A long time ago, my husband attempted to get himself out of a jam by telling me “If I say something and you can take it two ways but one way makes you mad, I meant it the other way.” This was a tongue in cheek way of reminding me to push pause on the natural human tendency to assume someone is thinking the worst about us. If he asks “Is that what you’re wearing?” he just might mean ‘Oh, I guess I need to change since I thought we were dressing more casually’ and not ‘you look ugly and fat in that.’ The truth is, giving him the benefit of the doubt usually ends up making me feel better too.
Positive Sentiment Override
Even though my husband said this long before I had ever heard of John Gottman, it closely resembles his theory about ‘positive sentiment override’ in a relationship. In his book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Gottman describes positive sentiment override as occurring when the positivity in a relationship is so pervasive that a grouchy response is overlooked and likely attributed to an external problem, such as being stressed. In a less healthy relationship, the same grouchy response would possibly be seen as a personal attack and met with its own angry reply.
Strengthen Your Friendship
So how can you increase the positive perspective in your own relationship? Find ways to strengthen the friendship part of your relationship. Spend time having fun together. Share your thoughts on small things like your favorite movie of all time. Engage in meaningful conversation about big things like your hopes and dreams for the future. Perhaps use one of the many books or cards of questions that suggest topics. Discuss an issue where you have differing opinions and ask questions to help you understand their point of view. Then tell them which parts kind of make sense, even if you still largely disagree. Or how about an appreciation journal that specifically lists one thing every day that shows your partner loves you?
By building up the deposits in your ‘positivity bank account,’ you will increase the possibility that you will be able to give your partner the benefit when she says, “I forgot to pick up the chips you wanted at the store.” She might really mean ‘I forgot’ and not ‘you need to eat healthier anyway.’ Because if she says something and you can take it two ways but one way makes you mad, she probably meant it the other way.