If I never met your marriage partner and had only your words to go by, what would I think of your partner?
One of the challenges of building a great marriage is the slow accumulation over time of something akin to "mercury poisoning" that builds up in our relationship. Those who have studied marriage, like John Gottman, have been fascinated by how couples, previously in love, can come to view their partners through negative glasses. Couples who have been overrun by this "negative sentiment override" view their couple history through selective negative memories, regularly minimize (by over 50 per cent) the things their partner does on their behalf and come to see their future through a mixture of pessimism and lost hope. At the same time, those studying marriage have noticed how healthy marriages operate with a completely different approach. Although their relationships deal with many of the same issues as the negative couples, healthy couples regularly practise gratitude, with each spouse noticing the things the other does on their behalf. Apparently, when it comes to marriage, you always find what you are looking for!
In our experience with training what is now hundreds of people in our marriage course, we have noticed that we all wrestle with a culture that invites this sort of mercury poisoning. We call "porn" any-thing that invites discontentment into our relationships. It could be actual porn, romance novels, unrealistic expectations or even clinging to an ideal picture of what your partner "should" be like. As we have listened to women's complaints over the years, we have wondered if some women are really looking for another woman who comes in a man's body. At the same time, listen to men's complaints and you would think they are really looking for another man with the smells and shape of a woman.
The solution, you might have guessed, is to move from "negative" to "positive" sentiment override. This transformation takes some work but it is completely possible. Here is one exercise, called the "personal couple inventory," that can get you started. First, on a daily basis (and later on a weekly basis) take 15 minutes by yourself and create two question-based lists. One list is entitled "The things you did today (or this week) that were helpful to me or to our relationship." The second list is "The things I did that were not helpful to you or our relationship." You then exchange the list with your partner and talk about them. You are allowed to ask for clarification but are not allowed to add to your partner's list. If you are struggling with "negative sentiment override" this will be a tough challenge at first because you will naturally want to focus on the exact opposite-the things I did that I feel benefited you or this relationship (that you never noticed) and the things that you did that were not helpful to our relationship (which I notice quite clearly and would dearly love to share with you).
As Valentine's Day gets closer, let me encourage you to give a gift that will stand the test of time-attend a marriage course together. We also lead a course starting the week after Valentine's Day for six weeks. Whatever you do, don't be passive when it comes to your marriage. Remember, brown stuff runs downhill and so does negative sentiment override. Don't let them meet your marriage at the bottom of the hill.
? Vern and Susan Tompke lead the Better Marriages Seminar and can be reached at bettermarriages @shaw.ca.