When you experience negative emotion in your most intimate relationships, what do you do? A recent study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (54:4, 2007) suggests that we are inclined to place much of the blame on our loved ones. Instead of attributing the problems to external factors (as we tend to do when feeling good), many tend to attribute the cause of their unhappiness to their spouse’s character or behavior. The researchers suggest that when we feel happy we broaden our cognitive focus and when we feel unhappy, we narrow it down to the most salient (convenient?) factors–our spouse’s behavior.
A couple of other interesting factoids that came out of this study. When either partner is unsatisfied in the relationship, the woman engaged in more demanding behaviors (blaming, discussing, putting pressure on the other) as opposed to withdrawing behaviors. When couples improved their relational mood by attributing the positive change to either individual, they were less satisfied than when couples improved their relational mood by attributing the positive change to environmental factors.
Does this make sense to you? Why would couples have more satisfaction if they think external factors account for their positive mood than if they attribute positive change to one or the other? Are we suspicious of our spouse’s motives? Don’t really believe their good behavior will continue?
Here’s why this matters for therapists. As the authors say, we are generally trained to explore a couple’s presenting problem, investigate the history of the problem, and then intervene. They suggest that this will INCREASE the couple’s negative emotions and tempt them to choose a bad solution such as blaming the other or withdrawing. This may suggest that therapists begin couples counseling by increasing positive mood before jumping right into the problem. The authors also remind us of some of Gottman’s research that how a conversation begins has a huge impact on the rest of the conversation and influences the particular problem-solving skills a couple uses.