Should old problems affect future relationships
Love Goes Through Your Head - How Thoughts Affect Relationships
When two people fall in love with each other and decide to walk the future path together, they are not a "blank slate". Not only previous experiences with other partners have left their mark; everyone also brings very specific expectations, demands and prejudices into the partnership. These are often not consciously or not infrequently remain unspoken. Nevertheless, they influence the quality of the relationship to a great extent. Psychological research shows that the following five types of thought processes or cognitions (Latin cognitio = knowledge) are particularly beneficial:
- You see your partner through rose-colored glasses, idealize him / her.
- People not only consider love to be fate, but also believe in its changeability.
- You have high demands on your partner.
- Negative relationship events are more likely to be attributed to external circumstances and not fundamentally blamed on the partner.
- One thinks positively about the future together.
The rose-colored glasses: illusions make you happy
The right choice! "Love is based on a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everyone else," said Irish writer George Bernard Shaw. Accordingly, love arises through distorted perception: The loved one is experienced as unique and miles superior to all others, although the differences to the rest of humanity may not be that great. The American relationship researcher Sandra Murray coined the expression "positive illusions" for such overestimation of the partner. She found out that these are conducive to the relationship, as they strengthen the view that they have found the only right person, the only right person. Those who perceive their partner more positively than they see themselves or good friends see them and downplay the weaknesses of the other are happier and experience the relationship as less conflictual.
Every beginning is pink. For the partner, the appreciation is usually also positive as long as it still seems realistic to him / her and he / she has good self-worth - people with low self-worth are reluctant to be overestimated. Those who have just fallen in love benefit to a greater extent from the positive effects of such “rose-colored glasses”. Couples who have shared their lives for a long time appreciate it when their partner looks like them to themselves, as they then have the feeling that the other knows them well and they are familiar with each other.
The pink angel circle. Our perception deviates systematically from reality, in a direction that reinforces our current feelings and experiences in the partnership. In a study, US researchers Susan Osgarby and W. Kim Halford had couples keep diaries of negative and positive relationship events. Some time later they asked the partners to remember the events without, of course, picking up the diary. The result: happy couples reported more positive events than recorded in the diary, but judged the negative events realistically. Unhappy couples underestimated positive events and overestimated negative ones, seeing their relationship through pitch-black glasses. This creates a vicious circle, because the negatively tinged perception reduces relationship satisfaction further. Happy couples, on the other hand, are in the “angel's circle” and, thanks to their “pink view” of the relationship, have every reason to be even happier.
Careful, black glasses! Incidentally, this also applies to the assessment of events that took place some time ago. The American relationship researcher John Gottman was able to show that couples who retrospectively rate their first rendezvous and the time they met each other very negatively are well on the way to separation and divorce.
One final example: Everyone knows the high divorce rate, but nobody feels affected. Couples in happy relationships, but also singles, dramatically underestimate the risk of having to face a divorce in the future. And that, although you can say quite precisely how big the risk is from a purely statistical point of view.
Do not always take perception to be true. What we perceive is therefore not a realistic image of the world, but always our own construction from our very subjective perspective. Against this background, there is no need to discuss who is right and what really happened in a situation. Because: What we perceive, we should not automatically take for perceiving. Incidentally, unhappy couples agree less than happy couples in their assessment of relationship events - this is probably where the "black" glasses are again involved, which allow the other's behavior to be perceived through a dark veil.
Love is not just fate: a partnership can grow
Fate or growth? "The ups and downs in human life give it color and value." Transferred to the life of a relationship, this quote from Stefan Zweig encourages not only the highs but also the lows in the partnership to be considered important and valuable, because: The partnership can grow with crises and challenges. Such a view of relationship as growth contrasts with the view of relationship as fate: relationships that don't start well will inevitably fail; So the partners have to be a good match from the start if the life together is to last.
Belief in growth leads to investment. Anyone who regards a relationship as growth is more willing to invest in it at the beginning of a partnership, to get through difficult times together and to look up at his / her partner's weaknesses and mistakes. People with a strong belief in growth and a low belief in fate take it less to heart if the other person deviates from their ideal in some characteristics - because: change is possible! Those who believe in it agree, for example, with the following statements (note 1):
- A successful relationship develops through hard work (e.g. by trying to resolve existing intolerances).
- Challenges and obstacles in a relationship can actually make love worse.
Satisfaction = destiny + growth. Most satisfied, our own research in the project "What keeps marriages together?" shown at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, couples who have been married for a longer period include those who see relationships as fate and growth, that is, who believe that a certain “fit” must exist from the start, but the relationship can also continue grow and mature.
Irrational assumptions endanger the partnership. Those who believe in the growth of relationships can accept differences of opinion more easily and do not see them as a death sentence for the partnership. And that in turn is good for the relationship, because those who see different opinions as an attack on themselves and as harmful to the partnership are less satisfied. The same applies to men and women who believe that they come from planets that are too different for them to ever really understand each other. Such so-called “irrational assumptions” have a detrimental effect on the partnership. These are for example (note 2):
- If there is a difference of opinion, I feel like our relationship is breaking up.
- In a close relationship, everyone can sense the other's needs just as if they could read minds.
- Biological differences between men and women are the main causes of partner problems.
- I don't think my partner can change.
- If my partner is not getting fully sexually at his / her expense, it means that I have failed.
“Irrational assumptions” undermine not only the satisfaction of the partners, but also their communication behavior and their willingness to work on the relationship. And yet these assumptions also serve their purpose in a certain way: They make the world explainable and controllable - albeit in a less constructive way.
The more the better: high standards consolidate love
High demands make you satisfied. Jürgen demands a lot from his partnership. He would like to spend his free time with Claudia, values equality and expects great commitment from himself and Claudia. Dieter, on the other hand, sets the bar lower and avoids too high demands on his partnership with Luise. Who is more satisfied, what is better for a harmonious coexistence?
Dieter has lower demands and can therefore not be disappointed as easily as Jürgen, who demands more from himself and his partner. And yet: There is a lot to suggest that it is not Dieter but Jürgen who has a better chance of having a happy relationship, because: High standards make you satisfied.
If you ask a lot, you give a lot. But why are those partners who demand a high level of togetherness, equality and investment in their relationship happier than those whose demands are lower? The answer can be summarized as follows: if you ask a lot, you give a lot. Men and women who demand a lot from their relationship, who value shared values and equality and who demand a high level of temporal and emotional commitment in the partnership, support their partners in stressful situations and also feel supported themselves. They also behave more constructively in conflict situations. So it does not stop at lip service: Demanding partners are actually more involved in their relationship - and then register full of satisfaction that their (high) demands are also met. The agreement of the partners in their demands, however, is less important.
By the way, for women there is the greatest gap between aspiration and reality when it comes to the division of household tasks and communication about difficulties in the relationship. Men see their claims the least met in the area of sexuality.
Belief in growth also helps here! Anyone who regards a relationship as growth has higher demands on their own partnership in terms of togetherness, equality and investment in the relationship. And the fewer demands are met, the more likely negative relationship events are attributed to the partnership and the partner.
It has to be realistic! However, high demands are only beneficial for the partnership if they are realistic. If they are not, such as the requirement to be able to read all wishes from the partner's lips, this leads to decreasing satisfaction in the partnership, with oneself and / or with the partner.
Coincidence or flaw in character? In case of doubt for the other
A failed evening. Sabine wants to surprise Thomas: She has prepared a particularly lavish dinner, the table is festively set, Thomas's favorite CD is ready in the CD player. Thomas had announced that he would be home from work at six, but Sabine waited in vain for him to unlock the apartment door. At a quarter past six she gets restless, at half past six Thomas is still not there. What happened? How does Sabine explain the delay? What causes does she attribute to Thomas' behavior? Sabine can ask herself the following questions:
- Why is Thomas late? Is it due to his unreliability or is the cause in external circumstances, did he have a flat tire or is he stuck in a traffic jam?
- Does Thomas often come too late? Or is it an exception?
- Does Thomas also come too late in other situations, e.g. when the two of them have an appointment with friends or want to meet up in town to go shopping?
- Deliberately leaves Thomas Sabine waiting and acts out of selfish motives
- And in the end it comes down to the question of guilt: Is it Thomas's fault that Sabine has to wait and the delicious food gets cold?
