A Sneaky Trust Buster. Are You Able to Spot It?

30 Seconds for Hope:  Heads up everyone! A very common logical fallacy produces misunderstandings and disappointments, creating offenses all around us. Be aware. This faulty type of logic, called false dilemma, sneaks in when we believe we know why someone did what they did without knowing all the factors or possibilities.  It shows up when we say, “Either he cares about me or he doesn’t” (which is an “either/or” supposition, assuming only two, mutually exclusive options). False-dilemma reasoning only considers two alternatives when, in reality, multiple possibilities might be reasons. Have you learned to spot this trust buster? Recognizing false dilemmas will help you build deeper friendships.

Now the full story:

Kids do it:

“She won’t share. She doesn’t like me!”

Women do it:

“My husband forgot our anniversary. He doesn’t care!”

Men do it:

“My girlfriend didn’t call me after work. She’s so self-centered!”

What’s the problem in all these scenarios? They only allow for two possibilities. Either this or that. Either she shows she likes me by sharing, or she doesn’t like me. Either he remembers our anniversary and cares, or he doesn’t care. All or nothing. Black or white. Good or evil.

How do I know about false dilemmas? From life experience. Over the years I discovered that I had made conclusions based on false dilemmas—more often than not. For example, in my youth I had a very good friend, but when she developed another good friendship, I felt she didn’t like me anymore. That faulty conclusion came from false reasoning that went like this: “My friend liked me. She has another friend now. Therefore, she doesn’t like me anymore.” Only two options existed in my mind. Either she only liked me, or she only liked that other friend. A fork in the road. While under the deception of that false dilemma, I was ignorant of the reality that people can and do choose more than one friend. Fortunately, in my head I worked it out over the years and eventually landed on truth… and expanded my world of friendships in the process.

In the world of false dilemmas (sometimes called false dichotomies) only two possibilities are considered when actually multiple factors could be in play. All the above situations didn’t allow for the reality that more than two options exist as possible reasons for a choice or behavior. There can be many different reasons why a husband might forget an anniversary. If you only allow one fork in the road for explaining a behavior (either he cares or he doesn’t), then you come to an unfair conclusion. And you’re offended. Then blame comes into the relationship. And if it happens often enough, trust is busted. Bam.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of false dilemmas. Have you? People have misunderstood me, becoming offended and doubting my good will. You, too? Have you ever said or done something and then wondered why others were upset? Such as, have you ever felt misunderstood when you had to cancel a coffee date because of your workload, but your friend got mad and gave you the silent treatment, believing you didn’t care about your friendship with her? Take a closer look and often you’ll find that people are drawing their conclusions based on all-or-nothing thinking. “People who care keep their appointments. You cancelled. Therefore you don’t care about our friendship.” But there can be many reasons for cancelling an appointment besides not caring. If your family or friends only allow two options, they are committing a logical fallacy. Have compassion on them, but also please recognize what’s happening in their minds. A false dilemma.

It has taken me a lifetime to recognize this type of faulty reasoning, both in others and in myself. I hope you can learn it sooner than I have.

Early in my marriage, while young and insecure, I would sometimes question whether my new husband really cared for me in the depths of his heart. (What an unfair question!) So I would look at his surface behavior and evaluate his heart. No spontaneous gifts? Maybe he didn’t care. No flowers? You get the idea. One day it occurred to me that essentially I was putting his love to the test, which was similar to people’s tendencies to test God (and God has warned about this).

If we believe that a loving God should act a certain way, that’s testing God rather than trusting him. Have you ever wanted something, and prayed for it, but didn’t get it? If you evaluated God using a false dilemma, you concluded “God isn’t good to me.” Yet there could be many good reasons for God not allowing you to get your dream, such as growing your faith, or building your character, or teaching new lessons, or waiting to give you a better situation up ahead. I had to learn to let God love me in his own way, not in my preconceived way.

Likewise, though my husband wasn’t (and still isn’t!) God, I had to learn to let my husband love me in his own way, choosing to trust his love by whatever means he showed it. No flowers? That’s okay. I realized that if a wife demands a particular type of love or a certain expression of care, she might never believe she’s loved because she’ll always wonder whether he merely acted in response to her demands or loved her from his heart.

On a side note, it’s certainly healthy to express your needs and desires to your husband or friends (such as, a few years ago I told my husband that carnations are hands down my favorite flower, even better than red roses). But it’s also healthy to stop short of testing your husband’s (or God’s, or anyone’s) love by evaluating the results of those requests. There can be multiple ways for your husband or friends to show their love. Putting people into test boxes constructed from false dilemmas creates pitfalls.  

How can these pitfalls be avoided? One idea that a friend’s counselor shared is to replace “either/or” thinking with “AND.” For example, if my husband doesn’t buy the flowers that I wanted for our anniversary, I can use self-talk to instruct myself, saying, “I wanted carnations, AND I didn’t get any, AND it hurts a lot, AND it’s okay to grieve, AND it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about me, AND he may not be able to meet that request for some reason, AND at another time he might show his care through a different way.” This type of “AND” approach can help reroute us before we dig false dilemmas pits.

You can shift false dilemmas into opportunities for exploring beyond black and white in friendships. Since people can have multiple feelings at the same time, you can expand apparent forks in the road into opportunities to validate people’s multi-faceted emotions, which can then build trust. Also, when you understand the logical fallacy inherent in a false dilemma, it becomes possible to spot it whenever you are offended and also to address it when others are upset at you. As a result, you’ll have opportunities to seek clarification rather than just act on hasty presumptions, which assume that your judgment is accurate. Opportunity is knocking whenever a false dilemma pops up, so to preserve love and restore hope, let’s learn to spot and counteract false dilemmas.


Featured image via madhana_gopal at pixabay.com


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