I was recently asked the following question at a marriage enrichment workshop by someone seeking marriage help:
“What should couples be on the look-out for in order to keep their marriage/relationship healthy?”
This is a great question and there is no simple answer since it depends on numerous factors, including each spouse’s/partner’s unique personality, issues of compatibility, how comfortable both you and your spouse/partner are with sharing emotions, as well as others issues.
But let’s turn our attention to one relationship issue that can undo even the best marriage/relationship.
Relationship problems: The avalanche effect of negative emotions
Dr. Susan Johnson (developer of Emotional Focused Therapy for Couples), as well as other relationship experts, detail how negative emotional reactions (such as anger, resentments, defensiveness) can spiral out of control and become ingrained patterns that influence the way in which couples interact with one another.
Often these negative emotions (and the interactions that follow) take on a life of their own, controlling and steering the relationship into the territory of disconnection and estrangement. As misunderstandings and emotional distance become a regular feature of the marriage/relationship, couples become less and less willing to open themselves up emotionally to each other (guided by an attitude of “Why risk further hurt?”).
Relationship truism: Like breeds like—negativity feeds further negativity; positivity invites positivity.
Negative filters and Blurred Vision
The lasting influence of anger or emotional hurt can continue to negatively color your perception even when your spouse/partner is acting (or trying to act) supportive or lovingly. It’s as if a residue of hurt and defensiveness remains that steers your attention toward the things that confirm previous problems. A negative bias develops that filters out what might be working in your marriage/relationship—think of it this way: what you seek is what you find, so when you expect and anticipate the negative, the positive gets overlooked/minimized.
These negative mental filters reinforce cycles of hurt-defensive interactions that start to consume the marriage/relationship.
Relationship Help: Shifting your mindset toward what’s working
The first step in shifting away from cycles of negativity is acknowledging these patterns in your marriage/relationship. We are all vulnerable to getting swept up in these currents, and discussing this with one another (in a non-blaming way) is an important step in gaining control of your relationship.
Note how the two statements said by actual couples differ:
“You’re so defensive! I can’t say anything to you!” versus “I think we’re falling back into that cycle of hurt-blame…it’s starting to take over again.”
The second statement identifies the “cycle” or pattern of negative interactions as the culprit that needs to be watched for—this allows for open dialogue and a mutual mindfulness about what needs to be changed in the relationship. The first statement is accusatory (even if it’s true) and will only feed the negativity cycle.
As you and your spouse/partner begin to distance yourselves from these negative cycles, you can start to intentionally look for and acknowledge the efforts you’re each making to improve the relationship—look for moments (however brief) that are working, moments that invite emotional intimacy. This must be a conscious decision so that you can fight the negative mental biases that may have developed. Making this a regular part of your marriage/relationship will begin to breed further positivity.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro