During the time our marriage teetered between renewal and divorce, we were visiting a book store when we happened on a book about how astrology affects relationships. Just for fun, we opened to the page where our two astrological signs intersected. Then we read, “You will destroy your relationship unless you stop the unrelenting negative scrutiny of each other.” We were stunned. And then we laughed. We knew the book had gotten it right.
For a time, we were quiet and separate as we turned our thoughts around those words. That sentence fell like a bombshell because we knew it was true. The more we thought about it, the more we realized we had to stop what we now call the “invisible abuse” of belittling, negating, and undermining each other. We started by trying to be more aware of what we were saying, what words we used. We worked out a plan to monitor ourselves for negative behaviors, and negative thinking. In the beginning, as we tried to stop, we grew to realize our negativity seemed to have a life of its own. We then realized we were addicted to our negativity. This just had to stop.
It took time (along with a calendar and a daily check-in) but we did stop being negative, but then we experienced a strange awkwardness. We had nothing to say to each other! We would go on a date night vowing there would be no negativity, and we sat in silence. The place where all that negativity had lived was now quiet, but we were still not close.
So we designed another experiment. We began a ritual of appreciations. We pledged to end each day with the expression of three appreciations of each other. And we could not use the same three the next day. Having to express three new appreciations each day forced us to observe each other to find traits and behaviors we liked and to put them into words.
Over the next few months, a wonderful thing happened: We found our way back to each other, discovering our unique attributes and gifts. Before long, we both felt loved, but in a deeper way than before. We experienced a level of emotional safety with each other that we had never known before, and our hearts opened to a deeper experience of love. We fell in love again. But this time it was different; it was better. The passion returned and we began to feel fully alive and joyful. All of our senses were sharper, more attuned. It was amazing.
We now think of negativity as an emotional disease on the order of cancer. It is pervasively destructive and ultimately kills the relationship. But unlike cancer, negativity can be stopped in an instant. You can decide now to stop all the negativity. Act on that decision and everything will change. To be blunt: negativity is invisible abuse and is an addiction of the human race. When you eliminate this invisible abuse in your primary relationship, then you eliminate it in your relationships with your children, your friends, and the broader world. You become a person of peace!
No relationship can grow or deepen or survive in negativity. Negative words inflict emotional injury. You can call it sarcasm or humor, or whatever excuse you make (“I was only kidding!”), but it’s abuse. If you find yourself saying, “Can’t you take a joke?” or, “I was only kidding,” or “I’m just offering constructive criticism,” chances are you are being abusively negative. Know this: you are harming your relationship.
When people tell us how hard it is to stop being negative, we are reminded of our first skiing lessons. We couldn’t imagine going down the slope with our feet turned the way the instructor told us. When we asked him why we had to do it that way. He answered: “So you won’t die.” It’s the same answer for eliminating negativity. You have to stop, or your love will die.
Your partner needs you to be a safe person. You can’t be safe AND negative. You can’t be intimate AND negative. Something good is trying to happen in your relationship, and negativity prevents it from happening. You can nurture that healthy change by replacing negativity with appreciation and gratitude. Do this and you will experience a transformation in your relationship, just as we did.
This blog post was written by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D.
Relationship experts and NY Times best-selling authors Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., and Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., are the co-creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, practiced by thousands of therapists in over 37 countries.
Dr. Hendrix has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show 17 times, and Oprah affectionately calls him the “marriage whisperer.”