People in good relationships have developed the habit of looking out for their partner’s kindnesses and considerate actions. They succeed at preventing oversights and bad moods from interfering with their affections. When this “positive perspective” is not present or insufficient, couples are more likely to have trouble managing conflict, maintaining a sense of the relationship being in their own best interests, or gaining shared meaning from their involvement.
A state of “positive sentiment override” creates an atmosphere that allows couples to handle difficulties and stress while continuing to feel they are on the same side. Couples who offer consistent support to each other experience a connection that sees them through even when they are rushed, cranky, or feeling harried.
Negative interactions predictably breed more negativity. This positive state of sentiment override develops when couples have a strong enough friendship to overlook or shrug off moments of irritability or distraction.
For example, when one partner is facing a tough meeting at work, the other person texts afterward to ask how it went. Later at dinner, when it turns out the partner who sent the text forgot to pick up a key ingredient for the meal, the couple solves the problem together and comes up with a different menu.
However, when one person goes off to work after mentioning it will be a difficult day, and he or she never hears from the partner nor is asked about his or her day upon getting home, it becomes more difficult to be understanding when the partner said he or she would stop at the store and yet neglected to buy something important. Then the person who had the hard day at work is more likely to think, “My partner is basically a selfish person.” That thought creates emotions that lead to criticism and bickering instead of mutual support. Each person ends up feeling alone and unhappy.
Of course, this is just one mundane example. Relationship patterns are made up of many interactions repeated over time. Any couple can fall into the kind of difficult exchange described here, but couples who function well can bounce back with statements such as, “I’m sorry, I screwed up. I forgot to ask about that meeting. My day ran away with me, too! Can we catch up now? I’ll pull a snack together for us.”
The danger of negative sentiment override is that the couple gets into a habit of failing to make these kinds of repairs to the relationship. Instead, each person retreats to a separate corner, each feeling self-protective and neglected. It becomes an uphill climb to re-establish positive sentiments when the negative experiences are repetitive. Members of a couple that loses positive perspective no longer naturally assume the best of their partner’s intentions; instead, they ask fewer questions, talk less with each other, and attribute negative motivation to their partner.
Our minds are built to seek evidence for the way the world looks to us, and we operate with many mental filters all the time; otherwise, we would be completely over-stimulated and would never get anything done. When one or both partners begin viewing the relationship through a negative lens, it is always easy to find evidence that our parent is a flawed and imperfect human being. We are more likely to notice the coffee grounds spilled on the counter, lights left on, and to resent the inevitable accommodations we have to make in order to live with another person. Says Dr. John Gottman: “I was not able to crack the code to saving marriages until I started to analyze what went right in happy marriages.”
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