Are You A Glass Half Full Kind of Spouse?

Overcoming the urge to criticize

If you’re unhappily married, studies show you’re not noticing half of the positive things your spouse is doing.

GlassHalfFullThat statement is based on research, not opinion.

In Dr. John Gottman’s book, The 7 Principles that Make Marriage Work, he mentions research that was done among couples that are unhappily married.

Objective, trained observers counted how many positive actions occurred between a couple in the course of one evening, and they also had the couple themselves count the number of positive interactions.  What they discovered was profound.

“When the researchers compared the scores the couple gave themselves with those of the objective observers, they discovered that couples who described themselves as unhappily married only noticed half of the positive interactions that actually occurred. Because they were so used to tuning in to their partner’s mistakes, they each missed a full 50 percent of their partner’s positive actions.”

Wow.  Don’t miss the point here friends.  If our focus is on what we think our spouse is doing wrong, we completely miss what they’re doing right.

This is why criticism is one of the highest predictors of divorce.

As a person who coaches and counsels couples, I can tell you the biggest challenge I face when I meet with struggling couples is to help them take their focus off of what they think their spouse is doing wrong.

Criticism is one of the highest predictors of divorce Click To Tweet

Gottman’s point is clear.  Healthy couples recognize and intentionally affirm the positive qualities and actions they see in each other.

Let me illustrate.  If you’ve ever done obedience training with dogs, then you know the power of positive affirmation.  When Debbie and I first brought our dog Solomon home 13 years ago, I had the whole training thing backwards.

Debbie grew up with dogs and I didn’t, so I had a lot to learn.  I thought yelling at him every time he disobeyed was the way to shape his behavior.  Every time he didn’t come when I said come, or didn’t sit when I said sit, or didn’t heel when I said heel – I would yell at him or even give him a little wack on his back side.  Yes, I’m a total idiot.

I had to learn that the way to shape his behavior was to reward him (with ready made treats in my hand) when he did something right.  I had to focus on and affirm the right behavior and ignore the wrong behavior.

If we only focus on what we think our spouse is doing wrong, we completely miss what they're doing right Click To Tweet

I also learned that yelling at him only caused him to fear me and avoid me.  It never did, and never will, shape his behavior.  And it was so much fun to see him begin to obey when I learned to do it the right way – by recognizing, praising and rewarding his good behavior.  It wasn’t long before he started responding to my commands, and he was even eager to do so.  I remember our instructor saying, “Your dog wants to please you.  He wants to make you happy.”

And what’s true in the animal world is true in marriage.

I also remember the obedience trainer telling me to verbaSolomonlly praise Solomon when he obeyed.  She encouraged me to say “Good boy, Solomon” in the highest and friendliest tone of voice possible – rather than the lower, serious tones I was using.  It was awkward for me.  I didn’t sound very masculine, but it worked.

So I totally revamped my approach, even to the point of how I sounded to Solomon.  I realize this illustration may not be perfect, but the principle is clear as crystal.

I know what some of you are thinking:  But Stephen, you don’t understand my spouse and our situation.  There are things about him/her and our relationship that need to be confronted and addressed.  I can’t just pretend everything is ok.  I can’t sugarcoat this.

I hear you.  Nobody said anything about ignoring important issues, or denying they exist.  There’s a time and a place to lovingly confront your spouse about problems and issues you’ve been observing.

Here’s the point: even constructive criticism is only effective when a person feels (and knows) they are truly loved, appreciated, and cherished for who they are and the things they do.  And they must hear it from you over and over and over again.

So, let me ask you:  what is your praise to criticism ratio?  For every criticism your spouse hears from you, how many praises preceded it?  Gottman recommends a 5 to 1 ratio.  Yes, that’s right.  Every critical comment must be offset by at least 5 uplifting, affirming comments.

Some of you are frustrated that your spouse isn’t changing, and my guess is that you need to reverse your criticism to affirmation ratio.  In my experience with talking to couples, the quickest way to get your spouse to shut down emotionally and verbally is to give them a steady diet of criticism.  For example, I’ve seen many wives consistently criticize their husbands and then wonder why they don’t talk, engage, or lead.

In fact, if consistently criticizing your spouse is a problem from you, I suggest you go cold turkey.  Forget about the 5 to 1 ration and refrain from criticizing your spouse at all, for anything, for at least a week.  And then try to go for a month of zero criticisms.  Try to fast from criticizing and see what happens.

For positive change to occur, every critical comment must be offset by at least 5 affirming comments Click To Tweet

So, I’ll pose the question again:  are you a glass half full kind of spouse?

Below are a couple great exercises to get you going in the right direction.  As your fasting from criticism, concentrate on praising your spouse for who they are and what they do.  It may feel awkward at first, like it did for me with Solomon, but I know you’ll be pleased with the results.

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    Stephen has been blogging since 2014, and he enjoys writing honestly and openly about married life. He and Debbie are high school sweethearts and have been married for 20 years. They love a meaningful conversation, a rich cup of coffee, an inspiring movie, a perfectly prepared meal, and planning their next vacation.

    Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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