I’ve been making a long list of things my husband doesn’t do, does wrong, misses completely, fails to acknowledge or basically doesn’t do in a manner that pleases me for a couple of weeks. I’m scared to even write about this list. As a therapist, I know how dangerous “looking for problems” is to a relationship. John Gottman, renowned Psychologist and relationship researcher, calls this Negative Sentiment Override, a tendency overtime to interpret things more negatively. I know that this clouds my vision of what is going right, of how much he cares about me, and slowly eats away at my positive feelings towards him. I know that when we look for what is going wrong we rarely find what is going right.
Today, as I read one of the many self-help/psychology books that litter my nightstand, I had a brief thought. “What if I just pretended this list didn’t exist”… I went about my day, brushing the thought off as just wishful, irrational thinking. But like all good thoughts, it persisted and crept back into my consciousness as I mopped, as I refereed my toddlers, and again, as I folded laundry. “What if I pretended this list didn’t exist? What if I made a list of what’s going right? What if I let him love me without criticizing how he does it? What if…”
But again, because I am stubborn, I tried to push these good thoughts out of my head.
However, I noticed that even without doing anything, a smile had crept across my face. My mood seemed brighter. And the list of what my husband does to love and support me seemed to grow in my head. So, I decided to try an experiment. I sat down to write the lists. One list for all I think he does wrong and one for all he does right. Then I decided I probably needed a third list; a list for what he perceives he does to love me and care for our family.
As I wrote the list I noticed something. My list of what he does wrong was full of assumptions, generalities, and ambiguity. Whereas the list of what I think he does right was full of concrete examples of him trying to love me, of the many things he does everyday to care for our family, and how he tries to support me. The list I created of what I think he perceives as his acts of love and care was even longer. Again the smile crept over my face, and I felt my shoulders relax. I sat and looked at the three lists. I tried to be objective. I smiled.
And what I found was that on my list, I couldn’t “prove” many of the things I think he does wrong. Such as, I couldn’t prove that he doesn’t listen to me, and I couldn’t prove that he doesn’t like putting the kids to bed. My negative list was full of irrational thoughts- my negative interpretations of his actions.
Of course, since I am a therapist, I pondered the lists some more. I wondered about how the negativity had grown, and how I had missed so many good things, and why was I so quick to look for the problems. What I am just now starting to realize is that we (Me) have to be vigilant about protecting our thoughts. We have to be willing to use the Socratic method to double check to see if the thoughts (and the feelings behind them) are in fact true. And if they are not, then we have to look for a more realistic thought, maybe even some evidence, even if it means questioning our feelings. We also have to actively search out the good, the things that are going right, and the positive intentions behind someone’s behavior.
So the list of what is going right is going on my fridge as a gentle, daily reminder of how much I am loved and supported. And tonight I will tell my husband thank you, even though he might not know all that went on in my head today. It was because of his love, support, devotion, and commitment that I was able to smile and let his love into my heart.
– by Lily Maino, M.S.