stay positive... but not all of the time

At times, we can get irritated with our partners, have disagreements, or misunderstand each other. What do you do in these situations? Do you mark these experiences up as yet another negative interaction in your relationship or do you look for the positive aspects of these experiences? How do you deal with the negative experiences you have with your mate?

Researchers have identified many strategies that people use to keep the peace such as, focusing your attention on your mate's positive characteristics (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996), voicing concern, or simply remaining loyal and hoping for the best (Rusbult, Verette, Whitney, Slovik, & Lipkus, 1991). One effective way for partners to cope with such negative events is through the use of benevolent cognitions, that is, interpreting negative events in ways that allow each partner to maintain positive views of the relationship and of each other (Neff & Karney, 2005). Couples who use this strategy, and don't blame each other for negative events, tend to experience high levels of relationship satisfaction and stability over time (Brandbury & Fincham, 1990). 

This research, however, has only focused on minor, more everyday negative experiences, as opposed to serious relationship problems. So, what happens when couples are facing severe problems in their relationship?

A recent study by McNulty, O'Mara, and Karney (2008) examined whether the strategy of benevolent cognitions is also effective with couples facing intense marital problems. To do this, the researchers followed 251 newly married couples over a four year period.

What did they find?
  • The impact of benevolent cognitions on relationship satisfaction and stability depends on the amount of initial negativity in the relationship.
  • Individuals who make positive attributions of negative experiences in the long-run, are only more likely to have higher marital satisfaction in their relationships if they are in overall positive marriages with minimal marital problems.
  • Couples, with serious marital problems, who use the benevolent cognition strategy tend to experience decreases in overall marital satisfaction and stability over time.

What's the take-away message?
  • Coping with negativity in your relationship by focusing on the positive is a great strategy to maintain or improve marital satisfaction for couples who have mild marital problems.
  • Coping with negativity in your relationship by focusing on the positive is NOT a good strategy to maintain or improve marital satisfaction for couples who have serious marital problems because it lowers their motivation to address problems directly.

So, it's great to look on the bright side... but not all of the time! Make sure that you talk to your mate about serious issues in your relationship.

  • Brandbury, T. N., & Fincham, F. D. (1990). A contextual model for advancing the study of marital interaction. In G. J. O. Fletcher & F. D. Fincham (Eds.), Cognition in close relationships (pp. 127- 147). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • McNulty, J., O'Mara, E., & Karney, B. (2008). Benevolent cognitions as a strategy of relationship maintenance: "Don't sweat the small stuff"... But it is not all small stuff. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 631- 646.
  • Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealizations and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 79-98.
  • Neff, L. A.,  & Karney, B. R. (2005). To know you is to love you: The implications of global adoration and specific accuracy for marital relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 480-497.

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