The impact of positive thinking has been touted by generations of business leaders, athletes, psychologists, and self-help gurus. One would think with all the emphasis on positive thinking, we would be flooded with positive thoughts. Unfortunately for most people, that’s simply not the case. How can we learn to harness positive thinking and bring it into our relationship?
According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., first you need to figure out if you and your partner share common goals and see those goals in the same way. “It’s common for one person in a relationship to be what is called promotion focused meaning they tend to see their world and goals in terms of what they can gain, while the other person has more of a prevention focus, seeing their world and goals in terms of what they stand to lose,” said Halvorson. “In other words, one half of the couple sees success as being about achievement, aspirations and being your best, while the other defines success as fulfilling your obligations, avoiding danger and mistakes, and being the kind of person others can count on.”
Promotion-minded people are usually optimistic and prevention-minded people are more realistic and even pessimistic. “Married couples often waste a lot of energy, and create a lot of unnecessary animosity in their relationship, arguing over which person is seeing things the ‘right’ way,” said Halvorson. “For example, early in my marriage, my husband and I constantly butted heads when it came to our toddlers’ budding ability to walk. He wanted to let them climb and explore, while I wanted to wrap them in bubble wrap from head to toe and make them wear helmets…you can guess which one of us is promotion-minded, and which one is all about prevention.”
Once you determine if you and your partner have a different way of reaching goals, then you’ve made a big step forward in bringing a more positive environment in your relationship. Instead of constantly fighting over who is right, you can easily see your partner’s point of view and appreciate their way of thinking. Individuals who are in successful relationships know it’s not a matter of who’s right or wrong, but rather knowing what works and what doesn’t, as well as consistent action.
New brain research now shows why certain responses in relationships work and others fail. Athena Staik, Ph.D., explains, “It should be no surprise that positive actions receive positive brain reactions. Specifically when a member of the couple is the recipient of a positive action, the brain releases Oxytocin into the bloodstream – a chemical that floods the body with feelings of love, safety and connection. In contrast, when the brain is in survival mode, the brain’s ability to use Oxytocin is impaired, and thus, we do not feel safe enough to love or even open to learn from our experiences.”
Dr. Staik’s research has shown that people in healthy relationships have acquired certain positive habits that allow them to remain “emotionally present” and not activate any fight or flight instincts. These positive actions release enough Oxytocin to maintain feelings of safety and connection.
Increasing Positivity in Your Relationship
- Provide assurance. Nothing zaps our energy quite like disappointment. When a loved one makes a thoughtless comment, it makes us feel like he/she no longer loves or appreciates us. In a moment like this, a few words of reassurance and support can work a small miracle.
- Respect one another unconditionally. Even when upset, couples should still be able to express their feelings with respect.
- Stay focused on solutions not problems. Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon for partners to spend months, even years, on one or two unresolved issues. Individuals in a positive relationship identify the problem and then focus their energy on generating solutions and following up with actions.
- Maintain positive expectations. Dr. Staik defines expectations as beliefs that powerfully shape our behaviors with the emotions they produce. In a difficult situation, positive partners know how to honor unpleasant emotions (either their own or their partners) yet can restore the energy in their relationship with words or gestures that convey positive expectations for one another.
- Be flexible. “Flexibility in thinking is a learned ability that makes it possible for partners’ brains to operate in optimal ways,” said Staik. “A flexible brain is open to explore possibilities for what works best to positively energize the best in one another, to make conscious choices on how to respond to maintain a love connection and avoid getting hijacked by the body’s survival system.”
When partners view both their relationship and their partner in a positive light — and respond to each other with empathy — they empower a strong foundation upon which to build a successful and lasting relationship.