Growing Up With Negativity
Several years ago I recall working with a couple, Jeff and Eileen (not their real names). In a session just prior to Father’s Day, Eileen and Jeff were discussing their concerns about getting together with Jeff’s parents for a family dinner to celebrate Father’s Day. Jeff’s sister and her husband would be there as well as his brother and partner. It turns out that what happened that day changed Eileen and Jeff’s relationship in a profound way, providing an impactful boost in intimacy, closeness, and trust.
Jeff identified the deep roots of negativity he had observed in his family, stating that his father was more likely to focus on the negative than the positive. This had been a source of frustration and pain for Jeff for much of his childhood, and to a lesser extent even now as an adult. Jeff shared how often his father was tough on him growing up, stating he realized that this was the way his father was raised. Jeff wanted to stop the legacy of negativity in his own life, which he had made great strides in with previous work he had done prior to staring couples therapy. Eileen stated she was proud of the changes, and that she felt closer to Jeff as a result. We discussed ways to manage different possibilities for managing the gathering if the negativity started getting some momentum.
The Solution: Moving To Positivity
I met with Eileen and Jeff several weeks after Father’s Day and asked how it went. Both Jeff and Eileen reported that it actually went well. With a smile, Jeff went on to say that his sister had a great idea that he really liked.
It worked this way. Jeff’s sister asked Jeff and their brother to write out 30 separate positive things about their father. these had to be real appreciations and expressing gratitude for what each person genuinely felt. Jeff’s sister took the lists and cut out each affirmation and put them a nicely decorated jar. The gift they gave their father was the jar, for 90 days he could pull from the jar one of the affirmations that one of them wrote.
Jeff was quite taken with this idea stating “I wish somebody would do that for me”. Jeff and Eileen in fact decided to do this relationship boost for their relationship, stating it has been fun and something they looked forward to everyday. Instead of writing out these positive statements, they chose to make it a five-minute ritual every day. Sharing a heart-felt appreciation and expressing gratitude toward your partner has been found to be a very good predictor for relationship stability, a central finding in the Gottman research.
Making A New Ritual
It certainly would have been OK for Jeff to pass on this idea if he didn’t feel comfortable participating in the Father’s Day gift idea. When I asked Jeff about how he felt about writing these positive things about his father, he replied that it helped him to remember some of the positive things his father did, “He did do some things right. He was there at my sports events in high school, and has tried to support me through some of my recent challenges”. For Jeff this worked, much like a gratitude list works in 12-step programs like Alcoholic’s Anonymous.
Denial Can Be About Good Things Too
Denial is usually thought of in the context of denying addiction, or something negative in one’s life. One could argue denial could also be related to not acknowledging positivity as well. There is compelling research that when we are feeling negative about a relationship awareness of anything positive about the relationship isn’t noticeable or on the radar at all. Neutral and even positive interactions are viewed as negative.
Think about how this positivity ritual could work in your relationship with your partner and/or family members. Good luck.