The beginning of a relationship is amazing. But often, it starts to fizzle out later on…
The things you used to love about them start to annoy you. They don’t listen. They don’t seem interested in meeting your needs. It doesn’t feel reciprocal anymore.
What’s the problem here? We all want to know how to make love last.
Aaron Beck is one of the heavyweights of psychology and he has a very interesting perspective on why things go wrong in relationships.
Everybody talks about feelings but what Beck says is key is learning the errors people make in thinking when it comes to love. And no, not just your partner’s thinking — yours, too.
So let’s learn what these errors are and the three ways to fix them so you can have a happy, loving relationship.
Where should we start? Well, this may sound terribly unscientific, but the first thing we need to talk about is mind reading…
Beck says one of the key problems is that you’re an awful mind reader — but unfortunately that doesn’t stop you from trying to do it over and over again:
“She’s quiet. She must be angry at me.”
“He didn’t take out the trash. He must not love me.”
There could be a zillion reasons why people do what they do. But we think we know the answer. And we’re usually negative. And we’re usually wrong. And this is how many relationship problems start.
When spouses’ high expectations are thwarted, they are prone to jump to negative conclusions about the partner’s state of mind and the state of the marriage. Relying on what amounts to mind reading, the disillusioned spouse jumps to damning conclusions about the cause of the trouble: “She’s acting this way because she’s bitchy” or “He’s being this way because he’s filled with hate.” …Interpreting a partner’s motives in this way is fraught with danger, simply because we cannot read other people’s minds.
Ever wonder why drunks get in so many fights? Research shows that alcohol increases our belief that others did things intentionally. Somebody bumped into you? It wasn’t a harmless mistake, it was disrespect.
And often we all act like drunks in our relationships. We assume benign errors are huge signs that someone doesn’t love us.
We can never really know the state of mind— the attitudes, thoughts, and feelings— of other people. We depend on signals, which are frequently ambiguous, to inform us about the attitudes and wishes of other people. We use our own coding system, which may be defective, to decipher these signals. Depending on our own state of mind at a particular time, we may be biased in our method of interpreting other people’s behavior, that is, how we decode. The degree to which we believe that we are correct in divining another person’s motives and attitudes is not related to the actual accuracy of our belief.
Now some might say, “Hey, I’ve been with this person a long time. I really do know what they’re like.”
In some cases you’re probably right, but the more intimate a relationship, sometimes the more likely it is that people will misunderstand each other.
In close relationships, we are less flexible in using our coding system than in more impersonal situations. In fact, the more intense a relationship, the greater the possibility of misunderstanding. More than any other intimate tie, marriage presents continual opportunities for the misreading of signs.
(To learn the 4 most common relationship problems, and how to fix them, click here.)
So you know you can’t read minds, but what is actually going wrong here? What errors in our thinking lead to this? There are three little devils in particular we need to look at…
Your relationship may have clinical depression. Yes, relationships can have psychological disorders just like people do.
When individuals think negatively and assume the worst, it’s called depression. And when you do this in a relationship, it has the same negative consequences.
Distressed couples often react to each other as though they themselves had a psychological disorder. Their thinking about their spouse shows bias like that seen in people with anxiety and depression. To them, their beliefs are real, their minds are open. Actually, they have closed minds and a closed perspective where their partner is concerned.
When you first fall in love, the other person can do no wrong. And it feels so good. And this is actually quite a healthy perspective.
But that positive bias often changes. The “free-spirited” quality you loved so much is now called “flaky.” The behavior didn’t change much, but your interpretation did.
The power of the negative is shown in a number of research studies. What most of all distinguishes distressed marriages from satisfactory marriages is not so much the absence of pleasant experiences but that interpretation. The improvements that couples show in counseling are accompanied more by a reduction in unpleasant encounters than by an increase in pleasant events. Happiness seems to come more naturally when the negative experiences and negative interpretations are diminished.
When our mind reading assumes the positive, as it does early in a romance, that’s good. But when we shift to assuming the negative, things get bad.
(To learn how to be a good kisser, click here.)
So rose-colored glasses can help. What’s another big problem with mind reading — one you have probably done or had done to you that really messed things up?
Tell me if this sounds like a prescription for a successful relationship to you:
I have a list of rules. But I’m not going to tell you what they are. If you violate them, I’m allowed to get angry. Also, even though I’m not going to tell you what the rules are, not knowing the rules is also a violation and I’m allowed to get angry at you for that too.
Hardly sounds fair, right? But we all do this at times. We have things we expect but never make clear.
And I know what some of you may be thinking: “But ____ really should be obvious. They should know that. I shouldn’t have to say it.”
