One of the first therapy models I was exposed to in college was Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which is based on the idea that our thoughts or cognitions about the world shape a lot of how we feel about reality. When someone cuts me off in traffic, for example, I can leap to the thought that the person cut me off on purpose (Cognitive Distortion Type: “Arbitrary Inference”) which then creates a feeling of anger in me. In reality, though, I had no idea what was occurring in that driver’s mind. Perhaps they were distracted after hearing about a parent’s ailing health or dealing with some other challenge in their life that I’m not able to comprehend. Unfortunately, I’m not proud to admit, my brain often defaults to the negative interpretation first.
It’s amazing how fast we react internally to people’s mood and tone. Someone can get an edge to their voice, have a frown on their face, or be extra quiet, and our brain signal us, “Alert! Something’s wrong!”
Isn’t it surprising how quickly things can go off the rails when you have a disagreement with your partner? One minute, you’re driving down the road easily talking about vacation plans, and the next minute your partner is crackling with tension and you’re fighting back tears. How did this just happen?
Remaining in a committed relationship can be incredibly fulfilling and incredibly difficult, even for the healthiest couples. Our definitions of "love" and what it means to be in a satisfying relationship also weighs heavily on our ability to weather the difficult and disconnected times that can actually be a bridge to even deeper levels of intimacy.
Positive and negative interactions in a relationship don't have equal impact. It takes at least 20 positive interactions (e.g., saying "I love you," holding hands, asking about the day, etc.) to counteract 1 negative interaction (e.g., a critical statement). Positive experiences tend to hit our brains like teflon. Negative experiences tend to stick like superglue. In other words, you can take an amazing trip with your partner to a tropical island, but if you have a horrible unresolved fight on the last day of trip, you're likely to remember the fight more than the walk on the beach.