Talking to Yourself About Your Partner

Posted on April 24, 2014


Distressed couples commonly find their relationships besieged by negative cycles of interaction that leave both partners feeling hurt, isolated, and misunderstood.  The tendency when this happens is to see your partner as the source and cause of your pain.  In the middle of the distress it is difficult to recognize that each of you and your relationship have a common enemy in the negative cycle.  That is to say that your partner is not your enemy.  You and your partner have the same enemy, i.e. the negative cycle.

Among the casualties of these negative cycles is your perception of your partner.  Your partner’s flaws become glaringly apparent and foremost in your thoughts.  In your pain, your partner’s strengths are now outside of your consciousness.  As the pain, fear, and loneliness continue, it may seem that the relationship has always been bad, and your partner has always been the cause of the problem.

When working with a couple, during the first session and after hearing about the problem that brought them to therapy, I generally ask clients about how their relationship began and what it was about their partner that caused them to select their partner as a mate.  This accomplishes a number of objectives.  First, it lets me know whether this couple had ever experienced secure attachment in their relationship.  Second, it reminds each partner about the good qualities they were once able to see in their partner.  Third, it may be the first time in a long time that each partner got to hear their mate say something positive about them.  My experience is that what brought you together in the first place was real, and that the negative cycles and other injuries to your attachment have since ravaged the relationship.

In John Gottman’s research on couple relationships, he found that for relationship health, couples needed five positive interactions for every negative.  Personally, I have always thought that number was low, but I guess I can’t argue with the research.  The point would be that for relationship health we need to create positive interactions and affirm our partners.

I would assert that we can apply this same concept to our internal thought processes about our partner.  One of the interventions that is used with depression, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts is helping clients overcome their automatic negative thoughts (ANT’s).  If we look at this from a spiritual perspective, we sometimes talk about fasting our negative thoughts or “taking every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5).  What we think about (dwell on) impacts our experience.

This same concept can be applied to our thoughts about our partner.  In your own mind, there is power in being able to cultivate an attitude of gratitude for your partner’s positive qualities.  This includes learning to challenge the voice that says that your partner does not care about you by focusing on the evidence that you do matter to your partner.  When couples are in therapy, we can often point out that it speaks volumes that you are both here.  If the relationship were not vitally important to both of you, you would not be here.  In “pursue/withdraw” negative cycles, both partners react the way they do because the relationship matters so much.  The pursuer protests because it is so distressing to feel disconnected from the person who matters most.  The withdrawer shuts down because it is so distressing to have the most important person in your life so angry with you.  The fuel for the negative cycle is how much the relationship matters.

If your relationship is not in distress, this is still a good practice to remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities.  The conversations you have with yourself impact the relationship.  Work on making it a positive impact.