Your relationship doesn’t have to be constantly improving to succeed; it just has to not be going downhill.
When my ex-husband and I recited our vows, we said, “For better, for worse.” Those words, along with “for richer, for poorer” and “in sickness and health,” had a nice kind of symmetry to them. We promised to love each other through it all.
But love isn’t symmetrical. Not every marriage can survive for worse, poorer, or sickness. My marriage to my ex-husband didn’t.
When we were in couples therapy a few months before I filed for divorce, the therapist said that we were stuck in our “reptilian brain,” a region that she described as irrational and pessimistic.
“She or he hates me,” this part of the brain might tell us, while the more rational part of our brain might say something like, “She or he is mad at me right now, but she or he still loves me.”
In summary, we were stuck in negativity loops, that the therapist suggested my ex and I counter by complimenting each other ten times a day.
“Thank you for taking out the garbage,” I might tell him.
“Thanks for making dinner for the children,” he might say to me.
It felt weird doing it. We’d been together nearly ten years by the time we ended up on this therapist’s couch, and we’d spent a lot of that time not happy with one another. We were hostile. We denied responsibility. We insulted the other or joked at the other’s expense. It had been “worse” for a long time.
It’s not surprising that ten compliments a day didn’t pull our marriage out of its tailspin. I think he gave up on day four and I gave up on day five, and giving up on the compliments was just one of many ways that we both gave up on our marriage.
What I learned from our experience is that relationships can be doomed when they get stuck in negativity, and scientists agree.
Marriages not surviving negative events isn’t uncommon because negative events reverberate more loudly in our brains. It’s why when we receive feedback, we’re more likely to ignore the three compliments and latch onto the one criticism.
John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister write about this in their book, The Power of Bad: How Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.They tell us that negativity bias developed with our ancestors who needed to be aware of deadly threats.
Marriages don’t improve with time. They go downhill.
But this, in our modern world, can blind us to our reality. It can make us think our perfectly fine partners are garbage humans who don’t appreciate all of the things we do for them. We overestimate how awesome we are and underestimate how much we’re appreciated for our own projected awesomeness.
Marriages don’t improve with time. They go downhill. The infatuation and euphoria fade, and we settle into contentment. If some couples don’t get content and instead get angry or hostile, they’ll end up in a spiral of decline their relationship won’t be able to recover from.
Imagine you realize soon after you married that your spouse is terrible with money. If he or she has $100, he or she’ll spend $200. How would you react?
- Not say anything, and hope he or she learns how to spend responsibly.
- Explain to him or her why their spending behavior bothers you, and work on some kind of system to help him or her be more accountable.
- Say nothing, but emotionally withdraw.
- Threaten him or her with divorce, and/or download a dating app and start swiping.
Options 1 and 2, while they are the best options, may not actually improve your relationship much. Tierney and Baumeister actually measured the effects of options 1 and 2 as improving your relationship little to none.
What matters more is that you don’t do options 3 or 4. Either can be disastrous to your relationship. When we withdraw from our partners or give ultimatums, we can start that negativity spiral, and once it’s started, it can be hard to stop it.
I’m remarried, and it feels good to me to read that I don’t have to constantly obsess about the next new thing to improve my relationship. To feel like my second marriage is doomed if we’re not in couples therapy, attending couples retreats, reading self-help couples book, etc. etc. Honestly, that whole mantra of “if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward!” is exhausting.
Sometimes relationships are just about being with another person. Truly. Not trying to communicate more deeply or effectively or know each other more deeply or intimately, but just being with and loving another person.
To fight against negativity:
- be grateful for your partner and what you have with your partner,
- and when you go through a ruinous event, choose option 1 or 2.
Think of options 1 and 2 as eating stale baked goods. They’re not great, but they’re not terrible. And think of options 3 and 4 as pulling the pin on a grenade. Which would you rather do?