Rewiring Love: Correcting Cognitive Errors to Overcome Negativity Bias in Relationships

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When we fall in love with our partners, we tend to see them through rose-colored glasses. We give them the benefit of the doubt and assume best intent; they must have meant the most positive version of what we think they might be saying. Their quirks, adorable. Their mistakes, evidence that they are only human, just having a bad day. As we get to know our partners better, most of us naturally come to see them in a more realistic light, as people we love who have flaws as well as good traits.

Unfortunately over time, unless we take diligent measures to counteract it, we can start seeing our partners and our relationships in an increasingly negative light. We may start to assume negative intent more often than not when our partner says something that we might find hurtful, perhaps become annoyed by quirks we once thought cute, or see the mistakes as evidence of deeply flawed character rather than plain human error.

Seeing our partners as an idealized version of themselves and later with a negative bias are both examples of how our brains have evolved to support our survival, as individuals and as a species. When we’re falling in love, we get flooded with feel good chemicals in order to facilitate bonding and become more or less “addicted” to our partners, making it more likely to not only procreate, but to form a family unit that supports the growth and survival of any potential progeny.

But while the chemistry of new relationships is thrilling and helpful (in some ways, as long as you are able to spot potential red flags or mismatches through the intoxicating haze of infatuation), the built in negativity bias that we contend with tends to do a major disservice to our relationships and ourselves.

Negativity bias has been written and talked about extensively in recent years as one of our brains’ survival mechanisms, and there is good scientific evidence to support the theory. In a nutshell, negative events often mean the difference between life or death for people surviving in a hostile environment, with things like frequent animal attacks, warring factions or little to no protection from the elements. So we are evolutionarily hardwired to remember negative events more often and more clearly than positive ones, and put far more weight and meaning on those negative events when we do. In societies where our daily existence is less life-threatening, this negativity bias becomes less of a life-saving reflex and more of a hindrance to our relationships. We can become increasingly cynical, developing increasingly negative attitudes towards everything in our lives, including our loved ones.

One specific effect of negativity bias is the development of negative thought patterns called “cognitive errors” or “cognitive distortions.” They can be organized into categories of general assumptions that skew our thinking in specific ways. In the context of relationships, they can unnecessarily erode the connections between us. Here are some of the most common cognitive errors that can harm our relationships:

Overgeneralization – Seeing a single negative outcome as proof that the outcome will always be negative. “I can’t go hiking with my partner because they were grumpy when we tried to go and I’m sure they’ll always be grumpy every time.”

Mind-reading – Reading negative intentions into other’s actions. “They didn’t pick up his socks off the floor last night because they were trying to get back at me for asking for more help around the house.”

Catastrophizing – Viewing a negative event, no matter how minor, with overblown importance and implications. “We had our first argument last night – it’s the beginning of the end!”

Myopia – Failure to put negative events into proper context. For instance, saying “My partner has stopped being fun!” without acknowledging that they are still grieving the death of a loved one as a possible cause and that it may require patience and support for them to get back to enjoying your shared fun-loving activities.

Exclusive Negativity – Downplaying of anything positive. “They tell me that they love me all the time but I don’t know if I believe it because sometimes they forget to say it at the end of a text exchange.”

Emotional Reasoning – Treating negative feelings as an indication that something is wrong without sufficient evidence. “I feel guilty setting this boundary in my relationship, so I must be wrong thinking it’s okay to say no to what my partner is asking me for.”

Labeling – Stating the person as the problem rather than a behavior. “They’re just a crank! That’s why they were so irritable when we were shopping.”

Of course, these cognitive error categories aren’t necessarily clear-cut, can overlap and there are many more than listed here. The common theme is that they are knee-jerk negative assumptions based on patterns of thinking that evolve as a result of developing negativity bias. And yes, sometimes partners are acting with bad intent or are displaying problematic or hurtful behavioral patterns that we need to pay attention to and address, or even reassess whether we should stay in this relationship.

The key is to both recognize whether or not an issue in our relationships is the result of negativity bias, and if so, to rewire our brains to lessen the occurrence of these knee-jerk negative assumptions over time. Here are a few techniques that may help:

Cultivate a sense of curiosity. When you find yourself upset, angry or frustrated with your partner, examine what it is that has you flustered. Is your reasoning sound, or does it possibly match any cognitive distortions? Is there a way you can check your assumptions? Would it make sense to ask your partner, metamour or polycule why something has or is happening without blaming them?

Journal. Write out the problem as you see it, and check your thinking against a list of cognitive distortions. If you spot any, re-write an account of what’s going on in different, more factual terms, without the distortions or any unproven assumptions. Creatively imagine possible reasons for issues that have a more positive spin, and more positive outcomes than the negative ones you are imagining. How does it make your feel?

Mindfulness. Practice meditation on a regular basis, even for short periods of time like a minute or two. Focus on your breath or a mantra and observe your feelings and thoughts arising and departing, as though they are clouds drifting across a sky. It’s often helpful to find a guided meditation online or in an app like Insight Timer. This can help you gain distance from automatic negative thoughts, as well as getting carried away by feelings triggered by negative assumptions or assuming that your feelings are facts.

When there are persistent negative patterns in your relationships, talking to a coach can help you identify cognitive errors and collaborate in creating and realizing a vision of yourself and your relationships turning toward a positive, healthy future! If you feel stuck and would like help, click here for a free consultation to help you create the authentic relationships of your dreams.

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