Researchers Elizabeth Robinson and Gail Price found that couples in unhappy marriages tend to underestimate the number of positive interactions in their marriage by 50%. As Dr. John Gottman explains, every couple has a “Story of Us Switch.

When the switch is turned on, couples tend to look back on their early days fondly. When they talk about the tough times they’ve had, they glorify the struggles they’ve been through, drawing strength from the adversity they’ve survived together.

When the switch is turned off, however, couples tend to look back on their early days with resentment and blame. For some of these couples, the Story of Us Switch may seem stuck in the off position.

We all make mistakes when judging situations or people, and biases influence many of our conclusions. Failing to recognize and manage these biases can keep an unhappy marriage in the dark.

Confirmation bias

In the 1960s, English psychologist Peter Wason conducted a simple experiment where he presented his research subjects with a sequence of three numbers, say 2-4-6. Wason then asked his subjects to identify the rule that described the sequence by offering additional number sequences that followed the rule. His subjects offered other sequences like 4-8-10 and 6-8-12. Each subject concluded that the rule was a sequence of three ascending, even numbers. They were wrong.

In Wason’s experiment, each subject formed a hypothesis about the sequence of three numbers and set out to prove it. Because none sought to disprove their hypothesis, they failed to discover the actual rule Wason had applied, a simple sequence of ascending numbers.

Wason named this phenomenon “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is our tendency to pursue and believe facts that “prove” what we already suspect or believe to be true. Confirmation bias affects what we believe about ourselves, about the world, and about our relationships.

Consider an example. Jamie and Rick frequently argue about spending. For Jamie’s birthday, Rick surprises her with an evening out at a new restaurant he’s heard Jamie talk about. As the hostess seats them at their table, Rick notices that Jamie hasn’t said a word since they arrived.

“You seem upset,” he says. “I thought you’d be happy.”
“We can’t afford this place,” she replies. “Didn’t you look at the menu? You never look at how much things cost!”

Rick’s plan for a happy evening with his wife dissolves in an argument as Rick defends his choice, and Jamie continues to accuse him of frivolous spending.

In an unhappy marriage, confirmation bias can be destructive, especially when paired with negativity bias.

Negativity bias

Negativity bias is our tendency to give greater attention and weight to negative information.

Rick has noticed that his relationship with his wife seems different since Jamie left and came back from a week-long visit to her mother’s. Visiting her mom is something Jamie does once a year, but Rick insists this time is different.

Jamie didn’t respond to a couple of Rick’s text messages while she was away. She didn’t answer her phone one night when he called at the time they’d agreed on. Since she’s been back, she seems quieter, and a few nights went to bed early. Rick now believes that Jamie has been distancing herself from him.

Married couples need to be careful to not draw negative conclusions about their relationship before carefully assessing all the facts. A premature, negative assessment of your marriage may set you up for unnecessary conflict, dissatisfaction and divorce.

After a month of suspecting Jamie was giving up on their marriage, Rick confronted her after Jamie failed to answer Rick when he called to her in the kitchen from another room in the house.

“If you don’t love me anymore, why can’t you just tell me instead of shutting me out?” Rick said angrily.

“What are you talking about?” Jamie answered.

He started listing her offenses, “You just ignored me when I called you from the other room. You didn’t return my texts when you were at your mother’s. You didn’t answer my phone call. You’ve been going to bed without me..”

“What is this about? I didn’t hear you from the other room,” Jamie explained. “The dishwasher was making too much noise.”

As for the other incidents on Rick’s list of offenses, it turns out Jamie’s phone battery had died a few times when she was away at her mother’s, and she couldn’t get to her charger right away. The nights she went to bed early, she had to get up early the next day to make it to early meetings with clients.

The antidotes to bias

Dr. Gottman has identified five tools that couples can use as effective antidotes to confirmation bias and negativity bias in their relationships.

1.Fondness and Admiration
Fondness and admiration grow when couples intentionally put a positive spin on their relationship, on their history together, and on each other’s character. When they talk about each other and their relationship, they choose words that express warmth, affection, and respect.

Measure the strength of fondness and admiration in your relationship with this short assessment. Often, when it appears fondness and admiration are dead, they are only dormant and can be revived with concerted effort.

Dr. Gottman’s New York Times bestseller The Seven Principles that Make Marriage Work offers several exercises couples can do together to breathe life back into your positive feelings for each other. Consider beginning with this “I Appreciate” exercise.

2. A spirit of we-ness
Couples who share a common purpose with similar beliefs, values, and goals develop a spirit of “we-ness” in their relationship. When people allow themselves to succumb to confirmation bias and negativity bias, their focus often narrows to who’s right and who’s wrong. A spirit of opposition can develop with each spouse defending their own needs and desires.

Couples who choose to focus on the beliefs, values, goals, and dreams they share in common develop a sense of we-ness. When they tell their story, it’s most often about what’s important to both of them.

3. Love Maps
Confirmation bias and negativity bias can make spouses experts at pointing out each other’s failures and flaws. Doing so undermines the foundation for a happy marriage.

Happy couples build their marriage on an ever-growing catalog of knowing each other’s likes, dislikes, desires, and dreams. Dr. Gottman calls this vivid knowledge of the path to a spouse’s heart a “Love Map.” For help strengthening your Love Maps, start with this easy-to-use guide.

