Humans have evolved with a drive to share life with a partner—just not all day long. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savanna formed pair-bonds, but they parted in the morning to go about their separate tasks. So did our ancestors on the farm. For hundreds of thousands of years, even the most devoted couples have been uttering some version of that basic romantic principle: “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
So what happens now that spouses are staying home all day, and many unmarried couples suddenly find themselves quarantined together? The peril facing relationships quickly became obvious to the pioneers of this new intimacy on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where couples were cooped up for two weeks in their cabin during the ship’s quarantine. Ellis Vincent, a retired airline executive from Australia, told a reporter that he and his wife, Kimberly, were passing the time by having long conversations during which she displayed a remarkable memory.
“She is able to bring up every transgression I’ve ever had,” he said. “I believe she is not finished.”
That is not the way for a relationship to survive the COVID-19 quarantine. The Vincents were succumbing to the negativity effect, which even in ordinary circumstances is the chief threat to couples—and can be an absolute relationship killer in these troubled times. The negativity effect is the brain’s tendency to respond more strongly to negative events and emotions than to positive ones. In short: Bad is stronger than good.
Research has shown that a negative event (such as your partner rehashing an old fight) typically has at least three times the impact of a comparable positive event (such as your partner recalling one of your past kindnesses). To keep love alive, bear a rough guideline in mind that we call the Rule of Four: Four good things are necessary to overcome one bad thing. Given the nonstop negativity in the news, people will need lots of positivity in their personal lives to compensate.
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