For years it was the bane of our marriage. My default position for everyday life was this:
“I assume I’m in trouble with Kate, unless proven otherwise.”
Of course that assumption wasn’t real. Of course I wasn’t actually always in trouble. Well, maybe sometimes I was in trouble. Yes, she was sometimes cross with me. I deserved it. But those occasions didn’t happen all of the time and not nearly as often as I assumed.
There were several major consequences from this persistent faulty assumption of mine.
The first was that unless I felt actively loved at any particular moment, the possibility existed that I might be in trouble. It meant that I spent a lot of my life wandering around like a dog with my tail between my legs, expecting to be told off at any minute … but not knowing for what. This is no way to run a marriage!
The second was that was when Kate did make requests or observations about things I needed to do or should have done, I tended to misinterpret them. I would hear that she was cross because I’d failed to do it or should have done it earlier. ‘The bin needs emptying‘ or ‘could you make the bed please‘ were invariably innocent requests. Not to me. I heard them as criticism, failure, trouble. Also not good.
The third was that all of this put a terrible responsibility on Kate’s shoulders for our marital bliss. In order to get a happy Harry, Kate knew she had to remember to do certain things for me regularly. I felt loved – and therefore free from trouble – only when Kate showed me she loved me by doing something that would connect with me. For me that meant speaking my particular ‘Love Language‘ which was in the form of either Touch or Actions. If she gave me a hug, I felt loved. If she did something for me, such as cooking for me or making our bed, I really appreciated it. Any feelings of doubt and uncertainty then evaporated and all was well with our marriage. For now!
She also knew that when she wanted something done she needed to speak to me in a certain way. She tried really hard at this, bless her. But it was incredibly frustrating trying to speak in a way that wasn’t natural to her and made no sense.
Thinking the worst in this negative way plagued us. It’s an awful way to live and to love.
Research is beginning to show that it’s not just me.
A study in the 2004 Journal of Family Psychology (pdf download) by Frank Fincham and colleagues found that husbands said they were better at resolving marital issues if their wives were benevolent toward them. Wives said they resolved issues worse if their husbands tended to avoid such discussions. That sounds exactly like us. We got on great when Kate was actively benevolent toward me and badly when I avoided her, which is exactly what happened when I assumed I was in trouble.
A brand new study released this week in Family Relations by Jonathan Kimmes, co-authored by Fincham, goes a lot further, linking initial feelings of security with how we then see our spouses, and how that knocks on into satisfaction with the relationship later. What they found was that greater anxiety or uncertainty about the relationship today tends to make that individual interpret their spouse’s behaviour more negatively two years later. That in turn produces a lower level of satisfaction one year on.
But the stand-out finding from this study was this. Husbands who attributed their wife’s behaviour negatively then had an effect on their wife’s subsequent happiness. In other words, husbands who think the worst make their wife unhappy. That isn’t true the other way round.
So thinking the worst in this way is mainly a problem for men that then affects women.
What to do about it?
Two years ago, Kate and I sat down to talk about this on our annual summer shiver by the seaside. This issue of me feeling in trouble had been frustrating Kate for far too long. She was fed up with having to do certain things to placate me and having to speak to me in a certain way. It was frustrating for me too because whenever Kate asked me to do something, the only voice I ever heard was from a childhood of craving affirmation rather than criticism. “What have you done?”. “You’ve done it wrong“. “That’s no good“. And whatever I did do, it could never be enough.
“But Harry,” she said, “you know that I love you and want to be close to you“.
I really knew this was true. She did love me and want to be close to me. This was Kate’s voice.
I suddenly realised I needed to hear the voice of Kate and not the voice of my childhood when she spoke. Instead of thinking that I was in trouble, I could now see the reality. Something needs doing and Kate’s asking me nicely and reasonably to do it. Of course I’d love to do it because she loves me and wants to be close to me.
The good news is that I have applied this for the past two years and I’m pretty sure it has revolutionised our marriage. For many months after that discussion, our marriage was better than ever. We had a minor relapse of drifting apart but talked again and sorted things out.
This summer we celebrated our 29th anniversary. “Our best year ever“, announced Kate to me and the children with a huge smile.
Thinking the worst is one of what I call the four STOP signs – Scoring points, Thinking the worst, Opting out, Putting down.
If you want to read a quick summary of these, read this article about how to argue, courtesy of the Times newspaper.
Watch a short video of what Thinking the worst looks like and how to avoid it.
For a fuller read, try my easy-reading book Let’s Stick Together which covers all four in a lot more detail.