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How optimism can help—or hurt—your marriage

Beth and Tom were happily married for over 25 years— no small feat in today’s world. At first, their friends could not understand how their marriage succeeded, due to numerous perceived shortcomings.

However, closer scrutiny of their marriage revealed that it was their thinking patterns—the ways they explained and interpreted their partner’s behavior to themselves—that strengthened, rather than weakened, their marriage.

Tom’s lack of self-confidence? No problem! This only made Beth feel very caring toward him. His stubbornness and obstinacy? Again, Beth explained this to herself as “I respect him for his strong beliefs, and it helps me have confidence in our relationship.”

Beth’s jealousy? Tom told himself: “this is a marker of how important my presence is in her life.”

Beth’s shyness? No problem! Tom liked it because “she does not force me into revealing things about myself that I don’t want to…this attracts me to her even more.”

Marriage and health

Numerous studies have shown that the health of your marriage plays a major role in determining your overall physical health. Healthy marriage—healthy body!

Hold on to your illusions

Being able to see things in your mate that your friends don’t is a very positive predictor of marital success according to recent research by a professor at the State University of New York. Remarkably, satisfied couples see virtues in their partners that are not seen by their closest friends.
In contrast to this “illusion” by happy couples, dissatisfied couples have a “tainted image” of each other; they see fewer virtues in their mates than their friends do.

The happiest couples look on the bright side of the relationship (optimism). They focus on strengths rather than weaknesses and believe that bad events that might threaten other couples do not affect them. But, what if you are an optimist and your partner is a pessimist? That can work!

Or, the other way around? That can work, too.

However, two-pessimists married to each other place their marriage in jeopardy because when an untoward event occurs, a downward spiral may follow.

Pessimistic scenario

Unlike Optimists, pessimistic partners make permanent and pervasive explanations to themselves when bad events occur. (Conversely, they make temporary and specific explanations to themselves when good events occur.)

See what happens when Susie is late coming home from the office. Husband Jim explains to himself that “she cares more about work than about me!” Susie explains to herself that Jim is sulking because “he is ungrateful for the big paycheck I bring home!” and tells him so.

Jim defends himself by saying: “You never listen to me when I try and tell you how I feel!” Susie, being a pessimist, responds: “You’re nothing but a crybaby!”

Optimistic scenario

Either partner could have stopped this negative spiral by interpreting events differently. Jim could have interpreted Susie’s lateness as a sign of what a hard worker she is and noted she is usually on time. Jim could have seen that her lateness had nothing to do with her love for him, remembering all the times in the past that Susie has put his needs first.
Susie, if she had been an optimist, could have seen his sulking as a temporary state rather than a character flaw and tried to pull him out of it by pointing out that she really wanted to get home earlier, but her big account unexpectedly dropped in at 5:00 o’clock.

The Optimistic Marriage

The message is clear from both clinical experience and research: optimism helps marriage. When your partner does something that displeases you, try hard to find a believable, temporary, and specific explanation for it, i.e.: “He was tired;” “She must really be stressed,” instead of “he’s always inattentive,” or “he’s a grouch.”

On the other hand, when your partner does something great, amplify it with plausible explanations that are permanent (always) and pervasive (character traits), i.e.: “She is brilliant,” or “She is always at the top of her game,” as opposed to “The opposition caved in,” or “What a lucky day she had.”

Four ways to think like an optimist and improve your your health

Even as a child, James was described by teachers and his parents as a happy optimist. As the story goes, one day his parents decided to play a joke on him and test his attitude by requiring him to spend an afternoon cleaning deserted stables at what had been a local racetrack.

Returning after two hours, James’ parents observed him singing while happily shoveling manure. Astounded, they walked closer, only to hear him saying to himself over and over, “There has to be a pony in here somewhere.”

James did naturally what researchers are increasingly discovering: optimistic thinking skills are a powerful antidote to anger partly because the optimist has better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at work, better physical health and better relationships. Who couldn’t admire and love a person with such a great attitude?
But what if you are not naturally optimistic? How can you become an optimist if you now insist on seeing the glass as half-empty instead if half-full?

The good news is that, according to psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, optimism is a learned mental skill. As a past president of the American Psychological Association, he has plenty of research to back up his theory.
To become an optimist, according to Seligman, you must master the skill of arguing with yourself!

Four ways to argue with yourself

At its core, optimism is a style of interpreting events that occur in your world – it is a your personal theory or explanation of why both good things and bad things happen to you.

While everyone experiences both setbacks and victories in the normal course of life, optimists – in contrast to pessimists – have a very distinct style of explaining things to themselves.

