The relationships we have can be one of the most important factors that influence life satisfaction. Long term, intimate relationships and marriage particularly fall into this category. And, while a healthy, loving relationship can increase one’s feeling of satisfaction with life, the opposite can also be true. In other words, when one is in an unhappy relationship a person’s perspective on life and level of happiness can be negatively impacted. For many couples whose marriage fits this description, their desire to improve the relationship often leads them to seek help through marital counselling.
Until recent years the majority of research and practice in the area of couples counselling focused on how couples deal with challenges, difficulties, and negative events. But with the advent and growing popularity of positive psychology, which focuses more on positive emotions and experiences, there is growing evidence suggesting that how you deal with positive experiences can also influence marital happiness and longevity. Take the following example: Your partner comes home from work and announces that he or she got a promotion. How might you respond to hearing this? In one particular study participants who responded to good news in an “active-constructive” manner had the highest ratings for relationship satisfaction. An example of an active-constructive response might include, “That’s great honey! I know you’ve been wanting that promotion for a long time. It looks like your hard work is paying off.” This type of response shows that a person cares about why the good news is important, conveying that you “get” your partner. A “passive- constructive” response, such as a less-thanemphatic “That’s nice dear” as you briefly look up from reading the paper, indicates a lack of interest. This type of response can be as detrimental to relationship satisfaction as a “destructive response,” which includes negative statements such as “That sounds like a lot of work.” Other research indicates that active-constructive responders experience fewer conflicts and engage in enjoyable activities more often than those who respond otherwise.
Not only do happily married couples respond to good news by expressing interest, but happy couples also tend to accentuate the positive in life more than those who split or stay together unhappily. Thriving couples commonly celebrate the happy moments and try to build more of them into their lives. In one particular study couples who expressed the highest levels of happiness with their relationship reported that good (positive) experiences outnumbered the bad (negative) experiences 5 to 1.
It has been my experience in couples counselling that the act of asking questions about positive experiences, as well as eliciting positive qualities about the other, can act as an intervention in itself. How? First, it implies my assumption that there are good things present that they may be failing to notice. Second, it implies my belief in the importance of these things. By bringing to their attention that in order to have a healthy, fulfilling relationship, it is important to acknowledge and pay attention to the positives in one another and their relationship. This can be particularly useful further into counselling as each may begin to recognize efforts from the other that might previously have gone unnoticed. If you believe that what you focus on in life tends to grow, then perhaps over time you will start to see more positives, have more positive experiences, and perhaps even find the fulfillment and happiness you seek from your relationship.