There’s an elegant symmetry to traditional wedding vows: for better or for worse. But love is not symmetrical, and most of us don’t realize how lopsided it can be. The worse matters far more than the better in marriage or any other relationship. That’s how the brain works.
Our thoughts and feelings are skewed by what researchers call the negativity effect, which is our tendency to respond more strongly to negative events and emotions than to positive ones. I don’t take well to compliments. I don’t know what to do with my hands, or where to look or what to say. I get tongue tied, waiting, wishing it would all end. I know a hell lot of what to do with criticism.
When I hear a mix of compliments and criticism, I obsess over the criticism instead of enjoying the praise. This imbalance, also known as the negativity bias, evolved in the brain because it kept our ancestors alert to deadly threats. But too often it warps our perspective and behavior. A small conflict can have ruinous consequences when the power of bad overwhelms your judgment. It provokes you to actions that further alienate whoever is listening. I would fare better by using my rational brain to override irrational impulses, but what is the fun in that?
In relationships, the negativity effect magnifies your partner’s faults, real or imagined. It starts with their ingratitude, because you’re also biased by an 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. You contemplate one of life’s most exasperating mysteries: Why don’t they appreciate me?
I have been battling this sense of appreciation, or lack thereof in the last few weeks. I found myself lashing out, mixing things I meant in a lot that I didn’t. So, I decided to seek help from published and professional sources. Someone to help me escape from the world of Negative Nancies.
I got some answers, thanks to a friend psychologist who has been tracking happiness. He tried to explain to me that happiness is unquantifiable, but used a lot of jargon that I could hardly keep up. Later, I tried to figure out his documents [Yes, I had homework] on my own. He has found, based on the couples’ ratings of their own satisfaction, that marriages usually don’t get better. The ratings typically go downhill over time. The successful marriages are defined not by improvement, but by avoiding decline. I know what you think. Marriage = Misery. Not necessarily. The thrill of infatuation fades, so the euphoria that initially bonded a couple cannot sustain them over the decades, but most couples find other sources of contentment and remain satisfied overall (just not as satisfied as at the beginning). Sometimes, though, the decline in satisfaction is so steep that it dooms a marriage. They [He has colleagues] monitored how couples interact and tracked them over time.
Imagine you are dating someone who does something that annoys you. (This may not require a great deal of imagination.) Perhaps your partner is a spendthrift, or flirts with your friends, or zones out in the middle of your stories. How do you respond?
- Let it slide and hope things improve.
- Explain what bothers you and work out a compromise.
- Sulk. Say nothing, but emotionally withdraw from your partner.
- Head for the exit. Threaten to break up, or start looking for another partner.
Those answers form a matrix used in a classic study of how dating couples deal with problems.
My go-to has been option 3 until I get over it. It usually takes me between 2 and 8 days to let something go, and the guy said that this is a destructive option.
Psychologists at the University of Kentucky identified two general strategies, constructive or destructive, each of which could be either passive or active. The constructive strategies sounded sensible and admirable, but they didn’t matter much. Remaining passively loyal had no discernible impact on the course of the relationship; actively trying to work out a solution improved things only a little.
What mattered was the bad stuff, as the psychologists concluded: “It is not so much the good, constructive things that partners do or do not do for one another that determines whether a relationship ‘works’ as it is the destructive things that they do or do not do in reaction to the problems.” When you quietly hang in there for your partner, your loyalty often isn’t even noticed. But when you silently withdraw from your partner or issue angry threats, you can start a disastrous spiral of retaliation.
Sooner or later one person is liable to be negative for so long that the other one starts to respond negatively too. When that happens, it’s hard to save the relationship. Negativity is a tough disease to shake—and it’s highly contagious. Other researchers have found that when partners are separately asked to ponder aspects of their relationship, they spend much more time contemplating the bad than the good. To get through the bad stuff, you need to stop the negative spiral before it begins.
But suppose you’ve managed to survive your courtship without any problems. (This may take more imagination.) You’ve just graduated from dating to blissful matrimony. Your soul soars, your heart sings, and your brain is awash in oxytocin, dopamine, and other neurochemicals associated with love. Good for you. Fall as hard as possible. Make it like one of those dreams where you are falling into a never ending pit of darkness. But remember to deal with the negatives as they come.
Negativity hits young people especially hard, which is one reason that people who marry earlier in life are more likely to divorce than ones who delay marriage. (Another reason is that younger people tend to have less money, which means more stress.)
Most people don’t recognize the negativity effect in their relationships. When most studies ask participants why they think they would be a good partner, they list positive things: being friendly, understanding, good in bed, loyal, smart, funny. These things do make a difference, but what’s crucial is avoiding the negative. Being able to hold your tongue rather than say something nasty