Do This One Thing Today to Improve Your Relationship
We want to welcome new CTI member Catherine Pfuntner to the CTI blog. This is her very first post. And she chose a significant topic; positive feedback in relationships.
Catherine’s post reminds us that of the importance of romantic relationships in our lives. Most of us are not well-trained for being in romantic relationships.
Couples therapy is essential for some in bridging the gap to better connect in these critical relationships.
And often, this means skill-building in ways that will have a lasting positive impact on a couple.
As Catherine points out, sometimes we notice a positive behavior in our partner. We may even appreciate it. But the only reliable way to highlight the importance of that behavior is to develop the habit of offering positive feedback in relationships.
“Has he told her this?” I was thinking to myself as I sat with my male client I was seeing for individual therapy. David is an incredibly intelligent, caring, hard-working man in his early 40s.
He works daily through his symptoms, and he is well aware of how they impact his romantic relationship, partly because we have been part of his goal for treatment. With David, the issue of positive feedback in relationships was top of mind for me.
Here he is today, sharing all the ways he saw his spouse strive to ensure a social event would not increase his symptoms as much as she possibly could.
I have met his spouse, and this story sounded just like her.
I knew how hard she works in this relationship. David is beaming a big smile as he talks, maybe even brags, about all these ways his spouse was ensuring the day went smoothly for him.
I have done this work long enough to know I often get to hear these positives stories and rarely are these positive stories are shared with the person about whom the client was speaking.
Making no assumption, I ask David if he has shared this positive feedback with his spouse.
He smiles, a bit sheepish now, and tells me he has not.
Positive Feedback in Relationships
It may seem obvious why we should be telling people in our life the positive things they are doing. “Catching the good” is a behavior modification technique, often taught to parents to help increase positive behaviors with their children.
It makes sense: partners may have a difficult time repeating desired behaviors if they do not have the feedback that it was a desired behavior.
This creates a feedback loop, and in systems theory, these are inherent processes. In romantic relationships where there is moderate to severe disconnect, often, the feedback loops are focused on the negative.
One or both partners are persistently bringing up what the other partner is doing wrong. Most times, partners are making efforts to correct their approaches and adjust course once this feedback is provided.
However, without the proper and tactfully provided positive feedback in relationships, this will either be registered as “huh, I wonder how that landed,” or “oh goodness I should never do that again,” or “seriously, what is going to work with you.”
What’s The One Thing You Can Do to Offer Positive Feedback in Relationships Today?
Share the stories of when your partner got it right with your partner. This may not be easy to do for a lot of reasons.
- There can be so much negativity in a relationship, Gottman calls this negative sentiment override, that even good things are painted with a negative brush.
- Some mental health symptoms may manifest a negative perspective, e.g., anxiety, depression, PTSD.
- Stress can impact our ability to see the good. As mammals, our ability to survive is based on our ability to see the danger, limiting our capacity to “find the good” because we need to know the threat to enact whichever survival response is best quickly. We do not have time to notice how pretty the tiger’s coat looks when we are worried about getting eaten. This fight/flight mode activation happens during stressed states, as well as when couples are mired in disconnect.
All these ways can interrupt a person’s ability to see a loved one doing good.
Benefits of Overcoming These Barriers
These barriers are evidence of why sharing these stories with your partner is essential.
I could see David’s positive emotions as he shared this story with me.
David was able to experience and relive these feelings, not always easy to do when a person experiences symptoms of emotional numbness and detachment.
He felt more connected to his partner even though she was not present—a challenge for partners with attachment issues.
The impact on the positive mood was systemic: I could feel it, too! I was happy for him to have this support from his spouse.
In his sharing this story, David was:
- Doing something opposite of his negatively predisposed thinking: he was focusing on the positives of a challenging situation. An essential habit in general.
- Experiencing these positive emotions, evident on his face, which challenges restricted affect and difficulty experiencing positive feelings, both common symptoms of disorders, like PTSD.
- Reliving a memory in which he felt loved by his partner and connected to her, she understood him and was shouldering with him a challenging moment.
Here is a couple who figured out a difficult situation and got through it well. But…she may not have realized what she had done that helped him, nor even that he experienced it as having gone better than he seemed to have expected.
Remember: each partner may have a different perspective on a situation. She may have thought it was a disaster while he is telling me how great she did.
The problem with not giving this positive feedback to the partner is that as most partners tend to try different approaches to fix a problem if they are not given the “hey, this one worked” positive feedback loop, they do not realize their strategy worked so they keep trying to find another approach.
For really distressed couples, eventually, the efforts seem useless, the hopelessness too much, the failure at “trying to make this work” too great, and one or both partners need to stop trying, as s/he has moved the primary focus from protecting the relationship to protecting oneself.
Mind the Pitfall…But Offer the Positive Feedback Anyway
Sometimes in severely distressed relationships, when a partner gives the other partner positive feedback, it is not guaranteed the other partner will react positively.
Give the feedback anyway.
Say it genuinely, without bringing up negatives, and with some caring emotion. An example of how not to give positive feedback is: “I really appreciated the coffee you made me this morning since you’re usually asleep and in bed until 10 am.”
Start focusing on the positive, too, because it is there, even if it is hard to find. “I really appreciated the coffee you made me this morning. It tasted great, and I know how comfy that bed can be. Thank you.”
This statement is specific about what your partner did well, how you appreciated it and recognized the effort your partner was making.
If your partner ignores your positive feedback, has a less than friendly or downright hostile response, keep your side of the street clean. You cannot change your partner.
We all can improve our ability to focus on positive feedback in relationships, even during challenging times.
At a minimum, you experience the benefits of seeing more of the positives and balancing out a negatively predisposed thought process. The way we practice offering positive feedback in relationships becomes a habit, meaning as you practice finding positives in your partner, you may be pleasantly surprised you start noticing positives in other areas of life.
Want to Take This Strategy into Orbit?
In his book, 25 Ways to Win with People, John Maxwell identifies his fifth strategy as complimenting a person in front of other people. If we’re talking about winning with people, who better to win with than our partners?
The next time your partner does something well, whether it is with you, at work, with the kids, etc., share this with another person in front of your partner.
As a clinical supervisor, I often did this with the clinicians I supervised. One way was when I came across successes, I emailed my counterpart and the clinical director, CC’ing the supervisee, recognizing my clinicians’ hard work and accomplishments. It is not a strategy that needs to stop with your partner, but your relationship with your partner is a great place to start the habit.
Okay, So What Happened with David?
My couple’s therapy brain was well aware of how important this story was for David to share with his partner.
In the next session, I asked if he had been able to share appreciation and positive feedback with her.
He confirmed he did, and shared an interesting bit about it: “I don’t remember what I told her, but I do remember how happy it made her, and I remember how happy I felt seeing her that happy.”
Emotions are essential in our relationships and play a role in how connected we do (or don’t) feel.
She was excited to know how well she had done. Her efforts not only mattered, but they worked, too!
Knowing the fiancée, I am sure she took great care planning out how to make a situation he was willing to tolerate for her go as well as she could for him.
He was excited that he made her happy by sharing this with her. There is even a chance now that the two use these teamwork strategies for future social situations because they shared how well it worked.
I love hearing these stories. But I can’t help love it more when the partners get to listen to them, too.
Pro Tip: I look at Maxwell’s book as a fantastic resource for help with positive feedback in relationships, too. Several of those strategies work well when practiced when in a marriage. But that’s for another post.