Positive or Negative Intent

Four years ago I was introduced to the concept of Assigning Positive Intent.  It was something I’d never heard of.  It was something I was pretty much already doing though.  Bubba, on the other hand, was a firm believer in Assigning Negative Intent.

Assigning Positive Intent or Negative Intent is a way of looking at the actions of others.  It is your attitude about the people around you.  Here are two examples:

* You go to the grocery store and as you are checking out, the cashier is extremely rude to you.  If you assign Positive Intent you think to yourself, “Goodness, she must be having a really bad day.  Maybe a recent customer was mean to her or she got yelled at by her boss and it put her in a bad mood.”  You can then choose to act graciously toward her because you choose to believe that she really is a good person, deserving of kindness and respect, even though she is having a bad day and is acting rudely.  You don’t take her words and actions personally.

If you assign Negative Intent in this scenario, you think, “What a bitch!  She is the rudest person I’ve ever met.”  Then you proceed to be rude right back to her and maybe even throw out a nasty, rude comment of your own.  You take her actions very personally and go on believing that she is just a bad person.

* Your three-year-old squeezes a tube of toothpaste out all over the bathroom floor.  Negative Intent has you thinking, “He knows he isn’t allowed to touch the toothpaste without an adult there to help!  He’s being wasteful and difficult.  He never obeys!  He’s always doing things that he KNOWS he shouldn’t be doing and now I have this huge mess to clean up because he just can’t obey!”   You take his actions very personally and get angry about cleaning up the mess.

Positive Intent has you thinking, “He wanted to brush his teeth like a big boy.  Then when he saw the toothpaste coming out of the tube he became fascinated by how it oozed out of the tube and wanted to find out what the toothpaste would do if he kept squeezing.  When he saw it pooling on the floor he was enthralled with the swirls it made.  He’s just a baby and learning about the world around him.”  You don’t take his actions personally and realize that he just wanted to learn more about something that he hasn’t explored before.

In both of these scenarios, whether you choose to assign Positive or Negative Intent will set the tone for the relationship.  If you’ve assigned Negative Intent, the tone of the relationship will be negative.  If you’ve assigned Positive Intent, the tone will be positive.

* You go to the grocery store the following week.  The only check-out lane open has the rude cashier.  Negative Intent has you reluctantly getting in her line and thinking “Oh goody.  It’s *her* again.  I wonder if she’s going to be as bitchy today as she was last week.”  She sees you and thinks, “Oh, great!  It’s *her* again.  I wonder if she’s going to yell at me again this week.”  Then you both proceed to snarl at each other while you check out and you both leave the encounter feeling grumpy and mad.

Positive Intent has you thinking, “Oh, I hope her day got better after I left last week.  I can’t wait to say hello and see how her day is going today.”  She sees you and thinks, “Oh,there is that nice woman who was so kind to me last week.  I’m going to smile extra for her to let her know that she made a difference in my day and that I appreciated her gentleness with me.”  When it is your turn, you both smile at each other, exchange small talk, and you both leave the encounter feeling light and happy.

* The relationship with your child is hurt by assigning negative intent to a three-year-old.  At that age, they are very impulsive and do not have the ability to think ahead to consequences.  They are not out to make you mad and they aren’t out to be “bad.”  To a child who has never had control of a tube of toothpaste and finally gets a hold of it, it is a chance to see how this thing works! He isn’t thinking, “I know I’m not allowed to touch this but I’m going to make a mess with it anyway.”  He is thinking, “This looks so neat when Mom squeezes it and I want to see what it feels like to squeeze it too!!!!”  Then, since he lacks impulse control, he keeps squeezing because it is fun and watching what the toothpaste does is amazing to him.

When you assign negative intent to this child, you will probably yell at him for being “bad” when he was just curious.  You will clean up the mess yourself and show your child that someone will clean up his messes for him.   He will learn that it isn’t safe to explore things but he won’t be able to stop himself for exploring.  He will eventually learn to be sneaky about exploring because he will learn that he needs to hide so that you don’t get mad at him.  It sets up an adversarial relationship.

When you assign positive intent to this child, you will say, “You wanted to learn about the toothpaste.  It made a big mess, didn’t it?  It looks really pretty on the floor like that but we need to clean it up now.  How about I help you put the toothpaste on your toothbrush from now on because I know you want to squeeze it and it is wasteful to squeeze it all out like this.  I will help you practice squeezing it.”

Then you work together to clean up the mess – you teach your child that he is responsible for his messes and that he needs to clean up.  You understand he can’t do that by himself yet, so you help.  You’ve taught your child that you can be trusted to help him learn about his environment.  It sets up a loving, trusting relationship.

Bubba’s view was that people were basically bad and he assigned negative intent to everyone, especially me.  A few months before The Incident I even asked him what I’d done to make him hate me so much to to think of me as his enemy.  He denied it but his actions were speaking louder than ever.  He believed the worst of me all the time.  He assigned negative intent to everyone and never saw the good in anyone.

My view is that people are basically good and I believe that people do things, even misguided things, for good reasons.  I spent years believing that Bubba meant well, that he couldn’t possibly mean to be that nasty to me.  I believed, each time that he would apologize, that *that* was the true Bubba.

