Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

The Destructive Cycle of Negative Thinking

  • The Smalley Relationship Center
  • Published Mar 31, 2008
The Destructive Cycle of Negative Thinking
"Negative Thinking" (also called false or irrational beliefs, unrealistic expectations, self-defeating attitudes, unjustified negative explanations, or illogical conclusions) is powerful because how a partner perceives and interprets what the other does can be far more important in determining marital satisfaction than those actions themselves.

Negative thinking occurs when a spouse consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case. In other words, a husband or wife interprets the behavior of his or her spouse to be much more negative than the spouse intended. Basically, it's the belief that your partner is trying to ruin or weaken the marriage on purpose. For example:

"You're always including your family. They've been between us our whole married life!"
"You don't see it do you? You're too negative and it's driving me away!"
"You say you're sorry, but you keep doing the same mean things over and over. You'll never change!"

Why Negative Thinking is so Destructive in a Relationship

Positive Bias. During courtship and early married life, almost everything the fiancé says or does is interpreted in a positive light. He or she can do no wrong. Even unpleasant behavior can be turned around and made positive. This produces a "perfect" image of the loved one that emphasizes the appealing features and conceals the undesirable one. In a sense, this perspective becomes "closed," so that almost no unpleasant elements can enter the picture.

Negative Bias. But if the marriage runs into trouble, the repeated disappointments, arguments, and frustrations lead to a change in perspective. For example, a wife may shift from a positive to a negative bias. Her attitude changes from one of admiration to faultfinding. Then, much of what he does is interpreted in a negative light. He can do no right. The bottom line is that when the relationship runs into persistent problems, we have a tendency to switch "lenses" and see our partner differently — negatively.

The Problem with Having a Negative Bias

1. Confirmation Bias. The major problem with negative thinking is that human beings tend to see and hear what they believe about another even if it isn't true. In other words, what you believe about another person (positive or negative), you will find evidence of that belief in everything he or she says or does.

2. Self-fulfilling Prophecy. The case whereby individuals (a) have an expectation about what their partner is like, which (b) influences how they act toward their partner, which (c) causes that partner to behave in a way consistent with the individual's original expectations. People tend to live up or down to our beliefs about them.

3. Learned Hopelessness. When negative thinking consistently invades the relationship, it produces an environment of hopelessness and demoralization. The negatively framed partner is robbed of motivation and action.

How To Fight Negative Thinking

We are not advocating some kind of unrealistic "Pollyanna" mentality. We cannot sit around wishing or hoping that our partner will change truly negative behaviors. However, we need to consider that our partner's motives are more positive than we are willing to acknowledge.

Step 1: "Could I Be Wrong?" We must ask ourselves if we might overly negative in our interpretation of our mate's actions. Or we might have misunderstandings stemming from differences in their perspectives — and is not the result of some negative trait.

Step 2: Check Out the Accuracy of Your Negative Thinking. Consider alternative explanations for what your mate does. Look for supporting evidence, contradictory evidence, alternative explanations, and more logical conclusions. We must push ourselves to look for evidence that is contrary to the negative interpretation we usually take. We can accomplish this by either asking directly or by making further observations of our partner's actions.

Step 3: Substitute More Reasonable Responses for the Negative Thought

Step 4: Keeping Track of Positive Behavior. It's important for couples to be aware of what their partner's do and to respond accordingly. A partner may already be doing some of these things, but you may not be totally aware of them. For a start, try to notice methodically what your mate already does that pleases you. In order to note pleasing actions, spouses begin to really look at each other. This will force you to break through the barriers that obstruct your vision of your partner's good deeds.

© Copyright 2003 Smalley Relationship Center