"Wise Counsel"
On the Power of Negative Thinking

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by Gary Smalley & Greg Smalley, Psy.D.

Marital experts have long noticed a particular pattern within relationships that has an extremely devastating impact. They have observed that the assumptions we make about our spouse and our relationship can determine the level of happiness we experience within our marriage. Several experts have gone as far as to say that a main reason why couples divorce involves when they consistently experience negative thoughts about their mate. My wife, Erin, and I (Greg) discovered how destructive it is when we develop negative thoughts about each other.

One evening, Erin was explaining how to use an alternate alarm code to our house sitter. I was sitting watching a basketball game when Erin asked me for the correct code. After several failed attempts to gain my attention, she yelled out, "I'm tired of you not listening to me! It's been this way for the weeks! What's wrong with you?" For someone who was getting his doctorate is counseling, it's not a good sign when your mate accuses you of not listening. Naturally, I did what any mature person would do in that situation, I ignored her. Erin let out one last gasp of disapproval, did her best to explain the code to our house sitter, and headed upstairs for bed.

Watching her storm off, I was convinced that I needed to reconcile or spend the night on the couch. In the middle of my weak attempt at an apology, the phone rang. "Way to go," Erin said in a sarcastic voice as she ran downstairs, "the police are here." Without realizing the seriousness of the situation, several minutes passed before I sought an explanation. When I reached the living room, the front door was open and Erin had disappeared. As I walked out, I was shocked to see two police officers with their guns drawn!

Like a deer frozen by headlights, I didn't move until I was ordered away from the house. When I finally found Erin, it wasn't the emotional reunion I expected. "This is all your fault," Erin hissed. "You wouldn't listen or help me so I entered the wrong code. I triggered the silent alarm!" As the officers rolled their eyes, I quickly responded, "She pushed the code…it's her fault…she's the bad one!"

As our argument escalated, one of the officers interceded. "I don't mean to interrupt," he said to me, "But is anyone inside the house who might harm you besides your wife?" I was in big trouble.

What happened to Erin and Greg is the same kind of thing that some one once wrote about: "Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them." This quote reveals an issue that is reeking havoc within our marriages today. In the same way, the Scriptures have spoken about the importance of our thinking or what we set our minds on:

u "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth." (Colossians 3:2)
u "For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God." (Romans 8:5-8)

What Is Negative Thinking?

You might be thinking that Greg and Erin's experience sounds like plain old marital conflict, what does it have to do with negative thinking? What happened to Erin and Greg is the same kind of thing that is taking place in millions of homes round the world. When two people get frustrated with the other, but the issue is not dealt with, then the tendency is for each person to develop his or her own conclusion about why the problem is happening. We call this negative mind reading. For example, Erin's frustration that Greg wasn't listening to her had been building for weeks. Without talking about the issue, she formulated her own conclusions about why Greg was doing this. Perhaps she started to believe that Greg wasn't interested in her. This is where destructive negative thinking can penetrate the relationship.

Negative thinking is when a spouse consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case. In other words, a husband or wife interprets the behavior of his or her spouse to be much more negative than the spouse intended. Basically, it's the belief that your mate is trying to ruin or weaken the marriage on purpose. Negative thinking is powerful because how a mate perceives and interprets what the other does can be far more important in determining marital satisfaction than those actions themselves.

During courtship and early married life, almost everything the mate says or does is interpreted in a positive light. He or she can do no wrong. Even unpleasant behavior can be turned around and made positive. This produces a "perfect" image of the loved one that emphasizes the appealing features and conceals the undesirable one. In a sense, it's like one mate views the other with a pair of rose tinted glasses-everything is perfect.

But if the marriage runs into trouble, the repeated disappointments, arguments, and frustrations lead to a change in perspective. For example, a wife may shift from a "rose-colored" perspective to a negative one. Her attitude changes from one of admiration to faultfinding. Then, much of what of what he does is interpreted in a negative light. He can do no right. In essence, when the relationship runs into persistent problems, we have a tendency to switch "lenses" and see our mate differently-more negatively.

