One thing that truly thriving couples do that sets them apart is this: they actively give attention to what is going well and what they want in relationship.
Sounds simple. But, the Catch-22 is that most partners who get support with their relationship want to start by shining the spotlight on what isn’t going well and what they don’t want. Many therapists and coaches unwittingly collude, and together they feed a cycle of disconnection.
Read on for a quick and dirty explanation of why it's so hard to resist fault-finding, and a few simple shifts to add juice to your relationship.
The Negativity Bias
Millions of years of evolutionary neurobiology have greased the rails for this feedback loop of relational dissatisfaction. Bummer. Turns out our nervous system is heavily organized around looking for threat. This makes sense, given that it’s more advantageous in terms of survival to quickly spot all the things that could kill us than to bask for too long in a cozy impression of safety.
This phenomenon is backed up by brain imaging studies that shows how our brains prioritize signals from the threat response system (eg. the Amygdala) over other parts of the brain involved in collaboration (the limbic system and neocortex). The term for this popularized by social science is “Negativity Bias”. Basically, if something triggers a fight/flight response in us, it jumps to the head of the line for our attention. For long-term partner relationships, what this boils down to is how it’s often easier to remember all the times our partner criticized or overlooked us than the times they gave us the contact or affection we want.
Research on the Negativity Bias began in the 1990’s, and has become increasingly sophisticated with advances in brain imaging through the 2000’s. It suggests that the ratio of how many positive interactions balance out one negative one is more than 5-to-1 (Cacioppo et al). For partners, this means that it takes five times as many feel-good encounters as “negative” ones just to come out even. Others put the ratio as high as 20-to-1!
We experience the negativity bias as something like a knot of feeling and belief. Because it is so well-established in our neurology, it feels absolutely right, true, justified, etc… Doing something different feels anywhere from mildly uncomfortable to completely crazy.
You know you’ve stepped into the negativity bias when your thoughts sound something like:
“if I say something positive right now, my partner will think I approve of the thing I’m campaigning to change about them.”
“if I say something positive right now, I’ll miss my shot to fix this relationship once-and-for-all.”
“He always criticizes me.” or “She never gets me.”
“it’s cheesy to say nice things about my partner or our relationship.”
Sure, with the negativity bias, the deck is stacked against happy relationship, but it is possible to reverse the odds with a few simple practices. Here's how:
Balancing The Equation
Couples who are thriving together tend to this balance of negative and positive impressions as a matter of course.
There are two obvious ways to balance the equation: repair the bad stuff quickly (before it moves from short-term memory into the long-term archives), and create more of the good stuff.
The good news is that there are ways to fudge the math on the negativity bias - make negative impressions count for less and make positive impressions count for more.
The even better news is that doing so actually creates its own feedback loop, essentially turning the Negativity Bias on its head, and creating a habit of connection and appreciation. The even better-er news is that the effect spreads outward from your relationship, and you might notices that other things in your life start to take on a new glow.
Hack #1 - Make positive experiences really count
Shine your attention on what’s going well and that is what grows.
Making a practice of this as an individual is powerful on its own. Anyone familiar with Abraham Hicks and the Law of Attraction might recognize the idea here. As a couple, the effect is exponential. Because partner relationship is like an echo chamber, whatever you agree to put your attention on is magnified.
Stan Tatkin calls this trick ‘amplifying positive experience’. To boil down the neurology of amplifying positive experience, it is this: sharing conscious attention on experiences that feel good creates an association between your partner and the state of pleasure/safety. This is good news for the obvious reason that it means we you to feel good around your partner. Moreover, it actually sets you up for more success in changing the things you’d like to change with each other, since you’ll both be able to expect a good outcome and keep the parts of your brain involved in collaboration online for the discussion.
It's like taking probiotics for your relationship.
Here are some examples of amplifying positives:
Good: going to see a concert you both like together.
Better: sharing during & after the concert - eg. “What an amazing show! I’m so glad you’re here with me.” “We have a lot of fun together.”
Good: surviving an argument
Better: “we got through that one in better shape than we have before. We’re getting better at this.” “I appreciate the humor you threw in there.”
Good: parenting collaboratively
Better: “Wow, our kids are amazing. I love being a parent with you.”
Hack #2 - Turn any positive experience into a positive relational experience.
These are the freebies. The hack is that you can make use of any positive experience to add vitality to your connection. It doesn’t have to relate directly to you and your partner. Use anything and everything available to put attention on things that feel good, then actively share it.
Had a good day at work? Tell your partner how lucky you are to be bringing the buzz home to them. Like the view? Tell them how amazing it is to share it with someone you love.
Hack #3 - Repair negative impressions quickly.
This is damage control - learning to offer and receive effective apologies, and the nervous system re-regulation that must go with it. Obviously with a 5-to-1 weight, the better you can get at damage control, the better. The age-old wisdom on lovers’ quarrels is “never take it to bed,” and the neuroscience would agree. Sleep is a key time when short-term memory is transferred to long-term memory. So same-day repair is essential. Within-the-hour repair will save you even more effort trying to clean up the story of how things go between you.
What thread of appreciation or gratitude can you speak to in even the most challenging situation?
Also, you can do repair on your own. What stories of negativity do you tell yourself about your relationship? Can you find overlooked instances when you actually did get what you want, and practice telling yourself those stories?
Bonus - Create positive experiences.
It’s not really a ‘hack’, but it’s damn good idea, and it surprisingly falls through the cracks. Many couples after several months or years together report that their connection has lost the "juice" that they once took for granted. Don’t wait around for fun, sex, and intimacy to happen - make a regular practice of it. Creating positive experiences is essential to a thriving relationship.
Try something radical: give all of your attention to what is going well or what you would like. When you find an impulse to focus on problems, focus on the desire that these problems point to. See where it takes you...
A final note:
We are creatures of habit. But we have a choice on what our habits serve. So will your relationship be a fight to survive or a game of making your life awesome?
Photo Credit: Timo Stern