Talk More Slowly and Identify Your Biases

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Softly begin and softly end. When a couple has to talk about a difficult topic, the conversation frequently starts off negatively or harshly. Setting the tone calmly typically determines whether or not your spouse will be swamped. Start talks slowly. Be prepared to halt and restart if necessary. I gently mention being terrified of Erica when I was a teenager because she was (and still is) so aggressive and powerful when I start a difficult topic with her that I know would upset her. I’ll mock it right now by joking, “Erica, this is why I used to be scared of you. Could you just rephrase that? Start over.” If I don’t utilize humor and ease into the topic, I’ll flood very fast and the conversation won’t progress. Keep in mind that a soft beginning will lead to a soft ending!

In my work with couples, the subject of negativity bias also comes up frequently. You tend to err on the side of caution, or what I like to refer to as the side of self-protection, when you are already feeling really bad about the relationship or when you are overwhelmed. Therefore, if the individual acts or says anything unfavorable, you once again have a negative impression of them. It only confirms your perception of them. A portion of this results from the basic attribution error, which is the mistake we make when determining the motivation behind someone’s conduct. This fallacy asserts that my inherent qualities and skills are what account for my success. And when I make mistakes, it’s due of a circumstance or some external influence. When my relationship is strong, I view my partner’s actions as mostly a reflection of who they are as a person, and when they do something wrong, I attribute those errors to the circumstances. However, when the relationship is having trouble, I start to reverse that script in my head and begin to think that when my partner makes a mistake, it’s because of who they are because of their inherent character defects.

In a similar spirit, if my partner accomplishes something admirable, I justify it by blaming the circumstances. Of course, everyone’s conduct is influenced by both external circumstances and internal personality features. To be fair, we must be able to accurately and rationally assess the other person’s motivations. Of course, when things are going well in a relationship, we tend to be a little bit naive about both our spouse and ourselves, believing that our good acts are the result of internal qualities and our shortcomings are the result of external circumstances. The pair naturally gives several examples of themselves committing this mistake during the session after I have described the attribution problem. We then practice those scripts or invent ones that are more acceptable. I’ll respond by asking, “What other reasons could there be for his actions?” or, “What else could she have meant by that?” Getting them to do that enables them to reinterpret events with less negativity or flooding, and they should then once again perceive their spouse as they did in the past when things were lot brighter.

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