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How to Prevent Negativity Bias from Ruining Your Marriage

We're hardwired to think of negative outcomes. But too much debbie downering can sink a marriage. Here's what to do.

So, your partner comes home from work in a cranky, crappy mood. They slam the fridge. Hard. They plop on the couch. They’re icy. Stress seeps off them. It happens. After all, you married a human. And humans do these things. To err and all that.

Now, forget for a minute of whether their reason for feeling that way is valid or not. Instead, think about your feelings: If, in such a situation, you immediately worry that you’re the reason for the bad mood and that your partner must not be happy with you, you can thank your negativity bias. A psychological tendency, it often plays a starring role in relationship drama. And if you don’t try to address it, it could lead to an extremely unhappy marriage.

Psychologists suspect that negativity bias is hardwired in our brains — we instinctively give more weight to negative factors than to positive ones because thinking about the negative side of things is a great way to preserve your species.

Married couples that show a lot of negativity bias, or underestimate the positives in their relationships, are more likely to divorce than couples that show a lot of fondness and gratitude for each other

“We come by it naturally,” says Holly Parker, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, lecturer at Harvard University and author of If We’re Together, Why Do I Feel So Alone? “If our ancestors hadn’t given enough weight to negative considerations, or paid enough attention to them, we wouldn’t be here.”

We obviously no longer need the razor-sharp threat-assessment tools that secured the survival of early Homo sapiens, but negativity bias remains as part of how our brains function. In fact, psychologists have found, that it plays a role in children’s social and emotional development. Negativity bias tends to fade as most people age and mature, but some don’t grow out of it as much as others do.

Those who have suffered childhood traumas or abuse, infidelity or unsatisfying romantic relationships as adults tend to have pretty robust bias reactions that can have a negative impact on their relationships. If someone has been cheated on in past relationships, for example, he or she might be more likely to suspect infidelity when a couple texts to a partner go unanswered.

It doesn’t take a trauma to trigger negativity bias, however. “It’s not just ‘negative Nancy’’ who do this. We are all prone to it,” Parker says. “People’s reactions to good and bad are based on a whole host of things, including experiences and personality traits, that can influence how much they trust someone and how likely they are to give someone the benefit of the doubt.”

“Couples are like mini emotional bank accounts. You have deposits, or positive comments and good moments of connection, and negative comments, which are like withdrawals.”

Married couples that show a lot of negativity bias, or underestimate the positives in their relationships, are more likely to divorce than couples that show a lot of fondness and gratitude for each other, according to the research of psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. By Gottman’s estimation, it takes five positive experiences in a relationship to outweigh one bad one.

Parker says this holds true in her work in relationship counseling: “Couples are like mini emotional bank accounts,” she says. “You have deposits, or positive comments and good moments of connection, and negative comments, which are like withdrawals.”

A negative experience is like spending $5, in other words, but good experiences only equal $1 in your relationship account.

“It’s not that positive experiences don’t matter; they’re extremely important,” Parker says. “But as human beings, we can underestimate the power of saying something negative and won’t think about how much that weighs. People don’t always think about the calculus of how those negative things add up.”

“We can underestimate the power of saying something negative and won’t think about how much that weighs. People don’t always think about the calculus of how those negative things add up.”

In addition, an unfortunate thing about negativity bias is that the more we focus on the negatives, “The more they become substantiated and take physical form,” adds Vijay Ram, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of California at Irvine and founder of RAMIC Solutions . “Neurologically, they’re suddenly part of your brain, but positive emotions have a longer path to travel before they’re integrated.”

Now, this isn’t to say that we should be fatalistic about negativity bias and throw up our hands thinking that since we’re wired to be negative, there’s nothing to be done about it. Although acknowledging the tendency is an important first step in keeping relationships healthy and harmonious, Ram says the bias will still be there. But with some effort to mitigate it, it won’t wreak havoc on your relationship.

Awareness of negativity bias can inform how you take things in and how you deliver them, too. If your partner is rude and grouchy one night after work, you can try to change the story you tell yourself about it when you’re aware that negativity bias might be butting in. Instead of assuming the worst, you can give your partner the benefit of the doubt that it might not be about you and simply ask what might be going on.

It’s also helpful to celebrate positive experiences with your partner more, essentially giving them more weight than they would have if our negativity bias flourishes unfettered, Ram says.

It’s just as important, even more so, to be mindful when communicating something to your partner, Parker says. Ask yourself how you would feel if your partner said to you what you’re about to say to him or her, or if they said it in the same tone of voice you’re about to use, she suggests. “If it would shut you down and decrease the likelihood that you would listen, don’t do it,” she says.

You can also use the Gottman math (Ram says the 5:1 ratio might be a bit too specific, however, although he agrees with the principle that negatives greatly outweigh positives) in the same discussion with your partner, Parker says. By sandwiching criticism you want to deliver, such as “It annoys me when I text you asking about dinner plans during the day and you don’t answer,” in with positive statements such as “I know how dedicated and focused you are when you’re at work, and it’s great that you enjoy what you do, but it would be helpful to me if I could get a response,” are very helpful.

She continues: “If you say something like, ‘When I’m not sure what to do for dinner, it’s stressful on me. So I wonder if we could come to an agreement about this; I know your goal is not to keep me waiting’ you’re giving person the benefit of the doubt and also suggesting a solution.”

It’s also helpful to celebrate positive experiences with your partner more, essentially giving them more weight than they would have if our negativity bias flourishes unfettered, Ram says.

“Don’t just let it pass,” he says. “Spend more time making a thing of it so you burn the experience into your long-term memory.”

Another surprising antidote to negativity bias? Exercise, Ram says.

“It lifts the mood and promotes growth in the hippocampus part of the brain, which aids learning,” he says. “It lets you see the bigger picture.”