The Consequences of Negativity Are Prevalent in Failing Relationships

Traditional wedding vows are beautifully symmetrical: ‘for better or for worse’. But there is no such thing as symmetry in love. The worse carries more weight than the better in a marriage or any other relationship. This is how the brain works.

Of the people who marry, only 3 out of 10 marriages remain healthy and happy, as psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After. Most marriages fail, either ending in divorce or separation, or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. 

Happy relationships are defined not by improvement but by avoiding decline

When psychologists studied marital happiness, they found, based on couples’ satisfaction ratings, that marriages usually don't get better. Satisfaction levels typically tend to decline over time. The thrill of passion fades and the euphoria that initially bonded a couple is not enough to sustain them for decades, although some couples find other sources of contentment. Sometimes, though, the decline in satisfaction is so steep that the relationship ends. 

By tracking the interactions of couples for more than a decade, researchers developed a surprising theory about how relationships deteriorate. Were all unhappy couples unhappy in their own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did all unhappy marriages have a toxic element in common? What they found was that the hallmark of happy couples was not their particular ability to perfect their relationship, but rather their ability to prevent it from deteriorating. 

The ‘negativity bias’ in relationships

What makes negativity so powerful is the natural, unconscious human tendency to have a ‘negativity bias.’ Our reactions – both behavioral and biological – are stronger to negative exchanges than positive ones.  Researcher Randy Larsen finds that negative experiences and events leave their mark on our minds faster and stick around longer than positive events. This stickiness is known as positive-negative asymmetry or negativity bias. In other words, we tend to remember insults or negative information more easily than praise or details of a happy event. For example, to ruin a wonderful day with a friend, it only takes one little nasty comment; you'll then remember the day as negative when in fact it was positive.

In relationships, this idiosyncratic programming of the human mind can distort and amplify our perception of our partner's imperfections, whether real or imagined, potentially overshadowing all the positives and good times shared.

Common conflict patterns in couples where negativity is a problem 

The most common pattern of conflict is called "female-request, male-withdrawal," a destructive cycle in which the woman initiates a complaint or criticism, and the man responds by withdrawing or stonewalling. Curiously, negativity is less of a problem in same-sex couples. Both male and female couples appear to be more positive during conflict. If it is two men, they are less likely to initiate a complaint; if it is two women, they are less likely to withdraw after being criticized.

When dealing with conflict, insecure people are more likely to act negatively, such as criticizing, being defensive or hostile. The fear of rejection adds to the distress, as in their minds, the argument is not limited to a specific issue but signals deeper problems that threaten the relationship. Once thoughts that your marriage is a disappointment or a mistake become a focus in your marriage, they’re like a stain on your favorite shirt, and just equally difficult to remove.

Most people don't realize the effects of negativity in their relationship. Being able to keep your mouth shut instead of saying mean or unkind things will do much more for your relationship than five good words or deeds.

Lessons on love from 100 couples in loving, lasting relationships

Melissa Joy Kong, on the hunt for tips on how to protect a relationship from negativity, surveyed 100 American couples across the country. Here's my take on the three biggest learnings:

1)    The importance of self-love

We can only feel and give as much love as we can generate within ourselves.

When you believe in your self-worth and likability, you naturally take care of yourself. Taking care of your physical and mental well-being is non-negotiable for a healthy and successful relationship. When you are emotionally healthy, you are less likely to constantly seek your partner’s attention and love. This helps build a strong relationship, since you don't expect the other person to fulfill a checklist of needs. A healthy emotional balance allows you to give your best to the relationship. Note also that self-love also goes hand in hand with being aware and taking ownership of the gap between the person you are and the person you want to be.

2)    A spirit of we-ness

It’s important to develop a sense of we-ness in the relationship. Couples who choose to focus on the beliefs, values, goals, and dreams they share in common develop a sense of we-ness. When they tell their story, it’s most often about what’s important to both of them.

3)    Eliminate negative thoughts 

Happy couples expel negative thoughts as quickly as they enter their minds and do not allow them to take root.

I will close with a quote from Peter Ustinov “Love is an act of endless forgiveness; a tender look which becomes a habit.”



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