I’ve been a marriage and family therapist for 54 years and I have a confession to make. I have been divorced twice, which used to cause me considerable shame. I wondered how could I be taken seriously in wanting to help save other people’s marriages if I couldn’t take care of my own? I decided to confront the issue head on, get some good counseling myself, and commit myself to finding the answers of why so many relationships go under and how to save the ones that could be saved.
I feel I’ve succeeded and want to share what we’ve learned with you. The we is me and my wife, Carlin. We’ve been married now for 42 years. One of the most important things we discovered was the way the brain’s negativity bias distorts our perceptions of reality and contributes to the downward spiral that is the death knell of too many relationships that could be saved and revitalized rather than watching them go down in flames.
In their acclaimed book, The Power of Bad: How The Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, social scientists Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, ask,
“Why are we devastated by a word of criticism even when its mixed with lavish praise?”
I’ve seen how negativity impacts me, my wife, my clients, and friends. Their research offers new understandings that can improve our lives and save our marriages.
“Our brains are wired to focus on the bad,”
say Baumeister and Tierney.
“This negativity effect explains things great and small: why countries blunder into disastrous wars, why people flub job interviews, how schools fail students, why football coaches stupidly punt on fourth down, and why couples divorce.”
I’ve seen too many marriages spiral downward and go under because of the negativity bias or limp along with increasing emotional distance and decreasing intimacy.
“One bad sexual experience can haunt a person for life, but the most blissful tryst will become a hazy memory,”
say Baumeister and Tierney.
“One infidelity can destroy a marriage, but no act of devotion can permanently bond a couple.”
Marriage counselors have been taught to teach couples how to focus on the positive, to learn to communicate better, give each other complements, keep the romance alive. These are all good things, but new research shows that the best thing we can do keep our relationships alive and well is understand the negativity bias, recognize how it undermines our relationships, and develop the skills to control how our brains focus on the negative.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. When you have a negative, fear based, shameful experience or an insecure thought, your mind wraps around it like Velcro. When you have a positive experience, for example – when you plan a romantic dinner with your wife and you are sure she will love you forever, it slides off like butter on a Teflon skillet. Our brains are hardwired to remember negative experiences and quickly forget positive ones.
“The worse matters far more than the better in marriage or any other relationship,”
say Drs. Baumeister and Tierney.
“A slight conflict can have ruinous consequences when the power of bad overwhelms judgment, provoking you to actions that further alienate your partner. The negativity effect magnifies their faults, real or imagined, starting with their ingratitude, because you’re also biased by that internal overconfidence that magnifies your own strengths. So you wonder how your partner can be so selfish and so blind to your virtues—to all that you’ve done for them.”
I remember an instance where my wife reprimanded me for not locking the side door before I went to bed. It seemed like a minor infraction to me. We live in a safe neighborhood and I remembered to lock the door ninety-nine times out of on hundred. I made some offhand remark that didn’t take her concern seriously. She got more upset and things escalated into a huge fight that lasted days.
It took us weeks to figure out that my failure to lock the door had triggered deep fears that someone might break in and harm her. My failure to take her concern seriously, my view that she failed to appreciate all the many ways I had been a good provider and protector, and her view that I had failed her nearly did us in. It’s the kind of misunderstandings that had caused my two previous marriages to go under.
Why are we so reactive to the negative I wondered? The answer is that being focused on the negative kept us alive through most of our evolutionary history. Reflecting on our evolutionary past Baumeister and Tierney remind us that:
“To survive, life has to win every day. Death has to win just once. A small error or miscalculation can wipe out all the successes. The negativity bias is adaptive.”
For most of human history we lived in a world of danger and the greatest danger was from men from another tribe or band who might slip into our camp, steal our horses, women, or children. Women were particularly sensitive to those kinds of fears and the whole tribe needed to be extra alert for any potential dangers that might threaten their survival.
“On our ancestral savanna, the hunter-gatherers who survived were the ones who paid more attention to shunning poisonous berries than to savoring the delicious ones,”
say Baumeister and Tierney.
“Recognizing a friend’s kindness usually wasn’t a matter of life or death, but ignoring an enemy’s animosity could be fatal.”
We are all the descendants of the survivors and we all carry the hair-trigger, unusually subconscious, negativity bias. We live in safer, less dangerous, times. Our wives and children are not likely to be carried off by a man from another tribe or a hungry lion. But our brains are still attuned to potential danger. Our motto is still, better safe, than sorry.