Why Negative Thinking is Destructive in a Relationship

1. Confirmation Bias. The major problem with negative thinking is that what humans believe about another, they tend to see and hear even if it isn't true. In other words, what you believe about another person (positive or negative), you will find evidence of that belief in everything he or she says or does. When Erin started to believe that Greg wasn't interested in her, most every thing he did could be viewed to support her negative thinking. If he was focused on something else or deep in thought, she could see that as evidence that he wasn't interested in her. Romans 14:14: "…but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean."

2. Self-fulfilling Prophecy. After someone begins to look for or notice behaviors that support their beliefs, this often influences how they act toward their mate. In other words, we have a tendency to treat others in accordance to how we think or believe about them. As a result, our mate's usually behave in a way consistent with our original expectation. People tend to live up or down to our beliefs about them. When Erin expected Greg not to be interested in her, she yelled at him for not listening to her. Greg then got hurt and ignored Erin-thus, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3. Learned Hopelessness. When negative thinking consistently invades the relationship, it produces an environment of hopelessness and demoralization. The negatively framed mate is robed of motivation and action.

How To Fight Negative Thinking

We are not advocating some kind of unrealistic "Pollyanna" thinking. We cannot sit around wishing or hoping that our mate will change truly negative behaviors. However, we need to consider that our mate's motives are more positive than we are willing to acknowledge.mAs we learn to fight negative thinking, we have found four steps that can be helpful.

Step 1: "I Could Be Wrong." Paul encourages Christians to be mature in their thinking: "Brethern, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature." (I Corinthians 14:20) Mature thinking involves realizing that we can never be 100% accurate in how we interpret our mate's thoughts, words, or behavior. Even if we are 99% sure, there is always a 1% chance we are wrong. Thus, we must adopt a more humble, tentative attitude about the accuracy of our mind reading, and its resulting negative conclusions. We must ask ourselves if we might be being overly negative in our interpretation of our mate's actions. Or we might have misunderstandings stemming from differences in their perspectives-and is not the result of some negative trait of our mate.

Step 2: Substitute More Reasonable Responses for the Negative Thought. Once we allow for the possibility that we could be wrong in our mind reading, it allows us to consider other possible conclusions. For example, there are times when Erin will say to me (Greg), "I need to talk about something." Instantly, my first thought is usually, "I've done something wrong and I'm in trouble." I start to feel anxious and frustrated. I think, "I'm not the only one who does wrong around there. You've done…" And I start to think through every little irritation or wrongdoing that Erin is guilty of. Suddenly, my negative thoughts are racing out of control and I'm ready for a fight. However, had I'd been able to initially consider other possible conclusion to Erin's "we need to talk" statement, then I wouldn't get so emotionally flooded and negative. I could also considered that she wants to talk about something that I've done positive. Or I might have thought that even if Erin is upset, it will last for only a short time. Finally, I could think to myself that even if I did something to upset her, I do plenty of positive things as well. Considering other options allows me to take the third step.

Step 3: Check Out the Accuracy of Your Negative Thinking. Once we consider alternative explanations for what our mate does-since we still don't know the truth-we need to ask. It's here that we must either ask our mate directly or make further observations of their actions. The bottom line is that extremely important to give them the opportunity to correct any misinterpretations, misconceptions, or miscommunications. This is what will correct any short-term negative beliefs we begin to formulate. The key, however, to dealing with negative thinking on a long-term basis found in the next step.

Step 4: Keeping Track of Positive Behavior. It's important for couples to be aware of what their mate's do that is positive and to respond accordingly. A mate may already be doing some positive things, but you may not be totally aware of them. For a start, try to notice methodically what your mate already does that pleases you. In order to note pleasing actions, spouses begin to really look at each other. This will force you to break through the barriers that obstruct your vision of your mate's good deeds. The apostle Paul recognized the importance of this when he wrote: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things." (Philippians 4:8).

One of the best ways to care for your most important relationships is to guard them from becoming infected by negative thinking. As you adopt more humble and tentative attitudes about your mate's behaviors, consider other more positive reasons, check out the accuracy by asking, and keep track of positive behavior, you will be erecting a solid foundation of protection around your marriage.

© 2003 Smally Online. Used by permission.