What if I told you that your perception of your spouse—whether you see them in a positive or negative light—determines your total marriage satisfaction both now and in the future?
And then, what if I said your perception of your spouse is something you have the power to determine?
It doesn’t take much to put us on a track where we see everything our spouse does or says as negative. Perception is our reality and it picks up momentum. It’s like the proverbial snowball that begins rolling down a hill. One annoyance, one disagreement, one little thing your spouse says that rubs you the wrong way can cause a perpetually growing snowball of thinking the worst of your spouse.
Of course, at times bigger things are at play, especially if there’s been a major incident that compromises the trust of your marriage. But assuming these incidents are fewer and farther in between, it’s safe to say that a negative outlook on your spouse is something that reinforces itself over time.
It turns out, the way spouses perceive each other has so much to do with both present and future marital satisfaction. In a recent groundbreaking study, Samantha Joel and Paul Eastwick, in collaboration with many other researchers, found that what mattered most in a happy, healthy marriage included perceived partner commitment (which ranked top of the list), appreciation for one’s partner, and perceived partner satisfaction. In other words, if I believe my spouse is truly committed to and happy with our marriage, and if I appreciate them (and if they feel the same way), then our chances for marital satisfaction are much, much greater.
☆ Fine. Wonderful. But what if I don’t perceive my spouse in these ways?
Then there is some work to do. But the good news is, with diligence and perseverance, it’s possible to change your perception.
Below are seven ways to stop assuming the worst about your spouse. But one caveat needs to be made before working through these: changing your perspective is a mental exercise. And like any exercise, it needs to be practiced consistently before you start seeing results.
- Ask: What led you to start assuming the worst about your spouse? Can you narrow it down to an incident or a season of life? What was going on during that time? Were you experiencing feelings of stress, sadness, anger, grief, or pain? Reflecting on what started the snowball can shed light on the origins of negative thoughts and provide a frame of reference for how to change them. Even if you can’t pinpoint how the negative thoughts started, you can still work to change them.
- Practice gratitude. Research has shown that when we consciously consider all that we are thankful for and express that gratitude, our emotional and relational health improves. So ask yourself: What are the qualities I truly appreciate about my spouse? What positive contributions do they make to our relationship? And then, thank them. Express your thankfulness to them on a daily basis. It might help to keep a daily gratitude log, with each day’s entry simply finishing the sentence, “Today I am thankful for my spouse because…” Exercising gratitude is a very significant tool for eliminating negative thoughts about your spouse.
- Change the climate of your relationship. Make it your mission to connect more with your spouse. Create opportunities for simply being together, having calm, easygoing conversations, laughing and joking. Here’s a great idea: Ask your spouse out on a date. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but put effort into it and romance your spouse. Regular doses of courtship and connection can help change a negative perception and help you stop assuming the worst about your spouse.
- Keep your own health in check. Many times negative thoughts (about anything) emerge from the fact that we aren’t taking care of ourselves, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. And then those negative thoughts quickly find a target, usually the person closest to us. Adopt a lifestyle of self-care. Eat clean, get plenty of sleep, and get in some regular physical activity. Get outside more and absorb some sunshine.
- Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Stimulate your thinking with books, articles, or educational videos. Throw away negative self-talk and mental put-downs, and start affirming yourself. Keep in mind that these aren’t just shallow, feel-good therapeutics. Self-care is a lifestyle that can improve your relationship with your spouse.
- Avoid negative talk, exaggerated talk, and the comparison game. All three of these serve to push that snowball of negative thinking faster and faster down the hill. Do everything you can to withhold negative comments, name-calling, and hostile sarcasm, even in the face of conflict. Practice healthy conflict-resolution techniques and take a time-out when necessary. Avoid using phrases such as You never… or You always… And be especially careful not to measure your spouse up against the people you see on television or social media. Those images don’t reflect reality (even on reality shows), which means your spouse would never be able to win that comparison game.
- Avoid scorekeeping. One sure-fire way of growing the negative-thought snowball is to keep reflecting back on all the wrongs and annoyances (no matter how big or small) that your spouse has committed in the past. And if you want to make matters even worse, keep reminding them of those wrongdoings. But, if you want to stop assuming the worst about your spouse, practice forgiveness, let the past go, and move on. This does not mean you don’t learn from the past or simply forget it. It does mean you choose not to let past events control the lens through which you see your spouse.
- Practice empathy. A good bit of research tells us that the practicing empathy does a lot for relationship health and how we think of our spouse. Empathy helps you to consider what it’s like to be in your spouse’s shoes, to take on their feelings, and spark compassionate action. This keeps your negative assumptions and thoughts toward your spouse in check. When you begin to think the worst about your spouse, stop and seek to understand what’s going on in their mind and heart at the moment.
I’m not going to lie. Trying to stop assuming the worst of your spouse isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels more like trying to stop an avalanche rather than a snowball. But if you make a regular practice of the above exercises—not just try them out, but dive into them with grit and determination—you’ll place yourself well on the road to changing your perspective and boosting your marriage satisfaction to the next level.
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***