“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.
Essentially, Jamie believes that Casey does not care about things that are important to her. This assumption, like sunglasses, colors even the positive things Casey does in a darker shade. As a result, Jamie’s confirmation bias (her sunglasses) causes her to look for evidence that confirms what she already thinks about Casey: He doesn’t love me.
“It is very important to be on guard for the tendency to view others harshly. After all, a marriage would truly be in terrible shape if either partner routinely and intentionally did things just to frustrate the other. It’s more common that the actions of one partner are interpreted negatively and unfairly by the other.” – Fighting For Your Marriage.
As long as she holds this negative perspective, neither Casey or Jamie will be able to come to a resolution on how to celebrate their marriage and improve it.
Furthermore, the more Jamie’s negative interpretations cast Casey’s actions in a negative light, the more she will feel justified in being harsh toward Casey.
In Dr. Gottman’s Love Lab, he asked couples to watch videos of their conversations where they acted hostile, defensive, or shut down. The vast majority of these partners were experiencing distressing thoughts that fell into two categories: Innocent victimhood and righteous indignation.
When we think of ourselves as the innocent victim, we often feel defensive and like our partner is out to get us. By playing innocent, we free ourselves of our responsibility in the problem.
In fact, this is what Casey did when he and Jamie tried to process their anniversary fight. He acted like he had no contribution and was innocent. This is the problem with this way of thinking. As long as he excuses himself from repairing the relationship and taking ownership of even some part of their interaction, the problems don’t get resolved.
It wasn’t until he was called out about how his comment in the past contributed, at least in part, to Jamie’s anxiety about their relationship, that he began to take some responsibility. Additionally, his lack of curiosity about why Jamie wanted to go out and him not taking into account past fights where she expressed the significance of going out (aka Love Maps), also contributed to the lack of repair and Jamie feeling unimportant in the relationship.
With righteous indignation, we often take our hurt and feel justified in hurting our partner.
“Thinking you are entitled to hurt your partner back from some perceived hurt you feel will keep your relationship derailed.” – Fighting For Your Marriage.
This was Jamie’s stance over the five days before they saw me. She felt justified in being dismissive and critical of Casey, furthering her negative perspective of Casey and their marriage, thus blocking her and Casey’s willingness to repair and work through the issue constructively.
Adjusting Your Interpretations
Shifting your negative interpretations to a more positive interpretation does not mean doing forceful and unrealistic positive thinking or affirmations. Sweeping serious problems under a rug will only lead to the relationship tripping and falling down more often.
What I’m pointing to are the moments where we perceive our partner’s behavior in a more negative light than it is. Like wiping our sunglasses when they are dirty, we also need to learn how to examine our assumptions. As the old saying goes, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.”