There are few destructive patterns of communication that are sure to chip away at your marriage as much as negative interpretation can.
A twin of “mind reading”, negative interpretation takes place when one partner believes the motives of the other are more negative than they actually are.
It’s when what you think happened — perception — is worse than what actually happened — reality.
This is a silent killer of marriages. Like carbon monoxide, it fills the air of the relationship with an almost undetectable gas that suffocates the positivity of a relationship with negative assumptions. The more frequently it occurs, the more at risk the relationship is for misery and separation.
For example, you ask your husband when he is going to cut the grass. He gets upset because he thinks what you’re really saying is, “You never do anything around here. Are you ever going to cut the grass?”
When you make conclusions like, “He doesn’t really care about me”, or “I can’t trust her to protect me when she’s with her family”, you make things harder for your marriage.
While negative interpretation is generally based on past behaviour, it can still be dangerous to interpret current behaviour based on what your spouse did or didn’t do in the past — whether perceived or real.
Many times these internal judgments are hard to detect. They tend to centre on a belief that the other person is inherently bad, selfish or has a negative intent towards the other. If the internal judgments made against a spouse are strong and deep enough it may somehow justify ongoing anger, resentment and aggression through criticism or disrespect.
We don’t think that we have ever met a married person who at one time or another hasn’t got at least somewhat self-righteous towards their partner.
At times most of us believe we are “above” our spouse’s level. This is a type of negative interpretation.
The cost of negative interpretation
Unhappy couples have a tendency to contribute difficulties in the relationship to their partner’s character flaws. As a result, this negative perspective leads to viewing even neutral actions as negative.
Over time, marital challenges become less of a problem that both partners co-create and instead they get blamed on one partner. And once this pattern of thinking becomes habitual, it makes improving the relationship an uphill battle.
When we think of ourselves as the innocent victim, we often feel defensive and that our partner is out to get us. By playing innocent, we free ourselves of our responsibility in the problem.
Marital problems easily arise if your thoughts and feelings are distorted, and if your “subtitles” reinforce a negative view of your partner.
Often these negative interpretations are a result of low trust in the marriage. Trust exists in a marriage when partners behave in ways that are in the best interest of both partners.
Adjusting your interpretations
Shifting your negative interpretations to be more positive does not mean doing forceful and unrealistic positive thinking or affirmations. Sweeping serious problems under the carpet will only lead to the relationship tripping and falling down more often.
What we’re pointing to are the moments where we perceive our partner’s behaviour in a more negative light than it is. Like wiping our sunglasses when they are dirty, we also need to learn how to examine our assumptions.
Negative interpretations are something you have to confront within yourself. Only you can control how you interpret your partner’s behaviour.
Develop a healthy self-doubt
What are some areas in your life in which you find yourself consistently perceiving your partner’s behaviour negatively? Is it possible that you’re wrong? One of the benefits of being mindful is the ability to be aware of judgments without acting on them — to be able to question them.
Own your needs and feelings
Furthermore, list two issues about which you are willing to challenge yourself to look for the positive motivations of your partner. Often when we blame others, we put all the responsibility for the problem on them. The reality is that underneath any criticism or contempt lurks a hidden wish or longing.
One way you can improve your conflict is changing how you say things. Often, if a conversation starts negative it will end negative. Instead of blaming, express your feelings about a situation and what you long for.
Being in it together
Intentionally create more positivity in your marriage. One of the best ways to fight negative interpretations is to create a culture of cherishing one another. This includes asking open-ended questions to learn more about the actions of your spouse, listening to your spouse’s stressors, being affectionate and creating unique rituals in your marriage.
This counteracts the hopelessness and demoralisation that causes more interpretations. When relationships become more distressed, the negative interpretations mount and help create an environment of hopelessness and demoralisation.
Process unresolved problems from the past
Unfortunately, regrettable incidents that haven’t been addressed melt away the positive connection in a relationship, creating a chasm between partners. Sit down with your partner and process any attachment injuries or past negative events that come up when you tend to have negative interpretations.
Negative interpretations create separation. They place blame and intent on our partners that may not actually be there. Being able to recognise this can help turn your relationship around.
It will help you and your partner to stop pointing fingers and to start holding hands through the challenges of life.