By Jon Beaty
Researchers Elizabeth Robinson and Gail Price found that couples in unhappy marriages tend to underestimate the number of positive interactions in their marriage by 50%. As Dr. John Gottman explains, every couple has a “Story of Us Switch.”
When the switch is turned on, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they’ve survived together.
When the switch is turned off, however, couples tend to look back on their early days with resentment and blame. For some of these couples, the Story of Us Switch may seem stuck in the off position.
We all make mistakes when judging situations or people, and biases influence many of our conclusions. Failing to recognize and manage these biases can keep an unhappy marriage in the dark.
In the 1960s, English psychologist Peter Wason conducted a simple experiment where he presented his research subjects with a sequence of three numbers, say 2-4-6. Wason then asked his subjects to identify the rule that described the sequence by offering additional number sequences that followed the rule. His subjects offered other sequences like 4-8-10 and 6-8-12. Each subject concluded that the rule was a sequence of three ascending, even numbers. They were wrong.
In Wason’s experiment, each subject formed a hypothesis about the sequence of three numbers and set out to prove it. Because none sought to disprove their hypothesis, they failed to discover the actual rule Wason had applied, a simple sequence of ascending numbers.
Wason named this phenomenon “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is our tendency to pursue and believe facts that “prove” what we already suspect or believe to be true. Confirmation bias affects what we believe about ourselves, about the world, and about our relationships.
Consider an example. Jamie and Rick frequently argue about spending. For Jamie’s birthday, Rick surprises her with an evening out at a new restaurant he’s heard Jamie talk about. As the hostess seats them at their table, Rick notices that Jamie hasn’t said a word since they arrived.
“You seem upset,” he says. “I thought you’d be happy.” “We can’t afford this place,” she replies. “Didn’t you look at the menu? You never look at how much things cost!”
Rick’s plan for a happy evening with his wife dissolves in an argument as Rick defends his choice, and Jamie continues to accuse him of frivolous spending.
In an unhappy marriage, confirmation bias can be destructive, especially when paired with negativity bias.
Negativity bias is our tendency to give greater attention and weight to negative information.
Rick has noticed that his relationship with his wife seems different since Jamie left and came back from a week-long visit to her mother’s. Visiting her mom is something Jamie does once a year, but Rick insists this time is different.
Jamie didn’t respond to a couple of Rick’s text messages while she was away. She didn’t answer her phone one night when he called at the time they’d agreed on. Since she’s been back, she seems quieter, and a few nights went to bed early. Rick now believes that Jamie has been distancing herself from him.
Married couples need to be careful to not draw negative conclusions about their relationship before carefully assessing all the facts. A premature, negative assessment of your marriage may set you up for unnecessary conflict, dissatisfaction, and divorce.
After a month of suspecting Jamie was giving up on their marriage, Rick confronted her after Jamie failed to answer Rick when he called to her in the kitchen from another room in the house.
“If you don’t love me anymore, why can’t you just tell me instead of shutting me out?” Rick said angrily.