by Sabina Read

Imagine you return home from work, tired and depleted, with your head still spinning over your never-ending to do list. Your children are fractious and niggling each other after the demands of a long day at school; and the dogs are chasing their tails after missing their much-needed park romp.

Your partner offers to pick up some groceries and cook dinner, and promises to help with the ever-dreaded Maths homework, before calling your mother-in-law to sort out whose bringing what to Aunty Edna’s 80th birthday bash. At night’s end, you hop in the car, to pick up that last-minute “emergency” item needed at school and notice the petrol tank is empty. As you drive home again, what is your most dominant reflection about your partner?

For most of us it will be the empty petrol tank. The reason? That pesky construct that psychologists call “negativity bias” which states that in most situations, negative events will be more salient, potent and dominant than positive events. In general, negative events require more processing and attention than positive ones, largely due to our evolution.

It would be crazy to bask in the warmth of the sunshine while you gaze gratefully at your loin cloth clad lover and risk being mauled by a sabre tooth tiger waiting to pounce. Rather it makes far more sense to scan the environment for threats and risks and increase your chances of living another day!

There’s no doubt we are hard-wired to attend to what’s not working rather than what is to survive, but at what cost to our interpersonal well-being? Sure, we may be alive, but our relationships are suffering! At the Family Peace Foundation, we know that conflict is inevitable in every marriage and every relationship. However, what we do in times of conflict matters…big-time!

One of my favourite psychologists and academics, Dr John Gottman, wanted to understand the difference between happy and unhappy couples. In his research, he observed couples attempting to resolve an important conflict in 15 minutes. When happy couples were arguing or expressing differing views on issues that mattered, they also expressed humour, affection and empathy. In fact, they exhibited 5 times as many positive interactions for every single negative interaction compared to a more meagre .8:1 ratio observed in unhappy couples.

This literally means that when we are living with conflict, sarcasm, defensiveness or anger, we must make a conscious effort to inject a joke, an apology, understanding, gratitude and validation into every disagreement with 5 times the frequency. For every eye roll we display, we need to offer 5 positives. For every single criticism or put down we utter, we need to offer 5 positives. For every time we stonewall and shut down our partner, we need to offer 5 positives.

And the same stands for parenting our children. When our teen brings home a report card with the following grades: A, C, D, B, A, B+ most of us will want to know what happened to result in a D. When our daughter doesn’t help her little brother, we innately express anger towards her, and when our son forgets his lunch, we reprimand his forgetfulness. But how many of us counter each of these complaints and criticisms with 5 positive statements?

Perhaps mum and dad got it wrong when they said “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all! Instead, maybe we should espouse “if you don’t have anything nice to say, think of 5 ways to express interest, affection, validation, appreciation, and humour!” But of course, mum and dad got it right in so many other ways and I’m grateful for that!