When you feel disconnected in your relationship, it’s easy to see the bad and be critical about your partner; it can become hard to find the good. We start wondering if we are ‘negative’ or what is wrong with us.
In this video, I explain some the psychology and science behind negative thinking about your partner. And I give you an activity to do, of course!
**A written version of the video can be read below.
Hello. My name is Bri McCarroll and I am a psychotherapist located in western MA. I specialize in the joys, sorrows and challenges of our relationships.
It Can be Easy to See the Bad and Difficult to See the Good
Today I want to talk about something I see a lot of couples struggle with: the challenge of seeing overall the bad in our partners and then struggling to see the good in our partners.
I’m bringing this up because many times, in my work with couples, I’ll be working with a couple and I will see and identify many positives that one of the partners has done. The other partner will look at me and say, “I don’t see that. I don’t see that good stuff that you’re seeing. Am I just being negative? Am I just being too critical or too harsh?” They almost kind of pathologize themselves, that they are not able to see the good.
So today, I want to really talk about that and explore some of the factors that contribute to the reality that it might be hard for some of us to see the good in our partners. With that being said, let’s begin.
There are various reasons that we may not see the good in our partners, but I am going to be talking about three.
One is just evolutionary-wise, we have just been created to not see the good. We are actually biologically wired to see the bad and to be ready for the bad.
If you think about this in the bigger picture, think about when we were cave people. Suppose you had two cave beings that came out of their cave and one was focused on the beauty around them… One was admiring the flowers, checking out the water; he was hanging out, looking at the kids, just really enjoying the good stuff and savoring. So you had this one cave person doing this.
Then you had this other person who goes out and he’s looking at the grass and thinking, “Oh, that grass doesn’t look right. I’m hearing some rustling. This doesn’t feel good; there is something wrong here. There is something bad. I need to get the heck out because I think there is a saber tooth tiger out there!” And he runs back into the cave.
So you have one person in the cave and one person who is left out. The person who heeded the signs that his brain was detecting, namely, “This is not safe. This is not OK. There are problems here that I need to be watching out for”, that person survived. This other person who is loving life, enjoying the flowers, savoring…what happened to them? The saber tooth tiger got them.
Survival of the most negative thinkers
OK, a little dramatic, I know. But imagine if this happens again, and again, and again? All these beings who might be more biologically prone to be looking for the good are not surviving. Their brain is not sending the signals and putting them on guard enough to know, “Oh my goodness, I need to go back to the cave to keep myself safe”. So, because of that, they are not surviving and passing on their genes.
Yet the other group of Cave people, the ones looking for danger, protecting themselves, and making sure that things are OK; the ones who were looking for the negative, those Cave people survived. Their brain caught the signals, brought them back to safety, and they were able to reproduce and keep that line going.
Just through evolution, these people that learned to be on guard and more protective of themselves, looking for the bad, they survived. Therefore, biologically, we have that in us, that predisposition. Automatically, most of us are going to be looking for the bad. It is just wired into us. So that’s one reason that we just tend to look for the bad.
The second reason that we may look for the bad is, in present times, if you have had things happening in your past with your family or past relationships, you may have learned some bad habits.
These habits come from your interactions with people. Growing up, maybe someone was critical with you and you’ve learned to be critical back. In your past, possibly someone was undependable with you and you’ve learned to second guess, to doubt, and make judgments about others. You’ve learned some habits that have just evolved out of the need for self-protection from conflicts and problems that you’ve had in your relationships with family, past and/or current relationships.
When I say you’ve learned some bad habits, unfortunately, what has happened is you have learned some negative behaviors such as being critical, being pessimistic, just noting the bad overall. And those habits have become a part of your “muscle memory”.
Habits Become Muscle Memory
I use the term “muscle memory” because when it’s in your muscle memory, it’s happening automatically, without you even thinking about it. It just is in you. Let me give you an example of the concept of “muscle memory” in a different way.
When I am brushing my teeth, I have a certain way that I brush. That is muscle memory. I do that automatically, without thinking; it is almost instinctive at this point. Imagine, if I lose my right hand for whatever reason, and I have to do it with my left. All of a sudden, I have to do it differently. I have to be conscious and I have to think about how to do this because my muscle memory is used to doing it my other way.
How we interact with our partners is the same thing. If we have habits that have been developed over time, where we tend to be critical, look for the bad, or be reactive and not kind, those habits can become really ingrained in us and become very natural. They become part of our muscle memory. And, as a result, they do us. It happens, without us even meaning for that to be happening.
So that’s the second reason that sometimes it can be hard for us to see the positive; we are just stuck in the habit of that muscle memory.
