Stacking the Deck for Thriving Relationship

One thing that truly thriving couples do that sets them apart is this: they actively give attention to what is going well and what they want in relationship. Sounds simple. But, the Catch-22 is that most partners who get support with their relationship want to start by shining the spotlight on what isn’t going well and what they don’t want. Many therapists and coaches unwittingly collude, and together they feed a cycle of disconnection.

Read on for a quick and dirty explanation of why it’s so hard to resist fault-finding, and a few simple shifts to add juice to your relationship.

The Negativity Bias

Millions of years of evolutionary neurobiology have greased the rails for this feedback loop of relational dissatisfaction. Bummer. Turns out our nervous system is heavily organized around looking for threat. This makes sense, given that it’s more advantageous in terms of survival to quickly spot all the things that could kill us than to bask for too long in a cozy impression of safety.

This phenomenon is backed up by brain imaging studies that shows how our brains prioritize signals from the threat response system (eg. the Amygdala) over other parts of the brain involved in collaboration (the limbic system and neocortex). The term for this popularized by social science is “Negativity Bias”. Basically, if something triggers a fight/flight response in us, it jumps to the head of the line for our attention. For long-term partner relationships, what this boils down to is how it’s often easier to remember all the times our partner criticized or overlooked us than the times they gave us the contact or affection we want.

Research on the Negativity Bias began in the 1990’s, and has become increasingly sophisticated with advances in brain imaging through the 2000’s. It suggests that the ratio of how many positive interactions balance out one negative one is more than 5-to-1 (Cacioppo et al). For partners, this means that it takes five times as many feel-good encounters as “negative” ones just to come out even. Others put the ratio as high as 20-to-1!

We experience the negativity bias as something like a knot of feeling and belief. Because it is so well-established in our neurology, it feels absolutely right, true, justified, etc… Doing something different feels anywhere from mildly uncomfortable to completely crazy.

You know you’ve stepped into the negativity bias when your thoughts sound something like:

  • “if I say something positive right now, my partner will think I approve of the thing I’m campaigning to change about them.”
  • “if I say something positive right now, I’ll miss my shot to fix this relationship once-and-for-all.”
  • “He always criticizes me.” or “She never gets me.”
  • “it’s cheesy to say nice things about my partner or our relationship.”

Sure, with the negativity bias, the deck is stacked against happy relationship, but it is possible to reverse the odds with a few simple practices.


Couples who are thriving together tend to this balance of negative and positive impressions as a matter of course.

There are two obvious ways to balance the equation: repair the bad stuff quickly (before it moves from short-term memory into the long-term archives), and create more of the good stuff.

The good news is that there are ways to fudge the math on the negativity bias — make negative impressions count for less and make positive impressions count for more.

The even better news is that doing so actually creates its own feedback loop, essentially turning the Negativity Bias on its head, and creating a habit of connection and appreciation. The even better-er news is that the effect spreads outward from your relationship, and you might notices that other things in your life start to take on a new glow.

Read the Full Article for several hacks to up-level your relationship.

Photo by Timo Stern on Unsplash

Originally published at