Have you ever felt like you’ve been dating the same person, over and over again? It’s a common occurrence: one, two, three months into a relationship the “honeymoon” is over and you settle into who you were before meeting this person. They do the same. Inevitably it all comes pouring out. Again.
I’ve experienced this myself. I’ve also had far too many friends experience the same: they keep finding the same person with a different name. At some point, if you’re willing to mature and recognize that’s not what really happens, a realization follows: you keep shaping your relationships based on past experiences. The only person repeating patterns is really you (and, likely, the other person creating their own similar narrative—you’re the same person they’ve previously dated as well).
While we all want to feel like individuals with particular tastes and beliefs, let’s face it: we’re really quite alike. Differences are of degrees, not genres. Relationships are more work than most of us care to admit. That work has been ruined, in part, by the Hollywood-style fantasy of finding the perfect forever ever after. We never see what happens after the credits roll; otherwise, we’d likely stop buying into the myth.
Knowing that we’re closer than we think provides comfort, however. There are universal—at least, culturally universal—patterns we can turn to in order to help us craft a relationship worth staying in. One is highlighted by two recent studies at Baylor University.
Published in Journal of Family Psychology, Keith Sanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, and doctoral candidate Alannah Shelby Rivers came to an important conclusion after studying over 400 married or cohabiting couples: refraining from negative emotions during times of stress is better for your relationship than showing positive behavior. As Sanford says,
When people face stressful life events, they are especially sensitive to negative behavior in their relationships, such as when a partner seems to be argumentative, overly emotional, withdrawn or fails to do something that was expected. In contrast, they’re less sensitive to positive behavior — such as giving each other comfort.
The first study involved 325 couples that were going through one of six stressful life events: a parent recently died; one member lost their job; they became primary caregivers; a child was born; their resources ran low; they lost their house or car. The second study included 154 married (or cohabiting) individuals facing a serious medical condition.
Using a scale of nine positive and nine negative behaviors, they were asked to detail their relationships, along with larger-picture takes on how well their relationship was doing. It turns out that negative confrontations with their partners were more significant in their outlooks than when their partner exhibited positive behavior.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is not surprising. Homeostasis is our body’s ability to maintain its internal networks, such as body temperature regulation. When everything is humming along smoothly, you feel fine. You’re only alerted when something goes awry. The same holds true in societies: during good economic times with no danger, life simply feels normal. An economic crash or foreign invasion throws everything out of whack.
We have evolved to notice outliers in our environment. Seeing your neighbors walk down the street (hopefully) inspires calm and comfort. A stranger running at top speed while staring behind them sets off a trigger. Your fight-flight-freeze system is initiated. This is effectively what happens when your partner is being overly critical or outright mean to you. While romantic little gestures are sweet, they simply don’t have the staying power to imprint in your consciousness the way negative behaviors do.
The advice of this study is to refrain. It’s not saying don’t leave the chocolate on the pillow or tell your loved one how good they look today. It’s simply a reminder not to let your stress emerge in rampant, even if unintended, ways. Those are the thousand cuts that destroy a relationship, creating a pattern that is certain to repeat until addressed.