Have you ever walked into your home and immediately noticed that your partner didn’t take out the trash, back the car up the right way, or do some other thing you feel they should have done? If so, it is likely you have been rehearsing negative scripts—inner dialogues about what your partner is doing wrong and how you will react. In essence, you are rehearsing how to be upset. The solution is not to have your partner start listening better to you and doing what they “should” be doing. Rather, it is stop rehearsing negative inner dialogues through awareness and cultivation of a positive feedback loop.
In healthy relationships, couples spend more time catching each other doing things right than focusing on what each other is doing “wrong.” The problem with focusing on what you think your partner is doing wrong is twofold: 1. You prepare yourself to be upset and then selectively look for justification for feeling upset. 2. How you convey this upset keeps a cycle of negativity going. Your partner will either become defensive or withdraw. They will not say, “Thanks for pointing out my mistakes; I’ll now go and fix it.” It is much more effective to self-manage—to stop rehearsing negative scripts and to cultivate your relationship by noticing what is going well. If there is something bothering you, discuss it in terms of your needs rather than making a universal statement about your partner’s character. Avoid blame, criticism, “you should” and “you always.”
If you find yourself rehearsing negative thoughts about your partner (or anyone), try the following steps for a different outcome:
- Notice Negative Rehearsal: Catch yourself rehearsing. By becoming aware of your tendency to negatively script, you can start catching yourself doing so. Breath is a god way to do this—when we are stressed we tend to hold our breath. Check in with your breathing the next time you are negatively rehearsing something about your partner.
- Regulate Negative Emotions: Negative emotions, like anger in particular, are self-generating—this is where rehearsal comes in. When triggered by a thought: “She is parking the car the wrong way again!” recognize that the emotional charge is time-limited and you can help it release into space by identifying it, naming it, and letting it go: “Okay, I am practicing being upset; remember to breath and let it move on.”
- Own your Triggers: Ask yourself, “What am I over-focusing on?” This is where awareness of your filters and triggers is important. Your partner is not doing these things to you (parking the car the “wrong” way in order to irritate you); you are self-triggering.
- Find the Exceptions: Ask yourself, “What else is going on here?” Noticing your partner’s qualities helps move you out of a negative vortex (which increases speed and intensity the longer you stay within it). “Okay, she had her hands full of groceries and parked the way she thought best. She did go buy groceries; that’s a lot of work.” At heart, this involves creating a culture of appreciation and respect for your partner.
- Ask for what you do Need: Avoid “You” statements—negative descriptions of what your partner is doing wrong. Instead, use “I” statements and ask for what you do need. Remember to use a gentle, respectful tone and body language: “Hey, thank you for getting the groceries. Remember that car thing? I think I have a problem of focusing on it too much. It would help me out if you backed into the carport, but I know this is my problem with it not yours.” Remember, this is a request not a demand, and parking the car a certain way does not have the same meaning to your partner as it does to you. In fact, when all cylinders of your relationship are firing well, you will be able to laugh at yourself for getting stuck on one issue.
- Practice Positive Rehearsal: Create your own list of positive things you can rehearse. If this sounds corny, take a look at what happens when you get upset about things like car-parking and a fight or emotional hurt/disconnect happens. That is the corny, predictable, repetitive behavior. Be sure to verbalize appreciation, for this is the antidote to negative rehearsal.
From a survival perspective, our brains are geared to highlight the negative. In relationships, however, this does not work so well and in the end it does not get you what you want. By mastering self-regulation and focusing on the positive, as well as asking for what you do need, you will fuel your relationship rather than draining it.