hurt by what I just said” communicates understand.  If you get the emotional experience wrong, it isn’t a problem.  Your partner will correct you.

If you have been in negative sentiment override for a long time, it is going to take some time and effort to get back to the positive perspective.  The presumption of innocence, once lost, need not be lost forever.  As you work toward restoring positivity, you can only control you.  Choose to respond in constructive ways.  Choose to be the healer.

[1] I was afraid it might sound too defensive if I pointed out that back then the speed limit on the freeway was 55.  Oh well.  As Dave Grusin sang in the Baretta TV theme, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

[2] I am neither and attorney nor in law enforcement so don’t rely on this info.  I am merely relating what the instructor said.

[3] As an aside, if your partner gives you this question, it is not helpful to take the position of “You should know” or “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.”  This approach will not get you the love you want.

[4] Brene Brown does an excellent job explaining this technique.  Check out Rising Strong for a more in depth discussion.