What’s your framework for your overall feelings, thoughts, and outlook for your spouse? Do you have an underlying pattern that you attribute to them most often? Is it mostly positive, or is it generally negative?
We cannot “get into” other people’s minds, and we never completely know or understand them. Or what their outlook is. And so, we watch them from the outside. We listen, observe their actions and attitudes, and remember certain things about them. We develop patterns and conclusions and file away how we see them so that we get a psychological understanding of them. It’s a combination of feelings and thoughts about what that person thinks, feels, their attitudes, and even their motivations.
Shortly after Bill and Joy were married, Joy came down with chronic fatigue. Both understood she was just not up to doing a lot and became tired very quickly. Early on, Joy told Bill to go without her and do what he loved to do. He was a big outdoorsman and enjoyed hunting and fishing. Bill would periodically decline invites from his father and brothers to go hunting to stay with Joy, but eventually, she would tell him to go. So he did. Over time Joy got better, but Bill continued to hunt and fish when she wanted him to stay with her-an unexpressed expectation. She believed his real thoughts and motivations were to “getaway.”
Kids came along, and because Joy felt so much better, Bill continued to do things he loved. And Joy began to get resentful that he went and had fun without her, although he was a good provider, involved at church and spent a lot of time with the kids playing outside. Joy’s thoughts continually got more cynical. She had a negative and critical outlook of Bill. She saw him as frequently “avoiding her” and made other things (hunting, work, kids) “more important than her.”
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Her actions became stand-off-ish, and even when Bill suggested they do something together, she said she was tired and refused. In her thoughts and feelings, she believed “he really doesn’t want to be with me. He spends the most important time with work or his family.” “His last birthday present to me even showed he doesn’t care.” Joy was resentful, bitter, and labeled Bill as uninterested and uncaring. Bill began feeling unwanted and not good enough.
How a person perceives events, circumstances, and especially other people is the reality and valid to them. But, it might not be real, and might not be the truth! The power of our perception can often be deception.
Over time, we take dozens of patterns, traits, and experiences of our spouse and put them into categories in our mind. These make up a description of their character, behaviors, and even their intentions. They can more or less make up our spouse’s identity in our own eyes. We use these labels and patterns to explain and interpret what our partner does, and it becomes “the truth” of who they are and what they do. This outlook can influence every part of the relationship.
But, what if that “TRUTH” is a negative outlook?
In many conflicted relationships, feelings and thoughts can become negative over time. When this happens, the couple becomes hypervigilant about the negativity. This is referred to as a negative sentiment override (Gottman). They readily expect criticism or put-downs, no matter what they do or say. There is definitely a lack of generosity toward one another. Generosity is when you extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others. You make the most generous assumptions about your partner. (Brene Brown)
Negative sentiments about your partner’s motivations, intentions, feelings, and judgments about you can be enormously destructive. They are usually formed and maintained by too much mind-reading and ‘filling in the blanks.’
- Add in many positive words and actions-you have to talk to each other!
- Increase the friendship in the relationship, and have some fun together.
- Accept Influence from one another-you both have good things to bring to the table.
- Check attitudes, outlook and be open to “heart” change.
- Create an environment of appreciation and gratefulness.
- Start difficult conversations carefully and softly (gentle startup).
- Understand how to engage in ‘Heart talk’ and the ICU attitude.
- Extend Generosity to one another regularly.
- Learn to process stressful events and conflict in healthy ways.
- Extend an attitude of ‘give and take.’
- Express acceptance of your spouse.
“The difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships is in
how a couple processes problems.” Mike Dawson
They also keep their mind reading in check. Couples don’t let negative patterns take over in their mind.
If problems are processed together and discussed with humor, positive emotions, and acceptance, they generally won’t become negative sentiments.
Eventually, Bill and Joy talked to friends and then began the counseling process where they worked on their attitudes, acceptance, and friendship. They began to share their real feelings and thoughts and processed difficult events that had happened. Each of them learned to take care of each other’s hearts, not mind read, and accept each other. Their negative sentiment about each other changed.