When You’re Dating (or Married to) a Pessimist...
So your love is not a glass-half-full kind of guy—maybe even a bit of a grump (though he likes to say he is simply a realist). Being an optimist yourself, you often play the role of cheerleader. You may like going out on date nights, for example, but your negative-Neil groans about the crowds and expensive drinks. You want to keep the peace and avoid his complaints, so you stay home. After a while, you stop asking him for dates altogether. You start to feel resentful, and think to yourself, If he doesn’t want to go out to dinner, maybe I’ll find someone who will!
“What’s going to break a marriage is the expectation that the other will be just like me.”
Sound familiar? Opposites may attract, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is always easy, says Colleen Mullen, Psy.D., a marriage and family therapist in San Diego. If this unhealthy dynamic is left unchallenged, she says, “there is a very high likelihood the relationship will not last.” But with a little perspective and effort, these bright side/dark side couplings can work remarkably well.
1. Recognize how you complement each other. “Most couples have one person who is a spender and one who is the saver. Or one is a homebody and the other a party animal. The same thing goes with overall attitude…. There is usually one who sees the world more darkly than the other,” says Domonique Bertolucci, author of The Happiness Code: Ten Keys to Being the Best You Can Be and The Kindness Pact. “These pairings can make a great team!” While your partner’s cynicism may annoy you sometimes, you can probably identify at least three ways in which it actually helps you: He advised you against trusting a corrupt business partner, for example. Or he’s able to deal with negative events (they happen, after all) more efficiently than you. “Instead of trying to change your partner’s perspective, put your positive energy toward realizing how his attitude helps you and what you can learn from it,” Bertolucci says. While positivity is viewed more, well, positively in our culture, both sides are needed.
2. Understand your partner’s values. What you see as party-pooping may simply be caution and risk-adversion. Your partner probably doesn’t want to end your fun or make you miserable; she probably just wants to make sure you are safe. Look at her history, too. “Sometimes negativity can be passed along through generations,” says Linda Carroll, author of Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love. “Some families come together talking about ‘what is wrong’ and find connection and sympathy this way.” You can begin to change that habit by finding connection through good news.
3. End the “I’ve got it worse” game. Your partner comes home complaining about how much work she has and how stressed out she feels. You remind her that you are super-stressed at work, too, and that you arranged all of the kids’ extracurricular activities on top of it. It’s common for couples to compete over who is more deserving of sympathy and support, says Kim Leatherdale, a couples counselor in Allenhurst, N.J. But this reverse one-upmanship causes a damaging negative cycle. The next time your partner comes home complaining, respect that her gripes are valid. Listen attentively, ask questions and offer support, even if you think you really do have more on your plate. The more you show you care, the less stressed out she will feel. The less stress she feels, the more emotionally available she’ll be to care for you… and your negative cycle will change course.
4. Break the negativity habit. “My husband had a miserable job. Every night he would recount all the horrors of the day,” Bertolucci recalls. “Then I went away for work for two weeks, and when I came back, he seemed to be enjoying the job more. ‘I didn’t have anyone to complain to, so I wasn’t rehashing it every night,’ he said.” The nightly airing of grievances had become a habit. So while listening to your partner’s challenges is important, decide together when and how to put a cap on it. Melissa Heisler, author of From Type A to Type Me: How to Stop "Doing" Life and Start Living It, suggests a “three strikes and then solution” rule: If you or your spouse complain about the same topic three times, it’s time to find a solution, even if that solution is to simply “let it go.”
5. Be a positive role model. Nagging your partner to be more positive—or chiding him to “stop worrying!”—isn’t going to change his attitude or behavior. So if you’re tired of him asking, “Baked chicken again?” after you’ve spent time preparing a meal, model the way you’d prefer to be treated, says Jackie Woodside, a psychotherapist in Marlborough, Mass., and the author of Calming the Chaos: A Soulful Guide to Managing Your Energy Rather Than Your Time. Thank him for making the bed instead of rearranging the pillows after he’s done. Tell him how much it means to you that he spends holidays with your family rather than questioning why he didn’t stand up to greet your mother. Offer a back rub without expecting one in return. Being generous in this way does not mean that you are a doormat; it means that you are taking steps to change the tone of your relationship for the better.
6. Start a conversation instead of a fight. If the role-modeling seems to go unnoticed, you need a frank talk with your partner. Let her know how her negative comments make you feel, without blaming. Use the classic “I feel/when you/and I need” couples-counseling construct, advises Bertolucci: “I feel [unappreciated, mad] when you [complain about dinner] and I need [you to acknowledge my effort].”
7. Protect your own positivity. If you tend to be more optimistic than your partner, it’s up to you to nurture that attitude. Yes, it’s easy to let a more negative person bring you down, but you don’t have to let your mood be dependent on someone else. Find other (appropriate) outlets to support your outlook: friends, clubs, a gym buddy, books, yoga or a place of worship. Differences are not what ruin relationships, says Michael Gurian, author of Lessons of Lifelong Intimacy: Building a Stronger Marriage Without Losing Yourself—The 9 Principles of a Balanced and Happy Relationship. “What’s going to break a marriage is the expectation that the other will be just like me.”