4. Stand together
Couples who’ve adopted a narrative that focuses on each other’s flaws and failures tend to fight against each other when problems arise in their marriage. Because they tend to criticize and defend against each other, put-down each other, or stonewall, their response to negative events drives them further part.

Negative events are inevitable for any marriage. One difference between happy and unhappy marriages is the tendency among happy couples to stand together during hard times, rather than against or away from each other.

In doing so, they overcome many problems that arise, and develop stronger bonds with each other that contribute to greater happiness, in spite of their difficulties.

5. Eliminate negative thoughts
Once thoughts that your marriage is a disappointment or a mistake becomes a focus in your marriage, they’re like stains on a favorite shirt, and just as hard to remove. Confirmation bias and negativity bias can make a couple miserable.

Happy couples extinguish those negative thoughts as quickly as they enter their minds, and don’t allow them to take root.

In happy marriages, spouses believe they’re matched with the right person, and can’t imagine a better life with someone else.

The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

More in Marriage & Relationships
2 Biases That May Be Hurting Your Relationship
Jon Beaty

Jon Beaty is a licensed clinical social worker and blogs weekly here. He’s author of the book If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work. Married for over 27 years, he and his wife live near Portland, Oregon, raising their children, goats, honeybees, fruit and vegetables on their hobby farm.

  • chomps

    And what to do when you and your spouse have read the principles from the Gottman Institute, read Dr. Johnson’s Hold Me Tight together, and received formal training on nonviolent communication, yet one continues to shut down, to withdraw, to not participate in these “happy couple” traits? It’s difficult to believe he even wants to be with me sometimes, because I am desperately willing to achieve all these things with him.

    • DrNye

      Why would you want to stay with someone who does not want to be with you?

      • David Lenzo

        Yes if you got hints to leave and you know you should and stayed 12 years to long. The divorce. Going destitute or living in your car isn’t going to piss you off. Not heading the message. Ang what Wil burn your but is that you wouldn’t have wasted your time like me. I could of found someone to make a baby with whom I felt like a man to lay dragg9ns and love cherish my woman, and she cherishes me as her man. Lost is the brunt of my anger. Not mutually attending to some financial security. Thirdly, at age t53 renting a room. I’m about to cry.over the situation

        • David Lenzo

          Oh they had the personalmity that we fall for. The narcissist words things in a way we think we need to take it. Then ruin a already healthy spirited person. They tie into our childhood hurts then we’re addicted to stay and give in. I’m surprised not more spouses are spending time in jail.

      • chomps

        He does want to be with me. I said it’s difficult for me to believe it when he chooses his fear over our connection and I don’t seem to be able to help, and I certainly don’t know why.

      • David Lenzo

        Hi, she said he developed fear to disclose his real self. That makes her feel not safe and loved. She wants her man back. Something got into his mind that braught up a
        Childhood issue or chimps did or said something, Or he was not used to being loved/that’s not chimps fault. She needs to set up a venue that Wil meet his need or find out about it to have him grow As a man to match her emotional intelligence. i have learned that women are the greatest things on Earth. I want one where we are one being, a team, friends, confidants, and deep emotionally connected lovers in every way.

    • David Lenzo

      It’s hard to do that when you even don’t feel safe or feel it even though you want to speak up. With these tools she or he is equipped for knowledge. One to breach lt Ny this opener. I missed you and love you. I’m feel that I am not getting the love thst made me happy when we we younger can we talk. A Good bid!

      • chomps

        Thank you. I’m sorry that you’ve suffered through a divorce. Regret is a terrible thing to live with. I wish you well in the future.

  • Sword&Shield

    No Jesus. No Peace. Know Jesus. Know Peace. Its cliche and simple I know. But I believe it is the start to all things better. Typically relationships become bogged down by the weight of each other’s past garbage or sin. “Let him that is without any sin, cast the first stone” . Yet this is what we do. And we find a way to “rationaiize” it too. When you first meet someone, these imperfections are typically hidden – we present the best of ourselves as this is who we both truly want to be t the other person. And it is well received and responded in kind. But then you eventually start to see what makes eachother human – their imperfections, their insidious bad habits or inability to think for you or maybe its their unwillingness to keep up with you or stay the same….or kids happen or another significant ilife event occurs that shows the other person’s weakness – I could go on and on and on. It truly never ends. And why? Because Satan truly roams the earth looking for his next prey – like a hungry Lion that never sleeps – ALWAYS looking for his next victim. He always seeks your worst insecurities to help him out with this too – then he masks it with one of his favorite masks – ANGER. Then wallah – the argument and divide to marriage – one of Gods greatest gifts to us – where we are joined BY him to help glorify HIm- can be watered down, or made to look insignificant. I think this is one of the greatest hits or battlefronts Satan has made…. and these hits just keep on coming too. Every year, divorce rates skyrocket, homes are torn, people everywhere are losing just about everything – and if not they wish they had. Its all sad. And incidentally I am not just a Hariclub spokesperson but a member as well…. in other words, I too am battling this Lion – some days I win – some days I loose- but am resolved to never give up the fight and hopefully anyone that reads this does the same. And if you end up losing the first fight – take a break and get back in there. Do it again. Try love again and match his every tear with repair. His every act of heartbreak and heartache with healing Peace using Gods word as your sword. Deception is everywhere , everyday, every moment it waits to ensnare your judgement and bring you back on the path of misery. he lies and steals and cheats to get his wins. If this is what you are after then make sure the side you are on, will support you when you are in need. Not the team I want to be on- thanks but no thanks.