Focusing on the positive: a piece of advice for couples in distress

Very often in therapy, couples skip their achievements and tell me about the failures. I stop them and ask them to go back to the achievements, even if they are small and ephemeral. I suggest stopping to talk about them, because they might vanish without leaving their marks.

The reason for this phenomenon is that our brain has a preference for negativity. We leave "the factory" with an increased  sensitivity to bad news. That makes sense. Our brain developed at a time when it was crucial to remember which plant is poisonous, and far less important to know which one tasted good. Until today, our survival depends on our ability to avoid danger. Just like a restaurant owner giving preferential treatment to celebrities, our brain grants the best table to negative events, lodging our achievements in the second-rate table near the toilet. 

But if registering negative events is important for our survival, why should we still focus on our achievements? I'd like to explain this by referring to  the Availability Heuristic (about which you can read in Prof. Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking Fast and Slow”. When our brain needs to evaluate the odds of an event occurring, it tries to imagine it. If the event is easily and vividly imaginable, our brain may estimate that the odds of it occurring are high, regardless of the objective likelihood of the outcome. This is one of the reasons that we become anxious of terrorists whenever the media covers terrorist attacks, although our chances of getting hurt in a traffic accident are infinitely higher than the chance to being attacked by terrorist, at any point in time. This happens because being attacked by terrorists is by far a more emotionally-charged scenario than a car accident, as it includes intentional aggression, and is a scenario that the media describes in a more vivid and detailed manner than it describes a car accident. 

When we put together our brain’s biological bias towards negativity and the Availability Heuristic, we can see the psychological danger we are exposed to. If our brain puts up neon signs to remind us of our failures, and in contrast writes our achievements with a stick in the sand, next time we find ourselves dealing with a difficult situation, with which we didn't deal well in the past, we are likely to expect ourselves to fail again.

This phenomenon has fateful consequences for our close relationships. Many couples are stuck in an infinite loop of fights. And if they do not pause and appreciate their achievements, then the next time they fight, their brain is likely to predict that they will fail again. If they don’t learn to also focus on the positive, crucial information about their ability to cope  will lose its relevance (as far as their brains are concerned). And this is why I insist on focusing on the achievements instead of skipping them. 

If you agree to focus on the good, intimate moments you’ve experienced during the week as a couple, the inspection will show you that the positive week hasn’t yield itself randomly – it’s the consequence of the good choices you have made. Secondly, deepening in understanding the small achievements raises the chances for them to be written in your brains more dramatically. This way, whenever you fight again, the memory of success will be more accessible and tangible for you. When the information about the success becomes accessible, the sense of capability strengthens, and the chances to avoid your next fight successfully grow. 

R

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