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.
When we're having a lot of positive interactions with our partner and relatively few negative experiences, we tend to maintain the positive perspective: giving our partner the benefit of the doubt, highlighting the strengths our partner brings to the relationship, feeling a sense of gratitude and appreciation for our partner more often than not, and remembering more of the positive aspects of our history together.
When we start accumulating more negative interactions in our relationships, on the other hand, we move into negative sentiment override, the opposite of being in the positive perspective. When we're in negative sentiment override, we look at our partner and see their problems, we feel resentment and distance, and we tend to remember the struggles in our history as a couple.
The Negative Sentiment Override Death Spiral
Jill and Sam (a fictional couple with a common problem) were in the positive perspective when they first got married. They spent a lot of time together racking up positive interactions, hiking together, talking about their days, and texting back and forth throughout the day. When they disagreed, they could become critical and defensive, but they were able to recover given their number of positive interactions. Sam viewed Jill's introversion as a strength: her shyness and desire to spend more time at home felt grounding and endearing. Jill viewed Sam's extraversion as exciting and engaging.
After having a child and moving away from family for a job, however, the couple's frequency of positive interactions declined significantly and their negative interactions began to add up as they transitioned to parenthood. Resentment began to build as Jill didn't think that Sam was pulling his weight with child care and household responsibilities. Sam felt resentful for the time Jill spent with their child and viewed her as making child care more difficult than was needed. Sam now viewed Jill's introversion as her being boring and dull. Jill viewed Sam's extraversion and his desire for new experiences as him being restless and not effectively making the transition to adulthood. When they try to discuss their needs, the criticism and defensiveness that existed early in the relationship are now heightened, to the point that they rarely discuss difficult issues. The resentment, then, continues to build, which make negative interactions even more likely to occur. They are stuck in a sort of relationship death spiral of negative sentiment override.
Jill and Sam are essentially the same people at these two points in time, however, add in some challenging life transitions (e.g., having a child, moving) and decrease their number of positive interactions, and their reality of each other and their relationship takes on a negative feel.
From the Negative to the Positive
So can Jill and Sam's relationship be saved? With some acknowledgment of the problem and a desire to put in some effort, the answer is: absolutely. The couple hasn't "failed" and they are not inadequate in any way, they have done their best to adapt to some transitions that would be challenging for the vast majority of people. By increasing their positive interactions (e.g., more positive texts, carving out a bit of time most evening to connect in some way), learning how to manage conflict and effectively express and respond to each other's needs, and taking steps to cultivate more appreciation and gratitude, the couple can take some significant steps to move back into the positive perspective.
In addition to enhancing your friendship, here are 5 additional suggestions to help move from the negative to positive perspective or simply to maintain and further cultivate the positive perspective:
1) Text three things everyday for a week that you genuinely appreciate about your partner (think about the small contributions that can be easily overlooked). This will help orient your mind to what's going well, not just what's wrong, while creating good emotions in your partner.
2) Write a thank you note to your partner, expressing what you appreciate about about them as a friend, lover, and person.
3) Take a gratitude walk together and discuss what's going well in your lives and in your relationship.
4) Make it a point to catch your partner doing as many little helpful acts as you can. Express your appreciation in the moment.
5) Decrease the frequency of negative interactions in the relationship by managing conflict effectively (this will be a subject of a future post) and not allowing resentment to build.
Of course, date nights, vacations, shared hobbies and any positive time together can keep you and your partner in the positive perspective. Discussing what works for you both can be an important starting point.