A common thread in my couples therapy practice with those who struggle to make change is a strong negativity bias. The needle on the “Geiger counter” of their relationship is bouncing up and down in the red. In the worst cases, they are hostile, adversarial, mistrusting and believe they are experts on each other, convinced that they “know” exactly how the other feels. And it’s not good.
“He doesn’t even like me.”
“She has one foot out of the marriage.”
“He wishes he would have married ___.”
“She is only staying in the marriage because of our child.”
In psychology-speak, a “negativity bias” refers to the neuroscience of feeling threatened. Rick Hanson, PhD explains below:
“In your brain, there are separate (though interacting) systems for negative and positive stimuli. Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.”
People have varying degrees of negativity bias. Those with trauma or challenged family of origin experiences are often vulnerable to a stronger negativity bias than someone with a secure upbringing, strong sense of self and no traumatic experiences. The brain is wired for fear or security…and many shades of grey in between.
Thankfully, we have learned that a negativity bias can be challenged by noticing the good, gratitude, mindfulness and other positive practices that can rewire the brain.
A negativity bias can exist in relationships too.
The couple with the Geiger bouncing up and down at the extreme end of the negative side are going to be stuck unless they work together to counter the negative with positive, to move the needle slowly towards their ability to make room for benefit of the doubt and willingness to be vulnerable. The idea is to build good will again, to create an environment where your partner feels he/she can put down the sword and shield. You are BOTH responsible for this.
11 Ways to Counter the Negativity Bias in Your Relationship
- Begin each day with a positive statement or greeting for each other.
- In transitional moments, (coming or going, one going to bed, etc), say hello, goodbye, goodnight with an affectionate gesture.
- Notice aloud what is going well. “That’s great that you got a bonus, you’ve worked hard.”
- Show appreciation. “That was a really delicious meal, thank you.”
- Offer help. If you see something you can do to help your partner, offer it up. “Would you like me to make Sarah’s school lunch tomorrow to give you a break?”
- Check in. Make an effort to ask each other how you are doing to demonstrate care.
- Make time. Schedule a walk or lunch with each other. Show each other that you want to be there.
- Repair if needed. If you mess up, apologize right away. This will not be a straight line.
- Be open. A repair attempt will do no good if you are not open to possibilities. Change cannot happen either.
- State your needs. Make sure you’ve articulated what you need in the relationship to give your partner a chance to respond.
- Try again. Don’t allow resentment and sensitivity derail the process. Know that it’s hard work and perfection doesn’t exist.
Remember that your goal is to create an environment for your relationship to heal. Practice empathy for your partner and self-compassion, as after all, such a strong negativity bias was born out of wounds (perceived or real). It’s a natural drive to be self protective in matters of the heart. The hope is to shift the dynamic so you both feel the other is truly there and can be leaned upon.
Intimate relationships are second to parent-child relationships in vulnerability and need to feel emotionally safe.1