Authenticity in Love & Life
A Blog by Elaine Barron, LCSW
Having many positive experience together as a couple can help overcome the many obstacles that can sometimes leave a couple wondering if this relationship is worth the effort
I’ve long valued positivity, but it was in 2007, when doing a small group study on the book, “ Calm My Anxious Heart” by Linda Dillow that I saw the direct impact that a positive perspective has on my emotions and motivation. I read of Linda and her family’s experience living in Hong Kong. Her first description described the gorgeous ocean views, the bargain shopping, delivery of fresh food to her doorstep, the ease of travel to other countries, their beautiful apartment, the perpetual sunshine, the wonderful public transportation, and their successful ministry. By the time I read the description, I remember thinking, “Wow, I think I’d like to visit there someday.” Then she gave the flip side: the claustrophobic feeling she got from living in such a densely populated area, the digging through piles of clothes to find bargains, the heat exhaustion caused by the suffocating heat and humidity, the mildew on the walls, the geckos that crawled around in the house, the high crime rates exemplified by a prowler being their bedroom while they slept, the high cost to rent their apartment. After reading the flip side, I felt my heart sink & and the excitement to visit Hong Kong had quickly dissipated. I also completed an exercise in which I wrote my own positive things that were going on in my own life at the time, followed by another paragraph about all the negative things that were going on in my life. Just looking at the positives gave me a sense of well being, that all was right. In contrast, reading the negatives gave me a sense of hopelessness and discouragement.
The value of positive interactions in married couples cannot be overemphasized.
John Gottman, one of my heroes in marital therapy, found in his longitudinal observation of couples that happy couples’ ratio of positive to negative interactions is 20 to 1, whereas conflicted couples’ ratio is 5 to 1, and 0.8 to 1 in soon –to-divorce couples. Even in conflict resolution, positive affect was found to be crucial.
Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church, in his IMarriage sermon series a few years ago said that in every relationship, there will be a gap between what we expect and what our partner does. The choice of what we put in the gap will contribute to the atmosphere of the marriage. We can choose either to believe the best or assume the worst.
A phenomenon called “Negative Sentiment Override” is prevalent in marriages headed for divorce according to the Gottman Institute. Negative feelings color the messages in such a way that the hearer interprets even neutral or positive interactions negatively. This would be comparable to assuming the worst about one’s partner. A social psychologist, Fritz Heider, in 1950’s came up with a theory that was eventually called “fundamental attribution error”. I mention this complicated sounding term because what it means is that people generally blame their own mistakes on external factors while attributing the errors of others on personality or internal characteristics.
Another contributing factor to “Negative Sentiment Override” is a common cognitive distortion of seeing people and situations as either “all good” or “all bad”. No one can live up to the standard of being “all good” & when the “bad“ shows up, disillusionment is bound to occur. When one sees a person as all bad, there is a tendency to write the person off, as one who is condemned to stay the same. The healthier way is to accept the good and the bad as being inherent in individuals as well as circumstances. This is where the biblical alternative of grace and truth comes in – we can forgive the “bad” in others rather than condemning it as a characterological flaw. At the same time, it is important to still express the truth gently by letting others know how their “bad” behavior affected us. When we see others and ourselves in a process of growth, we perceive offenses as aberrations that are much more tolerable.
Other contributing factors to this overall sense of negativity in the marital relationship according to Gottman are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling, emotional disengagement and withdrawal, turning against bids for emotional connection, and the failure to make repair attempts during disagreements.
Since the path of least resistance within marriage is to gravitate toward negativity, increasing positive interactions will take intentionality.
From what we’ve read thus far, here are some suggestions to positively relating in marriage:
The following suggestions are from the Gottman method of marital therapy:
And lastly the Bible offers these principles for positively relating to one another:
1.“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up….” I Thessalonians 5: 1
2. “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
Proverbs 19: 11
3. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
I Peter 4: 8
4. “With humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4: 2-3
5. “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. “ I Corinthians 13: 4-7
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Elaine Barron is a psychotherapist in Alpharetta, Georgia who is also a Christ follower. She has experienced much in her life that was necessarily the way she would have chosen, but sees those struggles as opportunities for growth and healing, desiring to share with others what she has learned "so far".