The difference between negativity and positivity in marriage is the difference between a marriage filled with nagging, complaining, and criticism versus a marriage that is filled with affirmation, gratitude, and positive emotions.
Let’s look at how negativity can be damaging to our marriages and then look at some specific strategies for bringing positivity into play.
Negativity Impacts Mood and Marital Satisfaction
We may not even realize how the negativity we are expressing in our marriages is actually hurting our own mood and marital satisfaction.
There is a really neat study that examined the “saying is experiencing effect.” This phenomenon is pretty much just what it sounds like: you experience what you say or hear. They ran four experiments to look at mood before and after complaining or affirmation. While this study wasn’t specifically for marriage, they found it true to human nature that:
- Complaining leads to decreases in mood.
- Affirmation leads to increases in mood.
- The effect on mood was equally strong for both complaining and affirmation.
- This effect was found after listening to others affirm or complain. This effect was also found after hearing one’s own affirming or complaining communication.[i]
Another study that looked at marriages over a 13-year period found that negativity in the marriage was directly associated with marital dissatisfaction. As negativity increased, dissatisfaction with the marriage increased.
This makes it pretty clear that when we bring negativity into our marriages it impacts both our mood in the short term but also really begins to erode our marital satisfaction over the long term.
This is critical because negativity doesn’t have to be a huge blatant thing. It can just be subtle or minor or more about a bit of an attitude. It’s like cholesterol that just builds up over time. It’s not as momentous as a broken leg but after a while you find yourself in a crisis.
You may have realized you have some negative habits in your marriage and aren’t sure what to do with them. To talk about them with your spouse seems negative, but you don’t want to live with them anymore. What to do? Listen to the bonus audio clip that deals specifically with how to give helpful feedback to your spouse.
Expressing Gratitude and Appreciation Will Strengthen your Marriage
Stop and think for a moment. When was the last time you pointed our directly to your spouse, without any sarcasm or joking, but sincerely expressed something to him or her that you appreciated?
We all want more of this, right? You’re maybe hoping that your spouse would give you more. I get that! But, how much are you GIVING? You can only change yourself directly.
We’ve noticed in our marriage that this gratitude and appreciation thing is a cycle – the more you give the more you get. We go in and out of this cycle all the time, but we’re trying to be more in than out. We’re looking for those moments when we can say, “I really appreciate how you handled our daughter in that difficult situation” or “Thanks for doing my laundry – again!”
One of the classic cycles we get into as couples is the demand/withdraw cycle. Probably 80% of the time (or more) it is the wife demanding and the husband withdrawing. It looks like an attacking wife and a husband distancing himself. Because the demand/withdraw cycle usually has a negative effect, a study from last year looked at how gratitude impacted these demand/withdraw patterns. They found that expressing gratitude to your spouse is a practical process that both promotes and protects the quality of your marriage.[ii]
What is really neat about that is that anyone can do gratitude and it will have a positive impact on your marriage.
To take this further, a study from 2012 found that:
- People who feel appreciated by their romantic partner report acting more appreciative towards their partner in return. (That’s the positive cycle happening)
- People who are more appreciative of their partner report being more responsive to their partner’s needs. (If you give appreciation, yes, you’ll get it back, but your spouse will also become more responsive to your needs!)
- Appreciative partners show more responsiveness and commitment in interactions with their partners, and these behavioural displays (relational maintenance behaviours) are one way in which appreciation is transmitted from one partner to the other. (We really start layering these positive impacts one on top of another because now you’re adding commitment to the mix.)[iii]
So, what did appreciative behaviours look like? Conceptually, any behaviour that maintains the marriage in some way will be perceived as an act of appreciation. Practically, they can be seen in actions such as:
- Telling your spouse that he or she is the best
- Telling your spouse how much you appreciate him or her
- Acknowledging the things your spouse does for you, even the really small things
- Acknowledging or treating your spouse like he or she is someone special
- Finding yourself “struck with a sense of awe or wonder” at the thought of your partner being in your life.
