Relationship Tips

When Giving Someone the ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ Is Actually a Bad Idea, According to a Psychologist

Photo: Stocksy/Mauro Grigollo
Second… and third and fourth chances are easier to give to a partner or a friend who let you down if you can find reason to believe their slip-up wasn’t actually so bad. Maybe there’s some solid explanation for where they were or who they were with or why they didn’t respond to a situation as you’d hoped. But, according to clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, offering this kind of leniency can be a slippery slope to getting hurt, particularly if the person in question possesses certain toxic tendencies. And, in fact, learning when to stop giving someone the benefit of the doubt can be an important act of self care.

For an extreme example of forgiveness-gone-too-far, consider recent Netflix shows Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler, both of which detail the emotional and financial fallout of an incredibly deft scammer. In each case, one of the people being most seriously deceived—Rachel Williams and Ayleen Charlotte, respectively—felt the desire to make excuses for the scammer, who was, in actuality, a narcissistic predator entangling them in a toxic relationship. When both women recently shared their stories on an episode of Red Table Talk, Dr. Durvasula pointed out the critical move that worsened their plights: not knowing when to stop giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

“I always tell people, ‘catch your justifications,’ and that the four most dangerous words in the English language are ‘benefit of the doubt.’” —Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist

“Scammers, predators, narcissists—they all play on people’s empathy,” said Dr. Durvasula, in the episode. “Your empathy becomes, for them, a sort of weakness that they can exploit, that they can take advantage of. I always tell people, ‘catch your justifications,’ and that the four most dangerous words in the English language are ‘benefit of the doubt.’”

Why offering someone the benefit of the doubt doesn’t always work in your favor

It’s a natural human instinct to give someone the benefit of the doubt. And in a lot of cases, that’s a great thing, given that messing up is also human, and forgiveness is an essential part of managing any relationship. But when you’re dealing with a toxic or emotionally deceptive person, they’re likely to take advantage of that natural tendency to forgive in order to act in hurtful ways while skirting consequences.

That’s particularly the case when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, or someone who has an overly inflated sense of self. “Many times, people can’t believe a person is that self-centered and lacking in empathy,” therapist Lesli Doares, LMFT, previously told Well+Good. “They are given the benefit of the doubt because they can act in ways that seem generous, but it’s only a ploy to keep someone connected to them or to get something specific in return.”

That is, the narcissist tends to embrace a sort of false earnestness, saying something like, “How could you be mad at me? I spent 20 minutes yesterday listening to your problems,” or, “When you asked me for that ride to the airport, I gave it to you, so you can’t be upset with me,” says Dr. Durvasula. “They view their faux-empathic intervention as a 'get out of jail free' card, and will ultimately use it against you.”

How to know when to stop giving a partner or friend the benefit of the doubt

In cases like the above, where one-off kind gestures are being used as free passes for poor behavior, it’s important to stand your ground; these excuses should not be considered reasons to continually give someone the benefit of the doubt when they wrong you.

Similarly, if you find yourself repeatedly creating your own thin justifications for a partner or friend’s behavior, that’s a surefire sign that it’s time to stop offering them leniency. Generally, these justifications can spring from wishful thinking, empty desires to just keep a relationship going, or feeling as though you’d be a “bad person not to offer the benefit of the doubt because society tells us to do so,” says Dr. Durvasula. A few examples? Statements like, “They don’t mean what they say,” or “They’re just under a lot of stress,” or “All relationships are hard.” The more times you make these excuses for someone else, the more they can seem to reinforce themselves as true and keep you stuck in an unhealthy relationship, as a result.

To catch yourself before you fall into that justification trap, consider this framework from Dr. Durvasula: “If the mistake happens once, it may be a simple error, and you can offer the benefit of the doubt. If it happens again, it may be a coincidence, and you can give the benefit of the doubt once more. But, if it happens a third time, it’s a pattern, and if you’re still giving the benefit of the doubt, you’re inadvertently signing off on the bad behavior.”

Of course, that progression is easier to identify objectively than from within a relationship. Just remember that a toxic person may be adept at using faux empathy and sincerity as “proof” that they’re actually a caring person and worthy of your forgiveness in return—but, no matter what, if you offer them the benefit of the doubt a couple times and don’t see any meaningful change in their behavior, says Dr. Durvasula, that’s your signal not to offer it again.

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