One of the most destructive patterns in romantic relationships is negative interpretations.
A negative interpretation occurs when a significant other believes that the motives of their partner are more negative than they actually are.
This toxic behavior is a silent killer of relationships. Like carbon monoxide, it fills the air of the relationship with an almost undetectable gas that suffocates the positivity of a relationship with negative assumptions. The more frequently it occurs, the more at risk the relationship is for misery and separation.
Jamie and Casey have been married for 14 years and are about to celebrate their 15-year anniversary. This has been a topic of tension due to a comment Casey made during their second year of dating when he said, “anniversaries are dumb.” This is compounded by the couple’s history of conflict around how to celebrate.
Here is their conversation [what they are thinking is in brackets].
Jamie: [excited about the anniversary] Our anniversary is coming up. We should do something special. Maybe we could go out?
Casey: [thinking about how going out is expensive and money is tight] I don’t know. I think it’d be better for us to just do something at home.
Jamie: [ruminating about his comment 13 years ago, “anniversaries are dumb.”] If you don’t want to celebrate, just say that. Clearly I’m not important to you. (2)
Casey: [confused, as he does want to celebrate, but he doesn’t want to spend money they don’t have] No, I do want to celebrate! I just think it would be nice for us to cook dinner together and relax together at home.
Jamie: (Heart rate is over 100 beats per minute, indicating emotional flooding): If you think doing something special to celebrate our marriage is so stupid, then why’d you even marry me?
Jamie stares at Casey with a fury of hurt in her eyes before walking out of the kitchen.
Like Jamie, sometimes our thoughts and feelings feel so right that it feels wrong to question them. “The brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return, the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.” This is problematic for our romantic relationships and can cause nasty conflict when those assumptions are negative.
Research validates that these negative thoughts often lead to harsher ways of starting conversations (criticism and contempt), which increases the chances that our partner will respond with defensiveness and rejection. (4)
As seen in Jamie and Casey’s interactions, things escalated rather quickly. Jamie, who was already worried about not being important to Casey, quickly assumes that Casey doesn’t want to celebrate their anniversary. This interpretation hijacks her thinking despite evidence that he has actively participated in celebrating their relationship for the past 14 years, including cooking a romantic meal and making her a bubble bath or buying her a lovely necklace for their 10-year anniversary.
Jamie’s negative interpretation blocks her from constructively dealing with this issue and hearing that Casey does want to celebrate their anniversary or asking him what his ideas are about how they might celebrate.
Unfortunately, when one partner has a firm grip on a negative assumption of their partner’s actions or words, it is nearly impossible to change their minds and help them see it from a different perspective. Despite Casey’s best efforts, he cannot break down the walls of Jamie’s perception of him.
“If a negative interpretation is strong enough, nothing the one on the receiving end of it can do will change it.” – Fighting for Your Marriage.
Want to know a few secrets of how you can communicate with your partner, the right way? Read 6 Communication Strategies Of Happy Couples in Relationships
The Cost of Negative Interpretations on Relationships
Research has discovered that unhappy couples have a tendency to contribute to difficulties in the relationship to their partner’s character flaws. As a result, this negative perspective leads to viewing even neutral actions as negative. Over time relationship challenges become less of a problem that both partners co-create, and instead, they get blamed on one partner. And once this pattern of thinking becomes habitual, it makes improving the relationship an uphill battle.
“Marital problems easily arise if your thoughts and feelings are distorted—if your ‘subtitles’ reinforce a negative view of your partner.” – Dr. Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last.
Often these negative interpretations are a result of low trust in the relationship. According to Dr. Gottman, trust exists in a relationship when partners behave in ways that are in the best interest of both partners.