Have you ever had one of those days where it’s clear that your relationship is more aggravating than soothing? Every relationship has its share of frustrating days. An occasional bad day is expected and normal in any relationships. Only when the negatives begin to outweigh the positives is there more reason for concern.
Dr. John Gottman, a relationship specialist, identified through his research a concept he calls positive sentiment override. This refers to the lens through which we view and experience our relationship and partner on a regular basis. The main idea is whether our relationship and view of our partner is generally positive with moments of negativity, or vice versa. Gottman’s research suggests that it is important to view our partner’s negative moments as the exception to a bank of positivity (built up over time in the relationship). If there is a view that our partner’s positive moments are only the exceptions to consistent negativity (whether in attitude or relationship environment), then there is a greater likelihood of eventual breakup or divorce.
Simply stated, the culprit of relationship demise is not always the content of the arguments or the frustrations, rather, it’s our perceptionof these events and our overall relationship environment that are important. However, for many of us, creating this concept of positive sentiment override in our relationships is much more easily said than done. Let’s look at some ways to create a healthy relationship environment with our partner that’s based on a bank of positivity:
1. 3 Positives to every 1 Negative. When your partner acts in a way that triggers negative emotion for you, come up with at least 3 positive things he/she does that either make you feel good, or that support the positive nature of your relationship.
2. Weekly Togetherness Activity. Try doing something together on a weekly basis. It could be a date, but it could also be a productive activity, such as planning an event, building a model, baking cookies, doing a puzzle, making a photo album, writing a story, etc. Make it active, rather than passive (watching tv together is passive interaction).
3. Turn Frustration into an Opportunity. Is your partner having a bad day and acting coldly (or otherwise) towards you? Rather than joining in the negativity, try to understand what’s bothering your partner. See how you can be supportive to him/her. Keep in mind, once arguments start, listening stops on both sides. So having a productive conversation that can foster repair contributes to a healthy relationship environment.
4. Be Mindful of the Bad Day. Rough days will happen. Your partner will get angry and vice versa. If your partner is aggravating you, try thinking, “this must be a bad day”, rather than, “oh, there he/she goes again.” The former quote creates the exception moment; the latter quote creates a sense of negative constancy. Remember to still be supportive to your partner during these days — don’t be dismissive of your partner’s experience of the bad day simply because it’s recognized as the exception.
5. Build Relationship Rituals. Healthy relationships often include joint rituals that increase positive affect and unity. These rituals often reflect a combination of each other’s relationship values. For example: dinners together, going to bed at the same time, weekly time with friends as a couple, enjoying a favorite tv show together, cooking together, etc.
6. Check in with Yourself. It can be easy to project our own emotions onto our partners. If you notice yourself frequently viewing your partner or relationship as a source of frustration or obstacle in your life, check in with yourself to see if something is happening on your side that could be contributing to these emotions. Individual therapy can be useful for this. While the relationship can have tough moments and the exercises above can be helpful ways to cope, it doesn’t preclude the necessity for each person to understand and work on what they are bringing to the relationship table dynamically and in other emotional ways.
7. Couples therapy can also be very helpful to address and undo patterns of relationship negativity, and re-direct your relationship into a positive environment. Individual and couples therapy do the work of helping create the intimacy and connection, beyond the coping skills.
While there are other areas that also have influence in the overall health of a relationship, having a general sense that our partner and environment are supportive encourages growth and strength as a couple. Thus, the occasional bad day ends up being just that — the occasional bad day.