Said another way: It is your belief about what happens to you that determines your reaction, more than the event itself. The knack of disputing your beliefs is a thought-skill, the mastery of which will morph you into the optimistic style of thinking. There are four ways to do this:

  1. Look at the evidence. According to Seligman, the most convincing way of disputing a negative belief is to show it is factually incorrect.
    Most of the time you will have “reality” on your side. Your role is that of a detective as you ask “what is the evidence for my belief?”.
    For example, is it really true that you never succeed in anything? (Very doubtful. Everybody succeeds some of the time). That you are the worse parent you know? ( Can you remember any success you have had as a parent?) That you are an incurable glutton? (Can you sometimes resist food?) That you are incredible selfish? (How many times have you been unselfish?) Using this skill of looking at the evidence, you can defeat pessimism with more accurate perception and recall of what is really true.
  2. Consider alternative causes. Most events in the world have more than one cause. Pessimists latch onto the most insidious; optimists tend more to give themselves a break. For example, a marital breakup usually has many causes which probably contributed to its downfall. You can blame yourself. You can blame your partner. A more optimistic interpretation is that neither partner failed as an individual; it was the relationship (the combination) that failed.
  3. Put events into perspective. If the facts are NOT on your side and you cannot honestly see other causes to a negative event, you will need to look at the implications of your beliefs to become an optimistic thinker. Is the event really as catastrophic as you may be making it in your mind? (hint: few things are). Usually, the implications or long-term effects of your misfortune aren’t as awful or devastating as you may be seeing them.
  4. Is your belief useful? Even though a belief may, in fact, be true, it may not be useful. Some beliefs cause more grief than they are worth. You may tell yourself you are a failure, for instance. This belief will likely cause to you stop trying. Instead, substitute a more useful belief like “Just because I failed once doesn’t make me a failure.” Then, behave accordingly with your new belief.

Five tips to raise the optimistic child for better mental health

I had just completed a session with 17 year old Julie with severe depression and a firm belief that she was a total failure, she would never be able to change anything in her life, and all her shortcomings were her fault.

Where, I asked myself, did such a young person acquire this negative and fatalistic thinking?

The answer soon became apparent when I invited her parents into the session. They began discussing numerous life events and explaining them in ways that their children were learning. The car got dented because you can’t trust anybody these days; Mom yelled at brother because she was in a bad mood; you can’t get ahead in this world unless you know somebody.
As a parent, your own explanatory style is on display and your children are listening intently.

Why would you want your child to be an optimist? Because, according to Dr. Martin Seligman, “pessimism (the opposite of optimism) is an entrenched habit of mind that has sweeping and disastrous consequences: depressed mood, resignation, underachievement, and even unexpectedly poor physical health.”

Children with optimistic thinking skills are better able to interpret failure, have a stronger sense of personal mastery, and are better able to bounce back when things go wrong in their lives.

Because parents are a major contributor to the thinking styles of their children’s developing minds, it is important to follow the following five steps to ensure healthy mental habits in your children.

Five steps for parents

Step 1 – Learn to think optimistically yourself. What children see and hear indirectly from you as you led your life and interact with others will influence them much more than what you “teach” them directly. Model optimism for your child by incorporating optimistic mental skills into you own way of thinking. This is not easy and does not occur over night, but with practice almost everyone can learn to think differently about life’s events – even parents!

Step 2 – Teach you child that there is a connection between how they think and how they feel. You can do this most easily by saying aloud how your own thought about adversity created a negative feeling in you.
For example, if you are driving your child to school and a driver cuts you off, verbalize the link between your thoughts and feelings by saying something like “I wonder why I’m feeling so angry; I guess I was saying to myself, “Now I’m going to be late because the guy in front of me is going so darn slow. If he is going to drive like that he shouldn’t drive during rush hour. How rude.”

Step 3 – Create a game called “thought catching.” This helps your child learn to identify the thoughts that flit across his or her mind at the times they feel worst. These thoughts, although barely perceptible, profoundly affect mood and behavior. For instance, if your child received a poor grade in school, ask “when you got your grade back, what did you say to yourself?”

Step 4 – Teach your child how to evaluate automatic thoughts. This means acknowledging that the things you say to yourself are not necessarily accurate. For instance, after receiving the poor grade your child may be telling himself he is a failure, he is not as smart as other kids, he will never be able to succeed in school, etc. Many of these self-statements may not be accurate, but they are “automatic” in that situation.

Step 5 – Instruct your child on how to generate more accurate explanations (to themselves) when bad things happen and use them to challenge your child’s automatic but inaccurate thoughts. Part of this process involves looking for evidence to the contrary (good grades in the past, success in other life areas, etc).

Another skill to teach your child to help him or her think optimistically is to “de-catastrophize” the situation – that is, to help your child see that the bad event may not be as bad or will not have the adverse consequences imagined. Few things in life are as devastating as we fear, yet we blow them up in our minds until small glitches become mental catastrophes.

Conclusion: Parents can drastically influence the thinking styles of their children by modeling the principals of optimistic thinking, teaching the connection between thoughts and feelings, how to evaluate automatic thoughts, and how to dispute negative beliefs that led to pessimism and depression.

Recommended Resource: “The Optimistic Child” by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, 1995. (ISBN: 0-06-097709-4)