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Do Bad Memories Cancel Out the Good Memories in a Marriage?

We pay more attention to negative emotional experiences than positive ones.

Key points

  • The risk of not responding to a negative event has greater consequences than the risk of not responding to a positive event.
  • It benefits our physical and emotional survival to pay more attention to the bad than the good.
  • But it benefits our relationship to pay attention to the positive, loving moments.

"Are we ever going to talk about the nice things I do for her?" he asked.

"No surprise you want to change the subject instead of admitting that once again you didn't do the dishes like you said you would," his wife said.

"It feels as if we can't make it through one session without having to argue about an argument that we already had!" he pointed out in frustration.

"What do you think we're paying her for? To listen to us talk about our date night?" she asked.

"Wait, what? You had a date night?" I asked.

"Sure, we went to dinner and a movie. Don't you remember that you were the one who told us to do more fun activities together?" she scoffed in irritation.

Zarina Khalilova/Pexels
Has your relationship gotten stuck in a cycle of sadness?
Source: Zarina Khalilova/Pexels

Why Don't We Focus More on the Positives in Our Relationships?

We go to the doctor when we don't feel well, point to what hurts, and the doctor focuses on how to fix what is wrong.

Similarly, when people come to therapy, they focus on the things in their life that make them feel bad so that they can move toward a more positive existence.

But, when it comes to assessing the health and well-being of our romantic relationships, focusing on the negatives both in and out of the therapy room makes it all too easy to overlook the positive aspects your partner contributes to your life.

Doctors John and Julie Gottman conducted many years of research into what made some relationships fail while others succeed. One concept that was repeatedly proven through empirical research was the concept of a "magic ratio" that separates happy versus unhappy couples. Specifically, the Gottmans found that couples who engaged in five positive interactions for every one negative interaction were significantly more likely to be married 15 years after the initial assessment.

The Negative Is Stronger Than the Positive

  1. Overemphasizing the negative over the positive is a cognitive distortion that, in terms of survival, works in our favor. But...not so much in terms of relationships. Negative emotions possess a greater functional value than positive ones: The risk of under-responding to a negative event is much greater than the risk of under-responding to a positive event. Recall how surges in adrenaline and oxytocin send your brain into fight or flight mode and—the part that we all too often fail to mention—these neurotransmitters then, in turn, activate your fear memory, which heightens the clarity with which you will remember this dangerous situation. Quite simply: You really want to remember the lion that bites off your left arm so that should you run into the lion again, it doesn't bite off your right arm.
  2. According to The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, research determined that 69 percent of problems in a relationship are unsolvable. This is due to differing perspectives about how to handle major martial decisions and conflicting personality traits. When relationships are filled with so many unresolvable problems, there may seem to be more negatives than positives, especially when the fights keep coming back to the same unchangeable issues.

  3. Each fight is more than just what is happening in this situation. In each argument, each partner carries along with them an invisible suitcase full of past struggles with parents, previous partners, and previous fights with their current partner. This inflates the intensity and meaning of the current fight and the significance of winning this one argument becomes about previous perceived injustices, childhood disappointments, and deep-rooted insecurities about how you see yourself and how others—especially your partner—see you.

  4. Traumatic events impact a person’s memory differently, thanks to that whole fight-or-flight/fear memory thing mentioned before. When a couple fights, there is the threat of a loss of life—not the loss of literal life, but the fear of a loss of safety, security, and predictability that we thought would be a guarantee once we met "our person" and committed to envisioning a future that ended when death do us part. It makes sense then that at some point in a relationship that has become contentious, every fight is traumatic in the truest sense of the word. Each fight becomes a reminder that the safety and security that you thought came along with your marital vows was an illusion at best, and a lie at worst. Given all of this almost seems surprising that it only takes five positive exchanges to counteract one negative.

It Is Easy to Forget the Good Times

When your therapist suggests that you both review the details of what caused your last major fight, and you focus on how much you do for her and how little she does for you, it is easy to forget that she used to leave loving notes for you on the bathroom mirror.

When you are focused on how unappreciated you feel, you forget that he used to bring you flowers for no reason at all.

When you are irritated that she is running late for the dinner that she insisted is vital for your relationship, you don't allow yourself to see that she is late because a part of her believes that if she looked like she did when you first met her, maybe you will love her the way you did back then.

And when both of you are constantly keeping score and tallying all the wrongs that have been inflicted upon you, in the end, you both lose.

Unless your goal was to end up alone.


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