So, how do we take care of ourselves and our families without letting the negativity bias cause us to react with fear and anger? Here are some suggestions from what I’ve learned over the years from my personal experiences, from fifty-plus years as a counselor, and from studies from social scientists like Drs. Baumeister and Tierney:
- What is considered “bad” is in the eye of the beholder.
“An offense that seems trifling to the rest of the world can destroy a relationship if it looms large for one person,”
say Baumeister and Tierney.
“You have to deal with your partner’s reaction even when it makes no sense to you.”
- Recognize that negativity is invisible abuse.
Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt have been helping relationships survive and thrive for more than forty years. Yet, early on in their relationship their negativity almost destroyed their marriage. As they recount in their book, Making Marriage Simple,
“During the time when our marriage teetered between renewal and divorce, we were visiting a bookstore. On a whim, we picked up an astrology book on relationships. Turning to the page that explained how our two birth dates intersected, we read, ‘You will destroy your relationship unless you end your negative scrutiny of each other.’”
They heeded the warning and changed their ways.
“Our definition of negativity is any words, tone of voice, facial expression (such as rolling your eyes), or behavior your partner says feels negative to them.”
When I read this I knew exactly what they meant. My wife and I do it all the time, but it took as a long time to recognize what we were doing.
“Yes,” say Harville and Helen,
“your partner decides if you’re being negative or not. You might say you’re only joking. But if it doesn’t feel good to your partner, you need to CUT IT OUT.”
- Think before you blame.
Imagine a couple has planned a romantic dinner at a special restaurant and one of them shows up late (it would usually be my wife…just saying). The tardy one will blame it on a specific situation, like a crisis at work or the need to help someone with a last-minute problem. But if you’re waiting alone in the restaurant, you’re likely to read more into it. That’s just like her, you might tell yourself. She’s always putting other people’s above mine. She’s so unreliable and selfish. I’m not sure she really loves me anymore. I bet I’d get the affection I need from the cute waitress that keeps asking if there’s anything she can get me.
Thinking it through has saved me more than once from going down the road that ultimately leads to some version of the nursery rhyme we sang as kids. “Nobody loves me. Everybody hates. Guess I better eat some wormmms…” Or as adults, from letting the negativity effect build a wall that cuts us off from the love we crave.
- Put bad moments to good use.
We can eliminate a lot of negativities just by noticing them and committing to understand and reduce them. But our evolutionary brain-wiring will keep the negative bias with us, so we need to make the best of it.
“When something goes wrong in a relationship,” say Baumeister and Tierney, “don’t despair that you’re not meant for each other. Look for the lesson. Take criticism not as a malicious attack but as useful feedback.”
- Recognize that men and women often react differently when they feel threatened.
According to Baumeister and Tierney,
“Studies in dozens of countries around the world have shown that the biggest personality differences between men and women involve negative emotions. Women experience anger, anxiety, and depression more frequently than men do. They’re also better than men at detecting others’ negative feelings.”
I’ve also found that men and women often deal with their negative emotions in different ways. Men more often “act out” their feelings and become more irritable and angry. Women tend to “act in” their feelings and ruminate over and over about the injustices they experience. Men are more likely to blow up or withdraw in silence when threatened. Women tend to criticize more quietly with looks or tone of voice that subtly shame or disparage men.
Most of us tend to assume that our partner is the one who is most to blame and we are blameless or misunderstood. We are sure we are right and they are wrong. But we would all do well to realize that it is the unrecognized negativity effect that is causing the problem and not blame our partner. It is not easy to change old patterns, but helping each other to control the negativity effect can save our marriages and improve our relationships.
- Practice compassion for ourselves, each other, and all the other humans in the world.
Thupten Jinpa is a former monk and has been the principal translator to the Dalai Lama for more than thirty years. He also holds a PhD degree from the University of Cambridge. In this book A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, he says, “Compassion offers the possibility of responding to suffering with understanding, patience, and kindness rather than, say, fear and repulsion.”
Being human isn’t easy. Being in a human relationship and dealing with our biologically driven negativity effect, isn’t easy. We have great opportunities to live and learn.
I look forward to your comments. If you’d like to be part of our healing community and receive support for living fully and loving deeply, I invite you to join us here.