Most of us see what we want to see.
If we’re arguing with a spouse, we’re going to start seeing all of their faults. After all, it’s not my fault it’s your fault. Once we’ve labeled someone as, say, selfish, it becomes self-reinforcing thanks to the availability and confirmation bias. Our views become so clouded that we can’t appreciate the positive attributes about our partner.
Not only do we search for information that agrees with us but we fail to notice anything to the contrary. “We see,” writes Aaron Beck in his book Love is Never Enough, “each other through the bias of negative frames.”
There is a way for couples to fight the tendency to only notice what’s wrong: keep a “marriage diary,” with a list of all the things your partner does that you like.
In his book, Beck describes a couple, Karen and Ted, who are having marriage troubles. Beck suggested they keep a marriage diary.
After I proposed to Karen and Ted that each take notes of what the other did that was pleasing during the previous week, Karen reported the following:
Ted was great. I was really upset by some of my clients. They are a real pain. … Anyhow, I told Ted about it. He was very sympathetic. He didn’t try to tell me what to do. He said that if he was in my position, he would probably feel frustrated, too. He said that my clients are tough to deal with. I felt a lot better.
Each of Ted’s actions pleased Karen, who remarked, “They were like presents.” Although Ted had done similar things for Karen in the past, they had been erased from her memory because of the negative view of Ted.
The same was also true for Ted.
Psychologist Mark Kane Goldstein has used this method to help husbands and wives keep “track of their partner’s pleasant actions.”
Each spouse is given several sheets of graph paper on which to record whatever his or her partner does that is pleasing. The spouse rates these acts on a ten-point scale, indicating degree of satisfaction. Dr. Goldstein found that 70 percent of the couples who tried this simple method reported an improvement in their relationship.
Simply by shifting their focus away from the negative and onto little pleasures, couples were more aware of their satisfaction.
Psychologists call this “considering the opposite.”