It’s possible your spouse has positive traits and actions that you haven’t noticed. Noticing them may make your marriage stronger and happier.
If you have a tendency to notice the wrong things, you might blame your biases. We are all subject to what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is our tendency to notice and recall facts that support our pre-existing beliefs, and reject facts that don’t fit our version of the truth. Debates over political issues are a place we can easily see confirmation bias in action.
Is Bias Spoiling Your Marriage?
Researchers Elizabeth Robinson and Gail Price uncovered the surprising impact of confirmation bias on marriages. They used objective observers to watch married couples interact. The observers tallied each time a positive interaction occurred. What they found is that couples in unhappy marriages tended to underestimate the number of positive interactions in their marriage. Spouses failed to notice 50 percent of the positive actions taken by each other. In contrast, couples in happy marriages are more likely to accurately estimate a high number of positive interactions in their marriage.
What Robinson and Price discovered also demonstrates the power of another bias: “negativity bias.” Negativity bias causes us to give more weight to negative information than positive information, especially in evaluating a person’s character. According to marriage researcher John Gottman, the weight of negativity is so heavy, that it takes five positive interactions in a marriage to counter the effects of one negative interaction. Couples who achieve that five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions have the most satisfying marriages.
Is Your Marriage Out of Focus?
All married individuals eventually notice negative attributes in their spouse, and have negative interactions in their marriage. Whether or not those moments of negativity overwhelm the relationship often depends on where spouses choose to put their focus and effort. As demonstrated by the research, nurturing a positive focus produces a more accurate estimate of positive interactions. Couples who put their focus and effort into cultivating awareness of positive qualities in their partners, and interacting positively with each other, are far more likely to be happy in their marriages, and far less likely to split up.
Married couples can improve their focus on each other’s positive traits and actions, and increase positive interactions. One approach is to practice identifying and appreciating each other’s character strengths, noticing how these strengths contribute to positive interactions and outcomes in the marriage, and practicing positive aspects of those strengths in the marriage.
Discovering Your Spouse’s Superpowers
Researchers Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson have identified 24 character strengths common in cultures around the world. The VIA Character Survey is useful tool based on their work and is available at viacharacter.org. Taking the survey is free, and provides you with a simple report that enables you to identify your top five character strengths. Seligman and Peterson call these top five your “signature strengths.” I call these your “superpowers.” A detailed report of your character strengths with recommendations is also available for a small fee that supports continued research.
It will take about 15 minutes each for you and your spouse to complete the VIA Character Survey. Once you identify your top five character strengths, or superpowers, share these results with each other. Then take turns with each spouse identifying ways the other has used their superpowers in positive ways, achieving positive outcomes in your marriage. Then discuss and identify new ways you and your spouse can use these strengths to improve your marriage.
For example, one of my wife’s superpowers is perseverance. Give her a tough task and she’ll keep at it until it’s done. If I chose to focus on the negative aspects of her perseverance, I could come up with many instances where it annoyed me. But her perseverance has earned us many nice wins over the years. She didn’t back down from insisting we go to marriage counseling when our marriage was in trouble. She persuaded resort staff to upgrade our accommodations while celebrating our wedding anniversary. And she got us a retailer to give us a free dishwasher when they failed more than once to deliver on time.
Are You Married to Your Best Friend?
Spouses who can call each other best friends get to that point by cultivating mutual fondness and admiration of each other’s attributes. That friendship flourishes when couples make it a priority to notice each other’s positive contributions to their marriage. Make time to build a lasting friendship with your spouse by identifying, discussing the valuing of each other’s character strengths, and using your superpowers to add strength and happiness to your marriage.
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.