January 8, 2017
By Tobey Mandel, PhD, Psychologist
Picture this. You’ve just spent the last week or so away from the stress of work, early mornings, and pressured schedules. You and your spouse finally have a chance to breathe, and you are feeling more connected than usual. Now, fast forward to today, when you’re back at work, not quite fully refreshed, and realize that you’re somewhat more irritable. Do you notice your tolerance for your partner’s odd habits beginning to wane? Do you catch yourself becoming somewhat pickier, more impatient, or less compassionate? If so, you might also be falling into the trap of assuming that your partner is to blame, and if only they would do “such and such” differently, all would be well.
Interestingly, in all likelihood, your partner hasn’t changed one bit! In fact, the only thing that has changed are your stress levels, and thus, the lens through which you are viewing your partner. It can be difficult in the moment to notice the role that we each play in our perception of our partner. For instance, a recent study found that people more automatically notice aspects that are negative in a potential mate than those that are positive. Moreover, individuals tend to be more negatively influenced by negative aspects than they are positively influenced by positive aspects in a partner. This makes sense evolutionarily speaking, as our minds are set up to look for potential danger and to focus on it as a protective mechanism. The issue is, however, that our current environmental threats are quite different than they were once upon a time! As a result, when we’re experiencing a heightened level of stress ourselves, we tend to focus more intensely on potential “threats”, or negative qualities in our partner, even when this does not typically serve us in the long run.
So, what to do in these situations you ask? Well, the first (empowering!) thing to realize is that you can look inwards in order to modify your own perception by practicing mindfulness in your relationship. This means slowing down, and noticing when your partner is being kind, appreciative, helpful, funny, or a host of other qualities that can seemingly go unnoticed when we’re feeling stressed. Move towards your partner when they’re trying to connect with you, even if you’re feeling disconnected in the moment. This also means being mindful of your own behaviours and attitudes toward your partner, and making an effort to be kind, compassionate, and accepting of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. This can be accomplished by not only noticing your partner’s efforts, but also expressing gratitude for the role that they play in your life. Research has demonstrated that both mindfulness and the expression of gratitude predicts higher relationship satisfaction and connection. Most importantly, by focusing on what you can bring to your relationship, you’re alleviating a significant amount of stress that would be otherwise focused on working to change your partner.
So, the next time you notice yourself becoming irritable with your partner, looks inwards! Practice being mindful and present in the moment, and sharing your appreciation and gratitude for all that your partner does. Over time, these behaviors will occur more effortlessly, and will likely contribute to greater individual and relationship satisfaction.
Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L., & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217-233.
Barnes, S., Brown, K. W., Krusemark, E., Campbell, W. K., & Rogge, R. D. (2007). Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33, 482-500.
Brown, J. (2015). Growing yourself up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Australia: Exisle Publishing.
Jonason, P. K., Garcia, J. R., Webster, G. D., Li, N. P., Fisher, H. E. (2015). Relationship dealbreakers: Traits people avoid in potential mates. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 1697-1711.