An article written by Shelley Gable, Gian Gonzaga and Amy Strachman in 2006 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asks the question “Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right?” This is actually a very good question for couples to consider no matter what is happening in their lives.
Most couples recognize the need to step up and respond with interest and concern for their partner in the face of negative or traumatic events. Too many couples, however, overlook the power of the positives in enhancing and restoring relationship resiliency and health.
In my work with couples, I always explore a couple’s use of the positives. At some point I ask: “Do you compliment each other?” “Do you let each other know about the positive things that happen in your daily lives?”
The answers I get suggest that couples may not even realize the true value of sharing the positives and affirming each other:
“You mean you’re still supposed to do that when you are married as long as we are?”
“She knows I’m proud of her.”
“He knows I appreciate him.”
“We probably think about it, but don’t actually say it.”
“If we are going to a wedding or something, he’ll tell me I look nice.”
“She tells me when she doesn’t like what I’m wearing.”
“I just don’t think he notices.”
“I didn’t grow up with people doing that in my family.”
“We both always praise the children.”
The sharing of positive events with a partner who receives it in a positive way is termed by Christopher Langston (1994) capitalization. He suggests that the sharing actually capitalizes on the event and results in a positive experience independent of the actual event. For example, when she tells him that she has been selected to run the golf league, his excitement for her becomes another positive event that they share.
As Gable, Gonzaga and Strachman (2006) report, research has shown that when close relationship (romantic) partners regularly respond to the disclosure of positive events in an active, supportive manner, both partners experience positive emotions. The relationship resources of commitment, satisfaction, intimacy and love are enhanced.
Because couples share an emotional and physical bond, they are important reference points and insiders in each other’s lives. Positive affirming is never outdated or unnecessary. It is a crucial part of couple resiliency. It prevents the feeling of being “taken for granted,” “invisible,” “not special,” “unloved.” Accordingly, when couples tell me that they praise their children, I suggest that a wonderful compliment to the children is affirmation of each other.
In the aftermath of trauma, when everything seems wrong, when beliefs about self, the world, even God seem shaken, it can feel impossible to notice the positives much less affirm them in self or partner. Actually, these are the times when the positives can be an important way to restore safety, trust and connection.
How can couples do this?
We invite couples to practice and expand Couple Psychological First Aid by using strategies like “Just Being There,” ‘Active Listening,” “Partner Care,” “Identifying and Responding to Needs,” at low stress and even positive times. This invitation to Practice the Positives with Couple Psychological First Aid is beneficial because:
- It is easier to learn a strategy or skill with neutral or positive feelings.
- When patterns become an ongoing part of a couple’s relationship, it is natural to reach for them in times of crisis.
- There are tremendous gains in relationship resources from positive connection.
Some Suggestions for Practicing the Positives
Just Being There. The next time your partner has to pick up something from the store, is polishing a car or chopping up vegetables – just be there for a while (as if you just met).
Active Listening. Pick a certain day and time in the week (at dinner, before bed, etc.) and plan that each will share something positive that has happened – with the idea that the other will listen, put themselves in the emotional shoes of the other and respond. For example, “I can tell how excited you are that you guys have tickets for that game.” Positive moments have a lasting quality.
Partner Care. Take note of the things that your partner is doing that reflects self-care. For example, “You are looking so good from the walking you are doing.” “You really calm down at that piano.” This is the other side of worry.
Identifying and Responding to Needs. Share in fulfilling some need your partner has – not because it is crucial, but because this is a person you love. Go to the “Chick Flick” with her. Pick up the special coffee he loves.
Borrowing from a slogan used to increase civilian alert in the transit system, we invite a positive spin to the words, “If You See Something – Say Something.” Keep your eye out for the positives and actively respond to affirm them. There is a great deal to gain from ” Being there when things go right.”
For Further Reading
Gable, S., Gonzaga, G., Strachman, A. (2006) Will You Be there for Me When things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Even Disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.91, No. 5, 904-917.
Langston C.A. (1994) Capitalizing on and coping with daily-life events: Expressive responses to positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1112-1125.