The Sneaky Bias That Undermines Even The Best Relationships

Photo: Dean Drobot / shutterstock
Couple nuzzling lovingly in desert in front of a Toyota SUV

Imagine scripting a perfect day with your partner. You set out on a hike on a beautiful Sunday morning, take a dip at a refreshing waterfall with no one around, and snack on the fruit salad and sandwiches you prepared together.

Feeling connected and energized, you head back home. And then one of you says something. Maybe your husband says, “Why can’t we do this all the time?”

While the words alone might seem innocent enough, you hear something else. You infer from the tone of his “never-ending” complaint that you work too much.

Suddenly, the adrenaline and cortisol pump through your veins, and you react, “Maybe we could if I didn’t have to work so much to pick up your slack.”

In a flash, that moment defines the day.

After a few more choice exchanges, that moment defines the next few days as you both retreat into bitter silence.

Humans have what is known as a “negativity bias.” In short, the bad stuff outweighs the good stuff. The good news is, there's a solution that can help.

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 Focusing on what your partner is doing right can be very powerful. The more you focus on the good, the more good there will be to focus on. Energy follows attention.

Three ways to shift focus & create a new, loving outcome for your relationship

1. Be mindful of what is going well and what your partner is doing right

This not only includes what you say to your partner but how you think about your partner. Thoughts magnify the experience.

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2. Make a list of what you love

Sit down and write out everything you appreciate, admire and love about your partner. Include everything from physical attributes to personality traits to behaviors. Continue adding to the list regularly.

3. Every day share at least three appreciations

Make a point throughout the day to notice things you appreciate about your partner, then make a point to say what you love and appreciate about them every day.

Start by saying, “One thing I appreciate about you is….” And deepen the appreciation by sharing, “When you do that, I feel….”

This ritual of appreciations can transform relationships. A hidden benefit of this rule is that we can discover many wonderful things about each other.

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We gravitate towards and dwell on the one thing that did not go well rather than the five that did go well. It’s too common for this negativity to consume our relationships and distort our thinking.

In committed relationships especially, compliments dwindle, and tones get harsher. We become less forgiving and loving and more critical and shaming. The charming blemishes we may have embraced early on transform into glaring character flaws.

We now know something about the origins of this sensitivity to the negative: Any negative message — words, tone, facial expression — triggers our survival drive, and that triggers our anxiety.

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When we are scared, we automatically protect ourselves by withdrawing from the scene or countering with a putdown. And that makes everything worse. Because of this it is difficult to see beyond our partner's wrong doing.

They are stuck in this negativity bias (anxiety about what might happen to them) and have one goal for being there: to have their partner “see the light” (of all their wrongdoings) and “be fixed,” oblivious to their contributions.

It’s why we immediately move into one of our core teachings around intentionality. We need to strengthen the intentional muscle to override the reactive muscle. One way to do this is through the appreciation process. Appreciations help us slow down reactivity by engaging the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain which regulates anxiety.

Most of us are guilty of falling into the trap of negativity. It can sometimes take an enormous effort to use the muscles we so seldom use.

It’s much easier to be reactive and negative. It’s much harder to be intentional and positive at least, at first.

Once we overcome the ingrained bias, like any atrophied muscle, intentionality becomes stronger and automatic. Appreciations flow. Relationships thrive, and we begin to identify each other as a source of pleasure­ once again.

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Harville Hendrix, Ph. D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. are partners in life and work. They are co-creator of Imago Relationship Theory & Therapy practiced in 62 countries by over2500 therapists and co-founders of Safe Conversations LLC, a social movement and relational intervention based on the latest relational sciences to facilitate the creation of a relational civilization.