We're Only Human

Can negativity save a failing marriage?

Newlyweds are almost always advised to be upbeat—to have positive expectations for their relationship, to put the best spin on their partner’s actions, and to forgive and forget. Marriage counselors also take (and preach) the view that positive attitudes and actions will strengthen a struggling marriage, even when a little negativity might be well-deserved.

So why do half of all couples in therapy fail to save their marriages? Is it possible that this rose-tinted advice is bad advice, that positivity isn’t the cure-all for ailing unions after all? New research seems to suggest that indeed, for rocky marriages, false positivity may actually gloss over issues that need attention, exacerbating rather than solving problems.

James McNulty, a psychological scientist at the University of Tennessee, has been studying newlyweds, following their marriages over years, through thick and thin. He has examined couples’ expectations, their tendencies to blame one another, their problem solving styles, and their readiness to forgive. His overall conclusion is that, while positivity is in fact tonic for couples who are doing okay, it is detrimental for couples who are already on the skids.

Here’s a closer look, as spelled out in the latest issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. The received wisdom among marriage experts is that having a bleak outlook is a self-fulfilling prophecy—leading to destructive interactions that undermine the partnership. But McNulty found a more nuanced view when he followed 82 newlywed couples over four years of marriage. Being hopeful about the future only helps if those hopes are confirmed by experience, he found. But for many couples—especially those lacking problem-solving skills—those early high hopes are dashed, leading to disappointment. For such couples, realistically anticipating some rough patches may not be a bad thing—and in fact can result in greater satisfaction over the long haul.

Or consider the blame game. Everyone who has ever been married has screwed up sometime, and it seems obvious that cutting your partner some slack would be good for the marriage. And that’s true—for happy couples. Husbands and wives in solid marriages look for alternative explanations when their partner blunders, instead of blaming the blunder on a character flaw. But McNulty found that this strategy—benevolently looking for excuses—can also cause couples to overlook important issues in the marriage, which then go unresolved. Which strategy is best depends on the relationship and the problems. In another of his long-range studies of couples, McNulty found that, when the problems were most severe, holding one’s partner responsible—blaming them—led to greater satisfaction, presumably because a little negativity forced the couples to confront issues.

Partners who routinely blame one another are often rejecting and controlling as well—traits that make for ineffective problem solving. Accordingly, therapists usually counsel couples to avoid these negative behaviors when they’re trying to work something out. Yet again, McNulty found this to be simplistic advice—inapplicable to all couples. Couples who had mostly minor problems did indeed benefit if they were less rejecting and controlling, but couples with knottier and more frequent problems actually did better if they were more negative during discussions. Why? Presumably it’s because rejection and demanding behavior—as toxic as they seem—can actually be effective strategies for forcing a partner to make the changes needed for a marriage to survive.

Wouldn’t a healthy dose of forgiveness trump all the problems that plague marriages? Isn’t that the simplest answer to most of the travails that undermine relationships? Well, yes and no, says McNulty. In his studies, the psychologist found that forgiveness only works for relationships that experience rare marital misdemeanors. In marriages where one’s partner is frequently unkind or insulting, being unforgiving appears to pay off. In such troubled couples, too much forgiveness simply increases the likelihood that the cruelty will continue—and lead to more disharmony over time.

So two cheers for negativity in marriage. McNulty found one notable exception, however—sarcasm. The tendency to be snide is linked to unhappier and less successful marriages, no matter how difficult the problems that couples faced initially. The benefits of negativity appear to require directness; direct negativity provides concrete information to both partners about what changes are needed to save the marriage. Indirect, snarky negativity just creates ambiguity about how to get from here to there.

Wray Herbert’s new book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September. Excerpts from the “We’re Only Human” blog appear regularly in The Huffington Post and in Scientific American Mind.

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