5 Loving Ways To Save Your Relationship From Toxic Negativity

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There is a lot of negativity happening in our society today. It almost seems that a Pandora’s Box was ripped open somewhere and there’s an untethered freedom to hurl a barrage of angry, hurtful, and unfiltered words and behaviors.

Many might want to blame the media, politicians, or some sort of cultural shift. But to us, what is reflected in society is mirrored in our psyches. What shows up on a macro level is an expression of the micro level.

We can only be capable of a negative-free society if we can first be capable of a negative-free relationship at home. As a bonus, learning to be less negative can save a relationship that is struggling.

In our most intimate relationships, we start with expressions of unconditional love: doting behaviors, letters, text messages, and phone calls declaring our pledge, feeling positively joyful with ourselves and the world. And yet, when we fall in love, we are not able to maintain that level of perfect love.

After a while, the ecstasy of love begins to wane. We might begin to notice that Bob is slightly careful with money or that Joan is a bit opinionated. And before long, Bob is always stingy and Joan always has to have it her way.

We call this stage — which naturally follows romance — the power struggle. And, just like in our culture, when couples are in a power struggle, the full blame falls on the other: “It’s your fault!” (Conversely, “It’s never my fault!”) And we try to change, coerce, and/or threaten them to be “more like me.”

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What is negativity?

What do we mean by negativity? Negativity is any thought, word, or deed that tells your partner: “You’re not okay when you think what you think or act the way that you act.”

It’s a “put-down” to the core being. In essence, you are rejecting your partner’s “otherness.”

We sometimes feel the need to negate our partners when they do or say something that makes us uncomfortable. Usually, they are just being themselves. But from our point of view, they are threatening an image that we have of them, or they are failing to meet an unspoken need of our own.

Typically, negativity makes its first appearance in a love relationship as denial: “I can’t believe you did that!” The fact that your partner is a separate individual with wishes and needs different from yours is starting to dawn on you, and you feel threatened. Your denial is a desperate ploy to hold on to your illusions.



When your partner continues to depart from your projected image, the tendency is to bring out the big guns, one by one.

Your arsenal includes shame (“How do you think that feels?!”), blame (“I wasn’t talking to you because you were so late!”), criticism (“You are so insensitive!”), invasiveness (“If you just listen to me, I will tell you what to do.”), and, finally, blanket condemnation (“You never listen to me!”).

It’s no wonder that our partners feel depressed, stay late at work, drink too much, and/or don’t want to make love. Being with us is not a safe place to be. They experience being chopped up into little pieces, dissected, and rejected.

This is a form of emotional annihilation. No one — and no relationship — can be healthy in such a toxic environment. To get the love we want and have a healthy relationship, we need to eliminate negativity in all its forms and learn how to communicate better.

One question we are often asked is whether all negativity is bad, and our unequivocal answer is, “Yes!”

Negative words inflict emotional injury. You can call it sarcasm or humor, or whatever excuse you make (“I was only kidding!”), but it is emotional abuse. If you find yourself saying, “Can’t you take a joke?” or, “I was only kidding,” or “I’m just offering constructive criticism,” chances are you are harming your relationship.

Criticism may not always take the form of words. Body language can communicate a lot. It can be a touch, a glare, an eye roll, or two hands thrown up in the air.

However it comes out, the message is that one person is superior and the other inferior. One person is up, the other person is down. You cannot have a healthy relationship with this dynamic.

There’s another good reason that negativity is bad: the negativity that we express toward our partners (or relatives, friends, even strangers) comes back like a boomerang and affects us as well.

That’s because our unconscious brain does not know whether the negativity is being directed outward or inward. This theory has been backed up by studies showing that when one person yells at another, the person being yelled at produces more of the stress hormone cortisol.

That’s to be expected. But, perhaps more interestingly, the same increase in cortisol is seen in the angry person as well.

One could say that any negativity that we direct toward others is a form of self-abuse.

Taking the 'ZN Challenge'

You can decide now to stop all negativity, and it can be a powerful first step toward saving your marriage. Act on that decision and everything will change. To have the relationship of your dreams, there is a responsibility of how you and your partner talk, look, share, and treat one another.

No shame, blame, or criticism — ever. We call the removal of all “put-downs” in the relationship The Zero Negativity Challenge.

When people tell us how hard it is to stop being negative, we remind them it’s like first learning to ski. We can’t imagine going down the slope with our feet turned inward. When we ask, “Why?” the instructor answers, “So you won’t die.” It’s the same answer for eliminating negativity.

You have to learn how to stop, or your relationship will die.

couple breaking upPhoto: Mixmike / Getty Images Signature via Canva

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The task may seem daunting, but the rewards are great. As negativity recedes, goodwill rushes in to fill the void. Without conscious effort, you find yourself focusing on your partner’s admirable qualities, much as you did during courtship. Only this time, you will have the insights and tools you need to sustain your regard.

Meanwhile, your partner will also be seeing you in a much more positive light, and you will both thrive in its warm glow. Eventually, a sacred space will well up between you, one that both of you want to nurture and protect. With conflict removed, your connection will deepen and passion will flow.

We challenge you to give it a try — not a word, not a comment, not a thought, not a glance in a negative direction. Ask your partner to take the Zero Negativity Challenge. You will be amazed at the results.


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Here are 5 of our favorite ways to succeed during your Zero Negativity Challenge.

1. Self-reflect.

Keep in mind that the goal is not to repress the feelings behind our negative thoughts and behaviors — that would only add to our store of pent-up emotions — but rather to bring them out into the open and see them for what they are: a warning sign that some aspect of the relationship needs work.



One of the best ways to start solving a relationship problem is to look at your contribution: “Here I am, having critical thoughts about my partner again. What does this say about me? What am I doing or not doing right now that is feeding my negative attitude?”

2. Start with an achievable goal.

We remind couples to start with small goals. It can be for 30 days, a weekend, or even a 24-hour commitment. At the end of the commitment, review and renew. Once you build up small successes, you can commit to longer periods.

3. Move from “You messages” to “I messages”.

When we are frustrated, it’s easy to move into negativity with “you messages” (you always, you never, you are such an &#%!@?!) To help us move away from disparaging language, we teach couples to use “I messages” (“I feel…,” “I experience…”) to learn how to communicate better with one another.

This helps you take responsibility for your feelings and also helps your partner “hear” the frustration rather than move into a defensive stance.

4. Learn ways to reconnect.

Be forgiving of each other when there are “slip-ups.” Explore ways to reconnect as quickly as possible.

Reconnecting options can be an apology, a gift, or a “re-do” on the conversation without the put-down. Every person will be different on what helps them move to a reconnecting place so explore different ways and communicate what works well.

5. Assess your relationship.

Keep in mind that the pledge is to keep your relationship free of negativity. You will be assessing your relationship, not each other. In addition, what matters is if one partner experienced negativity from the other — regardless of whether that was the intention.

Negativity is invisible abuse.

When you eliminate this invisible abuse in your primary relationship, then you eliminate it in your relationships with your children, your friends, and the broader world. You become a person of peace! And, in turn, the world becomes a more peaceful place.

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Harville Hendrix, Ph. D., is a couples therapist with over 40 years of experience as a counselor, educator, clinical trainer, author, and public lecturer and has received many awards for his work with couples. He and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, co-created Imago Relationship Therapy, a therapy for couples now practiced by over 2,200 certified therapists in 30 countries.