RELATIONSHIPS: Give your mate the benefit of the doubt


In the days before the mobile phones, a young couple agreed to meet at a certain place at a certain time. The young man arrived at least one hour ahead of time while his girlfriend arrived a whole five hours later. He was obviously not amused but something held him from pouncing.

And it proved to be a great decision because when she showed his letter to her, it read 10am in the morning, in English, but the next phrase which he wrote in her mother tongue, translated the time to be 4pm in the afternoon. And for some reason, she only picked the last bit, but wasn’t he glad that his first instinct was to give her the benefit of the doubt?

Let us think through what giving a partner the benefit of the doubt means and why it might make a huge difference in our relationships.

What does it mean to give someone the benefit of the doubt? The website gives two very useful definitions for this phrase.

First, it is to “regard someone as innocent until proven otherwise; lean toward a favorable view of someone.” It suggests to us that although we might have enough reasons (or emotions) to pronounce guilt, we should have it in ourselves to hold back our judgment until we have reasonable grounds.

But the second definition is even more relevant to our relationships. It describes it as “to believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either.”

This I find interesting because it uses the words believe, a term that does not usually refer to facts. It further introduces the idea that you choose to go either way; to believe and therefore give the benefit of the doubt, or not believe and condemn.

Therefore, to give someone the benefit of the doubt means that we choose to hold back our negative judgment, view him/her positively and believe that unless otherwise proven, he/she deserves our trust. So why is this important for relationships? Let me discuss two that I consider very important.

Don’t judge a book by its cover—this common saying is very apt in this case, suggesting that what you see is not always what you get. Giving the benefit of the doubt allows us to give an opportunity for someone to either explain themselves or prove their true character and worth in spite of an unfavourable first impression or failure.


The circumstances of life influence our actions and reactions in many ways. As such, it is possible that a person will behave in ways that are uncharacteristic of him/her.

Common situations such as illness of self or a loved one, fatigue, stress and finances are among issues that can alter how we act or react to others.

Having said this let me close with a disclaimer — that no one should expect to survive a relationship by living perpetually on the grace of benefit of the doubt.

As some would say, that grace does run out, and I add emphatically, it should run out at some point.

The rule of thumb, according to Margaret Paul, an American author and relationship expert, “is to initially give a person the benefit of the doubt but if the same thing keeps happening a number of times, then trust your inner knowing about the person and disengage from him or her before becoming more involved.”

In other words, giving the benefit of doubt is helpful at the point when there isn’t enough information to make a judgment. Once this information is available, whether that is the few minutes it takes to get an explanation or the few months it will take to get to know someone, one should make a sober decision on how to progress.