A husband and wife who focus on each other’s negative behaviors are doing what comes naturally. It’s a valuable survival instinct hardwired into the brain. As good as this negativity bias is for survival — a couple who permits it to operate unchecked becomes dissatisfied with their relationship. They fail to notice or lose sight of one another’s positive attributes.
In a genetic game of Survivor, people with a negative focus tend to outlast and outlive their peers, passing on their genes to their offspring. Your existence today is in part due to the ability of your ancestors to focus on threats. A negative focus gave them an advantage in avoiding danger in their environment, especially predators and enemies.
The gene for negativity bias has been passed on through the generations to most of us living today. Its value in a marital relationship is limited to identifying whether or not your mate is dangerous. Once husbands and wives have determined that their spouse is not a threat, a satisfying marriage depends in part on their ability to focus on each other’s positive traits.
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Couples who fail to adjust their focus on the good in one another become narrowly focused on each other’s flaws. In an observational study by researchers Elizabeth Robinson and Gail Price, dissatisfied couples failed to notice half of the positive actions taken by each other. By leaving their negative focus unchecked, many of the positive experiences in their relationship went unnoticed.
We tend to experience negative events more powerfully than positive events. Negative information and negative emotion leave a stronger impression on us than positive information and positive emotion. This happens subconsciously.
Using our power to reason, we can override our natural, subconscious impulse toward focusing on the negative by focusing on and cultivating positive traits or strengths. In Robinson and Price’s study, satisfied couples accurately estimated high numbers of positive actions in their interactions.
A practical method for a husband and wife to adjust their focus from negative to positive attributes is to turn their attention to character strengths. Character strengths are positive traits reflected in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Researchers Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson have identified 24 character strengths common in cultures around the world. The VIA Character Survey is a useful tool based on their work — and is available at viacharacter.org. Taking the survey is free and offers a simple report that enables people to identify their top-five character strengths.
A study published in the Journal of Family Issues found that higher ratings of character strengths and the use of character strengths in the marriage were related to higher satisfaction in the relationship.
To use character strengths in your marriage, take the VIA Character Survey and invite your spouse to take it, too. If your spouse agrees, share the results with each other. Then on your own, ask yourself and answer these questions. Write your answers — and put them where you can turn back to reflect on at least once a week, such as a journal or daily planner.
1.) “What are the character strengths I bring to our marriage?” Your top-five character strengths are called signature strengths. Commit yourself to practicing one of these character strengths each day, or for a week at a time. Used in your relationship with your spouse, these positive attributes strengthen your marriage and raise marital satisfaction. You can turn to these strengths also during difficult moments in your marriage.
2.) “How can I show appreciation for my spouse’s character strengths?” If your spouse takes the survey and shares his or her results with you, take note of your spouse’s signature strengths. Commit yourself to expressing appreciation for one of his or her signature strengths two or three times a week.
Expressing appreciation may feel awkward at first if your tendency has been to focus on the negative.
One way to show appreciation is to keep a pad of sticky notes and a pen on the bathroom counter. Before you brush your teeth in the morning, write a short note about how you admire one of his or her signature strengths and stick on the mirror.
For example, if one of his or her strengths is honesty, you could write, “I love how you were honest with me over how you felt about visiting my parents this weekend. I didn’t like hearing it, but it makes me happy to know you never hide your true feelings.”
Expressing appreciation may feel awkward at first if your tendency has been to focus on the negative, but this is how you strengthen your positive focus. The more you do it, the more it will feel right.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”