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How Do You React When Your Spouse Makes Mistake?

In various ways your spouse has let you down in the past and, at least periodically, will disappoint you in the future. And, frankly, you have and will let them down as well.  We all make mistakes!

Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario #1

You return home from work and your spouse doesn’t give you a hug, a kiss, or show any other indication that she is excited that you are home. In fact, she instantly asks why you forgot to take the garbage can to the front of the house before you left for work.

Scenario #2

It is Saturday and you have been hoping to get some house tasks completed. In fact, you also had a list of things that you wanted your hubby to accomplish today (your “honey-do list”). Yet, by 9AM he is on the golf course with his friends.

Scenario #3

You and your spouse are on a tight budget. Yet, your spouse purchased some fairly expensive and (at least in your opinion) unnecessary items.  As a result, it will be hard to stay within budget this month.

Responses to the scenarios

Do any of the above scenarios sound familiar? How would you have responded? Would you be tempted to say (or at least think) the following:

“What is your deal? I work hard for the family and this is the greeting I get when I return.”

“Are you serious, we were going to work together today and you accepted an invitation to go golfing? You are so selfish.”

“We will never reach our financial goals if you are unable to stick to a budget. Those purchases were irresponsible!”

What this article isn’t about

This article isn’t about being trustworthy and doing what we say we will do. It isn’t about the importance of showing affection when you are reunited with your spouse. This article also isn’t about the critical need for communication or how selfishness can harm a marriage. This article isn’t about the need to jointly make financial decisions. Finally, this article isn’t even about the universal marital need for ongoing forgiveness – though each of those principles are important for marriage.

Rather, this article focuses on one key principle – how we respond when our spouse’s behavior disappoints us.

Positive Sentiment Override

Renowned marital scholar, John Gottman, contrasts key differences in the ways happy couples and struggling couples generally respond to mistakes and imperfections in their spouse. In happier marriages, couples seem to have a positive filter that influences the way that they respond to each other – even during times where offense, frustration, disappointment, or anger would be natural responses. He refers to this as positive sentiment override.

In other words, there is so much positivity built up in the marriage that the disappointment of the moment is more easily overlooked because of the overarching kindness and love within the relationship.

Simply put, positive sentiment override is the conscious and consistent decision for us to give the benefit of the doubt to our spouse. Or, as a wise colleague of mine has stated, when we don’t know one’s motives, we default to an assumption of goodwill.

By contrast, in unhappier marriages, couples are more prone to assume the worst in a situation – a term Dr. Gottman describes as negative sentiment override.

Alternate Ending

While our “natural responses” to the three scenarios may have led to frustration and contention. How might these responses be different for wise couples who employ positive sentiment override toward their spouse?
Consider how these responses and thoughts could help diffuse arguments and reduce disappointment.

“My wife normally greets me warmly when I return home. I bet she had a hard day with the children. And, I did forget to take the garbage out this morning. I wonder what I can do to help cheer her up.”

“My husband has been under a lot of stress lately. Maybe a round of golf with friends will be good for him. We can get some work done when he returns.”

“This purchase must be important to my spouse. He is generally wise with our money.”

Please note that I am not suggesting that we simply ignore consistently frustrating behaviors from our spouse. There is a time and a place for kind, loving, candid communication. However, the strongest marriages compare current levels of disappointment against the overall happiness of the past and the prospect of happiness in the future.

Can you see how the consistent application of this principle could strengthen a marriage?

Your Challenge

The next time you feel irritation towards your spouse, give positive sentiment override a try! This concept is relatively simple to understand – though it can be much harder to apply in our marriages.  However, couples that have the strength, courage, discipline, and humility to exercise positive sentiment override, will avoid unnecessary contention, increase their feelings of goodwill toward their spouse, and, in general, find more satisfaction in their marriage!

For the sake of your marriage, as well as your own happiness, will you experiment with positive sentiment override? You (and your spouse) will be glad you did!