Tagline: Generally, I wouldn’t recommend treating your spouse like a child. But this one strategy successful parents use with their kids might just help your relationship.
You may be thinking “Really? Who would ever treat their spouse or partner like a child?”. If you think this, you’re clearly not a therapist. After five years in the biz, everything I thought respectable people would never do to each other is actually more common than you could think. Trust me, I’ve got some stories.
Why do people do this? Maybe they’ve been in parent mode all day and can’t stop. Or, their spouse or partner really ticked them off, so they want to belittle the other person. Whatever the reason, don’t treat your spouse or partner like a child. Doing so can only spell trouble. But… (here’s my bait and switch) borrowing a strategy successful parents use with their kids and applying to your relationship could really help. What’s the strategy? Glad you asked.
Effective parents are excellent at observing all the positive things their kids are doing. This may sound incredibly simple, but it’s a big deal. Usually when I start working with families, the problem patterns have been in place for years. And when family deals with problem patterns for years, this builds resentment. This is especially true when kids have broken the law and broken parents’ trust.
At this point, I’ve seen parents fall into the same trap time and time again. The trap is always seeing their child’s mistakes. It’s almost as if the parent has put on “Past Mistake” glasses. Everything ineffective parents see from this point forward is viewed through this lens. All they see is the broken trust, hurt, past mistakes and fear, which effectively rules out all the positive choices and actions their children make.
The other side effect to only paying attention to the negative is that whatever a parent responds to gets reinforced. Let me say that again in another way. Whatever gets the parent’s attention and garners a response (crying, screaming, yelling, praising, hugging, etc.) tends to be repeated. So think about this logically – if the only thing you respond to is the negative, what do you think gets reinforced or repeated by your child? Right, the negative is reinforced.
As you can see, this puts the family in a very negative direction. HOWEVER, effective parents avoid this trap by keeping their eyes open for anything positive; they excel at behavior management strategies. That doesn’t mean they ignore or don’t respond to bad behavior from their kids – they do with appropriate consequences. But, what effective parents give the majority of the attention, time and energy to, are the positive actions, thoughts and words of their children – and it works. Effective parents strike a balance between responding to the negative and positive with the end goal of reinforcing the positive in their kid’s lives.
So, you may be thinking “I thought this was supposed to help me with my spouse or partner?” Hopefully you can see how it does, but if you can’t, I’ll spell it out for you. The same principle effective parents use by not disproportionally responding to the negative, but instead balancing their responses to the good and the bad in the hopes of reinforcing positive, can be used by spouses, partners, dating couples or premarital couples. Wow, that was a mouthful, but worth saying.
Spouses and partners, please, do yourself a favor and borrow this strategy and apply it to your relationship. Ask yourself: “Do I only see the negative in wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend? What garners the majority of my attention? What kind of patterns am I creating in terms of what I respond to? Have I struck a healthy balance in what I respond to or am I disproportionally responding in one direction? “.
Now, that isn’t to say never respond to the negative. As a therapist, I tell couples conflict is healthy all the time, given they do in a healthy way. It is important to set boundaries, let the other person know when you’re hurt and allow for consequences in regards to bad behavior. These aren’t comfortable things to do, nor do they always “feel” positive – nonetheless they are healthy to do. But, if you are wearing the “Past Mistake” glasses when you look at your partner, you could actually be hurting your relationship.
Here’s a few ways the “Past Mistake” glasses hurts your relationship:
- Only seeing the negative puts your partner in a box that is hard to break free from.
- Only seeing the negative predisposes you for only seeing more of the negative.
- Only seeing the negative unfairly rules out the positive things your partner does.
- Only seeing the negative blinds you from seeing your own mistakes.
I recommend asking yourself the hard questions to determine if “only seeing the negative” is true of you. If it is, take a page out of the effective parent playbook and apply it to your relationship. Re-balance what you pay attention to and what you respond to. This just might save your relationship.
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