I’ve learned my lesson.  I feel very sad that I can no longer assign any kind of positive intent to Bubba.  With each email he sends, I clearly see the manipulation in it and I try to see what he thinks he can benefit from it.  Most of his emails since the divorce have been outright abusive.  I didn’t need to look for a motivation because it was clear.  The past few emails have been very polite and caring – at least on the surface.

I believe that Bubba is gearing up to take me back to court.  He has been looking for a job since he got fired in June.  He recently had an interview for a job that could potentially take him out of the country for 6 months at a time.  If that is the case, I believe he will be taking me back to court – to either adjust child support or to renegotiate visitation.  He is playing “nice” now.

Sadly, I can see beneath the surface to the veiled manipulation.  Where he is trying to express concern for Shane, he never addresses the actual issue – only his belief that us getting together in the same room to talk with Shane will somehow benefit Shane.  I see it as Bubba’s way of getting close to me.  I believe that he misses me (or just his control over me) and wants to reestablish some kind of connection with me.  Even after all this time, I will still only be in email contact with him and only ever about the children.  Bubba is trying what he can to get me in the same room with him.  I can only assign negative intent to him because that is what he’s proved over and over – he does things with bad motivations.

I’m glad that I still naturally assign positive intent to almost everyone in my life – I haven’t become cynical or bitter through this.  I’m sad that I’ll probably never be able to assign positive intent to Bubba or my Family of Origin (FOO) ever again.   I’m also sad to see that Bubba is still assigning negative intent to me.  He has proven over and over that he will not change.  He has shown that only negative intent can be applied to him.

I choose to live with Assigning Positive Intent.  It makes my world a happier place.


  1. Glad you choose the more positive intent way. I agree, it does make the world such a nicer place. I try myself, it is hard when surrounded by such negativity all the time.

    • Assigning positive intent has always been my default, even if I didn’t know there was a term for what I was doing. I used to be so boggled by how Bubba could look at people and think the worst of them all the time – even when they were doing kind things for him. He always say a self-serving motivation behind their actions. I now understand that people project how they really are onto other people. Bubba is self-serving, selfish, and just an unpleasant person so he sees those traits in everyone around him. It is so nice to live freely and never question people who offer their help to me. I can take them at face value – that they really want to help – and not have to defend their actions to Bubba.

      He can live with his negativity. It’s no longer welcome in my life.

  2. This is such important and difficult territory.

    I think there might be some middle ground — or some difference between the intent we assume and the actions we take as a result. Could it be possible, for example, to believe that Bubba must have garbage in his past and present that keep him acting so consistently in negative and manipulative ways, in other words, that he is not any more evil than anyone else, AND still recognize that his patterns show no evidence of change and that it’s important and reasonable and wise to keep boundaries set up for your protection and minimal interaction?

    I don’t at all intend to excuse or make light of what he has done and continues to do, and hope my words don’t give that impression.

    • I actually have considered that before. He does have a ton of garbage in his past as his parents were sadistically abusive to him. When we first separated he was acknowledging his parents behavior and took steps to cut them out of this life. However, he made no moves toward health and healing – even as he assured me has was. He has proved over and over that he CHOOSES to stay in his dysfunction and CHOOSES to remain an abuser. In my book, that makes him more evil than just your average Joe. He was admitting to everything until he realized it wasn’t getting me to fall back in line. He has escalated and continued to show me over and over that he chooses to continue to act in the same abusive manner that he’s always chosen to act in. He’s also still in close contact with his parents. Therefore, at least with Bubba, there is no middle ground. I can only assign negative intent to his every action because that is what he’s shown me over many, many years.

      I will continue to keep my firm boundaries in place because I still need to protect myself from him. Sadly, I don’t see that changing….ever.

      • That makes sense. I’m not sure why some people make that choice — maybe it is the best they can do in that moment, maybe that choice serves their top priorities in some way, maybe something else. In a practical sense, it doesn’t really matter — whatever lies behind / under his choice, you do still clearly need those boundaries, and you do still obviously benefit from seeing clearly that his pattern is not changing and that he is not a safe person.

      • No, he isn’t safe. No, his pattern isn’t changing. We’re actually in the honeymoon phase again. His emails seem pleasant and caring. It is only a matter of time before the nasty emails start again. I’m just glad I can clearly see it now and that I’m not sucked into it anymore.

  3. BlueBiscuit

    I am generally a positive intent person whereas my ex was very much a negative intent person. I told my ex one time that he could ask me to do 100 things and I could do 99 of them but if I didn’t that ONE thing he’d complain. He said to me why shouldn’t he get angry at me for it, I would be “screwing him over”.

    • That’s the absolute difference. We would see the 99 things that were done and be thrilled with that so much that we probably wouldn’t even notice the one that wasn’t.

      And their attitude about being screwed over? The world is out to get them and Bubba always lumped me in with how he viewed the world. He never saw me as the woman who loved him and had his back. He just saw me as yet another person who was out to get him. It makes me sad for him. He’ll never know love or happiness.

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