Our Relationships are Incredibly Important
A third reason that we may struggle to see the positive in our partners is because, as social beings, our primary relationships with our partners are so precious. We are social beings and we depend on this relationship, this attachment. It is one of the most precious things we have. It helps us feel safe and secure…when it’s going well.
On the other hand, when it’s not going well, we can psychologically feel really anxious or depressed. Physically, we might struggle to sleep etc. It’s a big deal. When we are not doing well, we suffer.
Because of that, when things are great–life is good! But, if things change, and we start getting the signals from our partner that we are not OK. Then this connection does not feel good and it doesn’t feel ‘safe’. That’s a big deal for our mind and our mind is going to react to that.
Our mind is going to say, “Oh my gosh, I need to do something about this” and it’s going to cope in various ways. If nothing else, it’s going to start doing some kind of defense. It’s going to protect itself. It’s going to say, “I can’t trust the situation”. If that keeps happening repeatedly, it is natural that we are going to become defensive. We are going to be on guard for problems, for disconnections in our relationship.
The bummer about that is that, when we are on our guard and expecting the bad, we are going to see bad. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If we are looking for the bad, we inevitably are going to see the bad. So, then, when we see the bad, we are going to say, “I knew it! I knew I couldn’t count on this person and that he were going to mess me over; that he was going to hurt or disappoint me somehow!” So it validates and confirms those defenses and those defenses get even stronger. Then, as those defenses get stronger, we’re again going to see the negative. It is going to keep feeding on itself so that, in the end, it is so incredibly difficult to do otherwise.
I am confident that you don’t want to see the bad in your partner but it’s almost impossible not to when we have all these components involved. So that being said, I actually want to encourage that you do something a little different.
Make two lists
I want you to write a list of five things about your partner that you do NOT like. These are kind of like the “saber tooth tigers” from my story. Say to yourself, “This person is not good for me because he does this, this, and this…”. Or… “This is how he treat me that’s bad:…”, “Things that I just do not like about this person:…” Those are the bad things. Easy.
Then, on another piece of paper, I want you to write five things that are actually good about your partner. Five things that maybe are small, maybe they’re kind of hard to see sometimes, but things that you actually like about him. It may take you some time, I get it, but write them down.
You are going to have these two lists. Then, what I then want you to do with the list of the five bad things, put it aside. You can trash it, whatever you want to do with it. Because, no offense, you know those things really well. Those don’t need to be in your face as you get it. This is actually what we are trying to work on, so as not to see all that bad. So put that list aside.
Keep the ‘positive’ list closeby
But the five things that you like…I want you to work on savoring these, like the flowers from my Cave person story. What I want you to do for every day this next week is to pull out this paper. Perhaps have it on your phone as a list. I want you to look at those five good things. If you can read it out loud, that makes it a little bit stronger. I want you to take each one, read it out loud, and just think about it. Think about it as the good thing that it is.
If your mind starts flipping into the negative, try to pull back as best you can and make it a positive. We are just trying to savor these good things. I want you to do that with all five items and just do it one time a day.
Create a new list at the end of the week
At the end of that first week, I would love for you to put that list aside and create five new “flowers”…five new good things. I want you to keep doing that. I am wanting you to start getting more of a balance, to start pushing your brain to actively start looking for some good things.
If you do nothing, it’s incredibly easy to stay with the bad. And if you are going to stay with the bad, why are you even hanging out with this person? On the other hand, if you are trying to make your relationship different, if you are seeing if you can make things better, part of it is, literally, changing how you’re viewing the situation.
Of course, every person has the bad and the good. I’m not asking for you to just look for unicorns and sunshine in your partner. That’s not realistic. I am encouraging that you try considering some balance, though. It is not healthy for you to just see the bad. And It’s not healthy for your relationship, so give it a try.
Improve Your Relationship With a Private Couples Intensive or “Hold Me Tight Workshop®”
It’s painful to know you your relationship had felt ‘perfect’ at one time, yet feel such anger, hurt, and despair now. You want things to be better, but you are exhausted and discouraged. You don’t have to stay stuck, there’s help. It’s just time to do things differently.
Private Couple Retreats (couples therapy intensives) and “Hold Me Tight®” Couples Workshops help you learn communication tools so you can resolve conflicts and re-connect. New England Hold Me Tight has skilled therapists and relationship coaches who specialize in helping couples like you who want to save a marriage or fix a relationship.
To start your path back towards a healthier and happier relationship, follow these simple steps:
1. Contact Bri McCarroll at New England Hold Me Tight.
2. Meet for a free 50-minute consultation (video or in office).
4. Start to rebuild trust, improve communication, and reconnect again.
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