Improve your Relationship: Wear Glasses!
The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades! -Timbuk 3
As cheesy as those lyrics are, if you are wanting to make a positive change in your relationship, the first step might be to dig out those old Rose Colored sunglasses. Remember the ones through which you viewed your partner at the beginning stages of your relationship? The hormones rushing around in your brain in the first stage of falling in love help to create those lovely glasses through a potent mix of dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, estrogen and testosterone. This biochemical cocktail floods a person’s brain in the limerence stage of a relationship and everything their new partner does is viewed through the rosy haze of these “love goggles”.
Unfortunately, these rose colored glasses can get a little smudged over time. Initially the brain starts to moderate the love haze with additions of oxytocin and vasopressin, the attachment hormones. This is when people move out of the “everything my partner does is amazing” phase (also known as limerence) and start figuring out how the relationship might work in the long term. As the years and the relationship go on, the brain slowly returns to baseline. This should be fine right? I mean you want to be able to love or at least tolerate your partner without needing artificial boosters, chemical or otherwise. Right? Well, kinda.
Over the course of millions of years of evolution, our brains have become highly attuned to spot things that are wrong, bad, and dangerous in our environments. This has helped us to survive as a species. If our ancestors all wandered around the plains of Africa solely focused on marveling at the beauty of the wildflowers, they might have missed the snake in grass that was ready to erase them from history. And, the ancestors whose brains did not develop radar to quickly spot the negatives in the environment? Well, let’s just say they probably don’t have many descendants around today. This means that for most of us, our brains evolved to ensure focus on the negative in our environment. The positive gets filed into the “that’s normal” bin and the negative gets put into the “this is something that needs to be addressed” bin.
In a relationship, this propensity of our brains to focus on the negative and ignore the positive can quickly turn into a cycle of criticism and lack of appreciation unless something is done to counteract our brain’s natural tendencies. We need to intentionally retrain our brains to notice the positive. That’s where the rose colored glasses come in! Think about how often we are ready to criticize our partners about the same old thing, “you loaded the dishwasher wrong again! This is the fiftieth time I’ve told you, plates go on the BOTTOM!!” and how less inclined we are to regularly comment on the positive things our partner does. “Yeah, he makes the coffee every morning, so?” In the same way that regular glasses help to correct vision, rose colored glasses in a relationship (intentionally choosing to notice the positive) can help to balance the brain’s tendency to over-focus on the negative aspects of our partner.
Initially, this might seem like a lot of work. Since we don’t have the brain’s help with the drug cocktail it gave us in the beginning of the relationship, it can take a little practice and effort to refocus the brain on all the positives our partner has. However, studies have shown that optimists, or people that focus on the positive, have a better prognosis in almost every area of life, career, health, and relational satisfaction than do those with a pessimistic outlook. Dr. John Gottman, in his research on long-term couples, found that the strongest, most successful long-term couples had a whopping 20:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions in their relationships.
So, now that you know what your brain wants to focus on based on evolution (the negative), but what the success of a relationship depends on (focusing on the positive), start making this change in your relationship today. You can start by taking your brain on a trip down memory lane and revisit all the fun times you and your partner shared. Compliment them on how attractive, smart, and competent you think they are. Give them some well-deserved thanks for all the things that they do every day. Simply make the choice to pick up those Rose Colored glasses and begin to look, once again, at your partner through the eyes of love.
Kristal DeSantis, M.A., LMFT-A, is the founder of Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center in Austin, TX