Think and act. It's not difficult to imagine that these considerations affect Sabine's behavior. If Sabine thinks: “Poor guy, he's stuck in traffic jams, otherwise he never makes me wait, he would never do that on purpose,” she'll warm up the food and give Thomas a nice welcome when he finally comes home. But if Sabine thinks: "Now he's already too late again, always the same, he's so unreliable, that has always been the case, he does it on purpose, he only thinks of himself ...", Thomas can expect reproaches and an angry Sabine do - and the nicely prepared evening is over.
So the way we explain events and behaviors in the relationship has an impact on our behavior and satisfaction in the relationship. The attributions are usually done in such a way that the perception and experience in the partnership are strengthened and consolidated: If Sabine is happy with Thomas, she will look for the causes in external circumstances and thus relieve him of all guilt - which does not endanger her satisfaction. If Sabine is dissatisfied, on the other hand, she will see Thomas's behavior as a deliberate attack on herself and her partnership - which further undermines their quality, leads to negative emotional reactions and less constructive communication and conflict behavior.
Please think in circles! In conflict situations, the question often arises: who started? Does Thomas withdraw because Sabine is nagging, or is Sabine niggling because Thomas is withdrawing and is barely within her grasp? The answer to this question will probably be different depending on whether you ask Sabine or Thomas. Because often one breaks down an interaction sequence into cause and consequence in such a way that the (negative) action originates from the other person, i.e. the partner has taken the supposedly first step and thus dug up the hatchet. If you want to understand repeated conflicts correctly, however, it is advisable to “think in circles”: The withdrawal of Thomas and Sabine's nagging are mutually dependent, forming a vicious circle, as it were.
We make it! The relationship has a future
Thinking positive is positive. The more the partners trust themselves to solve (future) problems in their relationship, the more satisfied they are and the more constructively they communicate with each other. So if you are convinced that you can make a difference in your partnership and with your partner, you will feel more comfortable in it.
Depressed thought patterns. The same also applies in other areas: the less trust you have in your own abilities and achievements, the more helpless you feel and the less favorable events are explained. Anyone who generally regards negative events as global and stable and ascribes the responsibility for them to oneself (under the motto: “Everything always goes wrong and it's my fault”) and prefers the opposite explanation for positive events (“That was pure coincidence and has nothing to do with me ”), may even suffer from depressive moods as a result. Attributions influence our feeling of being in control of life and being able to control it, and our self-esteem.
The sum of our experiences - why we think the way we think
But why do we think as we think? What are our assumptions and claims, our expectations and attributions based on? There is some evidence that our relationship history is having an impact. In the course of our lives we have repeated similar experiences with events, people or objects. The sum of these experiences is stored internally as a “knowledge structure” and then serves as a template for information processing. These knowledge structures or templates are also associated with feelings, depending on how we felt about the underlying experiences.
The relationship history has an impact. A somewhat simplified example may make this clear: Sebastian has found that his mother and father never really got along; there were many conflicts and both complained that the other did not even know how they were doing and what they wanted and needed. If Sebastian repeats this perception over many years, he may come to the conclusion: "Men and women will never really understand each other". In his partnership with Simone, he can explain arguments well against this background: “The fact that we don't understand each other and argue is because she is a woman and I am a man”. And his claims will certainly not be too high in this regard.
Changes possible at any time! This shows how closely the different thought processes are interwoven.Of course, they are not fixed in a fixed way. If Sebastian repeats the experience with Simone that she actually understands him quite well and he does too, then he will weaken and change his assumption over time and explain (negative) relationship events to himself in a different way. So growth is possible in and for the relationship!
Exemplary statements from the German version of the Implicit Theories of Relationships Scale by Knee et al. according to Klaus A. Schneewind and others: What holds marriages together? Unpublished. Research documentation, University of Munich 2001.
Exemplary statements from the German version of the Relationship Belief Inventory by Eidelson and Epstein; German based on Gertrud Hank and others: Diagnostic procedures for consultants. Beltz, Weinheim 1990.
Wunderer, Eva & Schneewind, Klaus A. (2008). Love for a lifetime? What holds couples together. Munich: dtv.
The text is a slightly modified version of a text of the same name by the author in Psychologie heute, issue 11/2004.
Prof. Dr. Eva Wunderer,
Systemic couple and family therapist (DGSF)
Landshut University of Applied Sciences
Faculty of Social Work
At the Lurzenhof 1
Created on November 23, 2004, last changed on June 4, 2013
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