Let’s take a little marriage quiz to get a quick check on the status of your relationship. Think back to the early days of dating and consider what it was like to date, fall in love, get married and live as newlyweds. Did you guys have fun or did you fight often? Was he romantic and affectionate or did he struggle to know how to pursue you with passion? Was she a smart woman who kept you on your toes intellectually or did she make crazy decisions that created conflict often? The manner in which you answer these questions is incredibly important. Research shows that the way you recount your early years of being together, both positive and negative, is about 90% accurate in predicting whether your marriage will succeed or fail. That’s a crazy statistic that demonstrates just how powerful the thoughts you have about your spouse and your relationship really are. How you frame your spouse’s behavior and intentions toward you will create either a positive lasting emotional connection or it will plant seeds of doubt about your relationship that will most likely end in disappointment.
Every once in a while, I see the power of an individual’s thought life about their marriage demonstrated right in front of me during marital counseling. I will often ask both the husband and wife during the assessment session to think about how they first met or to describe their first date. Then, I just sit back and listen because I know how they answer will tell me a lot about what’s going on in the relationship. Many times, when I’m working with a marriage in distress, it will go something like this: one person will describe an early experience in the relationship that is full of positive memories and powerful sentiment while the other person will describe negative memories that usually assign blame or criticism to their spouse.
For instance, when describing a picnic the couple shared early in their relationship a wife might have the following memory. “Oh, he planned a beautiful picnic by the lake for our first date. I was so impressed because he packed delicious cheeses, a lovely bottle of wine and freshly baked bread in a lovely basket. He chose a gorgeous spot beneath a stately old oak tree for shade that was close enough to the water to throw crumbs to the passing ducks. But about ten minutes after we arrived it started to rain. We got soaking wet running to the car. When we finally got in, we sat in silence for a few seconds shivering. He looked at me with mascara running down my cheeks and I looked at him with hair that was filled with a whole tube of gel now matted to his head, then we suddenly burst out in deep belly laughter. We made an instant mental note…check the weather report prior to a picnic!”
I’m pretty excited when I hear the wife’s description of their first date until the husband describes the same experience a few minutes later, “She planned a picnic by the lake out on Old Mill Pond Road. The mosquitoes were as thick as a blanket and she forgot to check the weather report. It rained cats and dogs, ruining my brand new tennis shoes. And to top it off, the car got stuck in the mud and we had to sit there half the night waiting on Triple A.” It’s the same story but instead of looking at the events positively…like the opportunity to talk and get to know each other while waiting on the tow truck and eventually having a great story to tell the grandkids…it’s nothing but negative. And that negativity is a reflection of a negative mindset this husband has attached to his wife that affect not only his view of their first date but also her behavior in the here and now.
So, let’s go back to the little quiz you took at the beginning of this article. What do you do if you think back to your early days with your spouse with a negative mindset?
- Recognize that your trouble remembering positive things, even early in the relationship, is likely a sign that you have a negative mindset about your spouse that is affecting your ability to currently see them in a positive light. The goal here is not to beat yourself up for having a negative outlook, but to commit to working on the relationship and to developing positive thoughts about your spouse.
- Focus on monitoring your negative thoughts about your spouse especially when your expectations are not being met in the relationship. It’s easy to feel positive in a relationship when your partner is meeting all your needs and you are both on the same page. The trouble is going to come in play when your experience at any given time is not consistent with your expectations. When your expectations aren’t met, that will most certainly create the conditions in which your negative mindset will thrive.
- Monitor your thoughts in the moment of stress or disappointment and actually write them down or record them on your phone or tablet. I know it sounds counterintuitive to pay attention to the negativity in the moment, but it is actually the only strategy that will allow you to clue into your negative thoughts when they are causing problems.
- Actively confront your negative thoughts in the moment of disappointment. Research shows that when a person ASSUMES THE WORST about their spouse’s intentions, they created negative events in the moment and end up unhappy. The same research demonstrates that when a person BELIEVES THE BEST about their spouse’s intentions, they consistently feel better and end up feeling satisfied in the marriage. Have a conversation with yourself during stressful times and rehearse how it might sound in your head if you choose to believe the best about your spouse right here, right now.
- Remember, never be afraid to reach out for help from a professional counselor. It might take a neutral party to sit down with you and your spouse in order to sort out the negative thoughts and reclaim the positive aspects of your marriage.