“Should” is a really problematic word. You’re saying the universe needs to bend to your will. Try the word “should” with the weather and let me know how that works.
What’s obvious to you is not always obvious to others. We can all have very different interpretations of the same things. It’s a lot better to make things clear than to assume that your needs are obvious and the other person is inherently evil.
The assumption that one’s expectations are universal leads to another problem. One partner will believe that the other should know what he or she wants without being asked. This expectation that the mate should be psychic is found frequently in distressed marriages.
You’re not good at reading other people’s minds and by the same token, you can’t expect them to be good at reading yours. So unspoken rules are a bad idea.
(To learn how to flirt like a pro, click here.)
The third problem answers a question we’ve all wondered about: “Why does my partner blow up about the stupidest little things sometimes?” There’s an answer…
You were late and your partner just explodes. Huh? When was the death penalty the punishment for lateness?
But to them, late means, “You don’t care about me.”
You know, the same way that “We didn’t make love last night” means “You don’t want me to be happy”, and how “You didn’t take out the trash” means “You’re a malevolent demon in human form.”
All of us attach symbolic meaning to certain actions. We’re often terrible about communicating the importance of these minor things and yet we expect others to know just how vital they are.
Because of the symbolic meanings attached to ordinary failings such as being late, one spouse may attach a great deal of significance to the other’s tardiness: “Something may have happened to her” or “If he really cared about my feelings, he would be on time.”
Any time you attach strong symbolic meaning to something very innocuous without telling your partner, you’re expecting them to read your mind. And that, as we know, causes problems.
(To learn the recipe for a happy marriage, click here.)
Okay, so we’ve seen how being bad at mind reading and expecting others to read minds can lead to problems. How do we fix this? There are three steps…
You need to find your unspoken rules, your symbolic meanings, and all those nasty uncommunicated “shoulds” you have regarding your partner.
Watch yourself next time you get angry or anxious. What is the “should” that you’re expecting from your partner that you’re not getting? What unspoken rules are you assuming are obvious that might not be?
And if you realize these expectations are irrational, guess what? You need to change them.
The problems couples experience usually aren’t so much from actual behaviors as much as the anger over these broken “rules.”
Much of the anger in distressed marriages springs from such broken rules rather than from objectively bad actions on the part of one of the mates.
(To learn how to have a happy family, click here.)
Okay, so you’ve thought about your “shoulds”, unspoken rules and symbolic meanings. What’s next?
Talk to your partner about these expectations. And past that, you want to learn the expectations that they have of you.
You need to double check your mind reading. You’ll be surprised how wrong you’ve been about some things.
Partners should check their mind reading, either by asking directly or by making further observations of their mate’s actions. They will often find that their mind reading is incorrect. By disproving their interpretations based on mind reading, they have an additional payoff, namely, they can correct their coding system for understanding their spouse— reprogram their computer, as it were. This technique helps them to be more accurate in knowing what their partner is actually thinking and feeling so the relationship can be more harmonious.
How do you know when you really understand your partner? If you’re able to paraphrase back to them their feelings and needs, you’re in good shape.
And not only does this mean you understand, it lets them know you understand — which is almost as important.
To be sure that you understand the precise nature of your mate’s concerns, give him or her feedback, paraphrasing what seems to be the essence of the complaints. After further clarification, you should give your mate a summary of the complaints to determine whether you have understood them.
Relationship expert John Gottman talks about the importance of building a “love map” — knowing your partner so well you can build a map of their needs and how they think. It was something he consistently saw in the happiest couples.
(To learn the 4 new parenting tips that will make your kids awesome click here.)
So what’s the final tip? Time to put those rose-colored glasses back on…
Don’t act like a drunk and assume every bad thing is intentional. Assume your partner wants the best for you unless the opposite is absolutely clear. And even then, ask.
Next time you assume the worst, try and reframe your perspective to explore other reasons why they may have done what they did.
Instead of assuming, “They yelled because they don’t love me” it might be time to think “They did that because they’re in pain. How can I help them?”
Another good thing to do is to start noting all the good things they do instead of the bad. Every time your partner does something that you’re grateful for, write it down. This is similar to one of the most proven methods for becoming happier.
(To find out the 8 things the happiest people do every day, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and learn an easy way to remember how to put it into action…
Here’s how to make love last:
You’re not a bad person. And neither are they. It’s often just a misunderstanding. So treat it that way.
The secret to that crazy love is often just wearing those rose-colored glasses: believing your partner is the best and that they want the best for you. As J.D. Salinger once said:
I am a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.
Join over 225,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.