- Not taking your partner for granted.[iv]
These expressions of gratitude and appreciation really build up the marriage. So, the question to you is, how much of theses are your bringing to your marriage? Those six things are incredibly valuable to your marriage.
But that’s not all; there are more kinds of positivity!
Bringing Playfulness, Enthusiasm, Humour and Affection Into Your Marriage
Here’s a store from a study by a couple researchers that were looking at playfulness and enthusiasm in everyday life as well as the use of humour and affection during conflict.
“Cynthia and David were arguing about finances again. Cynthia had painstakingly saved for months to create a buffer for future emergencies. David wanted to use the money to take the family on a much-needed vacation. This discrepancy between saving and spending had become a common theme, so the conflict quickly became heated and territorial. Suddenly, Cynthia looked down and said, ‘What happened to your socks?’ Startled, David looked down at his blacked socks and commented, ‘I had to chase a raccoon out of our garden and I didn’t have time to put on my shoes.’ They both laughed.”[v]
Why is this important? That short moment of shared laughter and positive emotion was critical to the discussion. In the middle of their conflict, they had a moment of joy with each other. We need these moments of joy, because we do have conflict. We do have upset. We do have stress that comes in and things to sort out.
Sometimes we get in a rut and we’re intentional about our negativity. That happens. But most of the time it’s not like that and some negative situations arise all by themselves. That is why we have to be purposeful about creating positives.
These researchers made some interesting observations that take this further. They looked at 130 couples on two different occasions: once in a conflict and once in a normal meal-time interaction. They looked at how these couples responded around issue of positivity and conflict. This what they found:
Playfulness and Enthusiasm: couples who were more positive and playful during every day moments and interactions were more likely and able to bring affection and humor into their arguments.
Humor and Affection: Humor and affection in the midst of conflict predicted how healthy the couple’s relationship would be in the future.
The Husband’s Playfulness: The study also found a difference in gender, specifically in terms of the husband’s playfulness. The husband’s playfulness was related to both his wife’s playfulness and enthusiasm. In addition, the husband’s playfulness was related to eh couple’s ability to access humor during conflict.
The Husband’s Enthusiasm: The husband’s enthusiastic responses during everyday life seemed to directly influence the wife’s affection during conflict.
The Wife’s Enthusiasm: The wife’s enthusiastic responses seemed to drive the husband’s affection. In the study, this was the only way in which the husband’s affection was influenced.
These are some SUPER INTERESTING observations. Their conclusion was that for most couples it would be best to focus on building enthusiasm and playfulness in daily moments. It’s an easy area to work on first and could lead naturally to the couple experiencing affection and humor during conflict.
So, think about your marriage.
- How enthusiastic are you toward your spouse?
- How playful are you?
- How much humor do you bring to your marriage?
- What about affection?
Just think about one thing you’d like to tell your spouse that you appreciate, or one funny moment that you’d like to share, or something playful you could do together, and then DO IT!
And for the realists that are out there – Something about your spouse is bugging you and you need to clear the air with some feedback for your spouse before you feel the urge to be jovial… Download the audio clip which will teach you how to give accurate and positive feedback without throwing a wet blanket on the warmth of your marriage.
[i] Bogdan Wojciszke et al., “Saying Is Experiencing: Affective Consequences of Complaining and Affirmation,” Polish Psychological Bulletin 40, no. 2 (2009): 74, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2478/s10059-009-0008-0.
[ii] Allen W. Barton, Ted G. Futris, and Robert B. Nielsen, “Linking Financial Distress to Marital Quality: The Intermediary Roles of Demand/withdraw and Spousal Gratitude Expressions,” Personal Relationships 22, no. 3 (September 1, 2015): 536–49, doi:10.1111/pere.12094.
[iii] Amie M. Gordon et al., “To Have and to Hold: Gratitude Promotes Relationship Maintenance in Intimate Bonds,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103, no. 2 (August 2012): 257.
[v] Janice L. Driver and John M. Gottman, “Daily Marital Interactions and Positive Affect During Marital Conflict Among Newlywed Couples,” Family Process 43, no. 3 (September 2004): 301–14.