Take in the Good: Overcoming Negativity Bias in Relationships

Scientific evidence suggests that our brain has a built-in negativity bias. This tendency is part of what has allowed us to survive over millions of years. Our survival depended on constant vigilance to detect danger. However, noticing the good must become a practice if we want to rewire our brain for success in our relationship.

One of the ways that our negativity bias shows up is that painful experiences stick in our memory longer than pleasurable ones. Understanding this can help us understand why to have a lasting relationship, we need to create more pleasurable experiences than painful ones. Research suggests five positive interactions are required to balance every negative interaction.

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Another way our negativity bias affects us is that we experience the pain of loss more intensely than the pleasure of gain. For example, we will try harder to avoid losing $200.00 than we will to gain the same amount. Understanding this principle will help us appreciate why it is essential to be careful what we promise in our relationship. If we promise to do something and don’t do it, the pain experienced by our partner due to the loss of expectation will be greater than the happiness they experienced several times when expectations were met.

Even though most of what happens in a day is either neutral or positive, we are most likely to remember the few things that went wrong in any given day. We worry about what we should have done or said differently; we worry about what we failed to do or accomplish rather than celebrating what we have accomplished; we notice how our partner disappointed us rather than appreciating how they contributed positively to our day. 

All this worry and focus on the negative makes us more anxious, irritable and sad. It makes it harder to be patient and generous with each other. So it would seem that our brain is working against our having a lasting, fulfilling relationship. 

But you are not powerless to change this. It does require some conscious effort, especially at first. It is possible to rewire your brain to take in the good. By choosing to notice and feel the good in your relationship, you will increase your happiness and strengthen your relationship. 

Focusing on the positive does not mean that you pretend the negative does not exist. But noticing the positive will help you keep perspective, give you more energy, and help you find resources to meet those challenges. 

Here are three simple steps to help you take in the good in your relationship. 

1.     Look for positive facts and turn them into good experiences. Notice something nice or thoughtful that your partner says or does. If you cannot find any today, dig into your memory, and use those. When you find something suitable, let yourself feel good about it—take a moment to celebrate. Try to do this at least six times a day. Each time you do this spend at least 30 seconds reveling in the memory. You can do this as you go about your day or you can take some time for reflection later in the day. It is especially helpful to do this just before you fall asleep and immediately when you wake up. Your brain is more receptive to new learning at these times. 

a.     If you notice resistance coming up for you, acknowledge it and then put your attention back on taking in the good. Some people may feel that they don’t deserve to feel good or that it is selfish or shameful to feel pleasure. It is understandable that you may feel this way, but these barriers get in the way of growing into your contented self. Breathe deep, acknowledge your resistance, and refocus on taking in the positive facts. 

2.     Mindfully enjoy the experience.Most of the good things that happen in your relationship are pretty tame. But mindfully experiencing the positive can make it a richer, more fulfilling experience. Research has shown that the longer something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons fire and wire together and the stronger the memory that is formed.

a.     You are, in a sense filling a well inside yourself with positive feelings and experiences. You are helping yourself to gain an inner sense of worth and strengthening your solid sense of self. 

3.     Visualize the good experience becoming part of you.Visualize taking the good experience right into your heart. You can visualize warm light, diamonds, or jewels or anything that represent goodness to you. You can allow yourself to take in the experience and feel that it is healing old hurts or filling any emptiness or soothing loss. This exercise of self-soothing helps to solidify the learning as your neurons fire and wire together. 

Consistency is the most critical part of taking in the good. Doing this once or twice will make little difference. But if you make it a habit, over time, you will rewire your brain to help you find joy in your relationship.