Theory becomes belief, and belief is perceived as truth. When it doesn't fit the facts, rather than admit that what we believe isn't true, and change our theory to fit the facts, we prefer to twist our interpretation of the facts to fit our theory, which has now become dogma.
It is clear that this happens all too often in politics, religion, history, economics, and many kinds of research.
What is not always so clear is how this also happens in our personal lives, in the most intimate of relationships.
John Gottman's research has shown that it is possible to predict whether or not a couple will stay together by evaluating how they describe their shared history. In a relationship that is likely to succeed, the partners come up with stories that are affectionate and funny, and they remember how much they liked each other in the beginning. In a weak relationship, the partners tend to remember things that went wrong, and they point out each other's negative traits, sometimes claiming that they were always incompatible.
Couples in strong relationships are likely to remember how they overcame obstacles and got through difficult times together. Those in weak relationships are more likely to blame the difficulties on each other and to describe their approach to problems as conflict rather than teamwork.
When people feel trust and affection, they are likely to put a positive spin on their partners' behavior. In an affectionate, trusting relationship, a forgotten birthday may be excused as an understandable lapse on the part of a busy, hard-working spouse. When trust and affection are missing, that same incident is seen as evidence of the spouse's selfishness and neglect.
When people feel good about the relationship, a partner's loving and generous behavior makes them feel even better. But if they have reached a point where they no longer have any positive feelings, the same good behavior will be viewed with suspicion, and may be interpreted as an attempt at trickery. The loving husband is delighted when his wife cooks his favorite meal. The unloving husband sees the meal and assumes she is trying to distract him from something she has done wrong, even when there is no evidence to support this thought.
If negativity, neglect, and distrust go on for a long time, a relationship may deteriorate to the point where it cannot be saved.
Nevertheless, if there is anything positive left in a relationship, then there is hope. Couples who are willing to rebuild trust can do so if they remember to turn toward each other instead of turning away. Instead of assuming the worst, behaving defensively, or responding with criticism, they can learn to give each other the attention and support they need. They can learn some simple problem-solving skills that make it possible to get through difficult situations as a team, thus strengthening the relationship and improving each partner's sense of confidence and safety.
As trust and affection are rebuilt, the couple develops a much more positive interpretation of their relationship. Instead of seeing themselves in opposition, they assume that they are working toward the same goals. Incidents that would seem annoying or threatening to an unhappy couple are treated as insignificant or humorous. Mistakes and miscommunications are inevitable in any relationship, but happy couples are more willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt and to make repairs.
The best time to make changes is at the first sign of trouble, but, unfortunately, most couples wait years before getting help. Some troubled couples may be able to help themselves with a few well-chosen books, while others will do better if they work with a qualified therapist. Here are a few resources:
- The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work is a classic, filled with practical advice for understanding and improving relationships.
- In Love Sense Dr. Sue Johnson explains the science behind romantic love and attachment, and offers exercises to help couples gain deeper understanding and take positive action.
- Both the Gottman Institute and the International Center For Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy list marriage therapists who have completed their training programs.