2. Control the comeback.
Okay, your partner knows what you consider a putdown. He's no longer making those kinds of comments. Except...when he slips up or unwittingly makes a new kind of comment that whaps you right to your knees (on the inside, of course, where he can't see). Let's say he says, "I wish you'd stop using such ghetto detergent." You came from a poor family, this was the detergent you used all your life, and his way of saying "ghetto" felt as if he dismissed you, your family, your culture and your past. Your instinct is to say, "Buy your own detergent, then, and do the laundry while you're at it, because you never help around here!"
Sorry, you're not allowed. That's negative, and you promised not to be so—even if he was first. Hunt struggled with this putdown/comeback cycle and found these few sentences helpful: "I know you just said something that's important to you, and I want to hear what you're saying. But right now, all I hear is a putdown, even if you didn't mean it. Would you be willing to say that again in a way that isn't negative to me?"
Sure, this may sound jargony and wooden while you're saying it. But it does allow your partner to rethink and re-speak. For example, the mythical husband might pause and come back with: "Hey, can we buy fancy detergent? I really like the fancy kind because it smells so good." Eliminating negativity, says Hendrix, doesn't mean that you don't have frustrations anymore. It means that you find a different way to express them.
3. Make the sticker chart.
One way that Hendrix and Hunt were able to get a handle on their progress was to use a calendar. They put it up in the bathroom. If they were able to get through 24 hours without a negative comment, they got to place a smiley-face sticker on the day. If they weren't, they got a frown-face. "It took two years," says Hendrix, "for us to get 30 days of straight smiley-faces."
The technique may feel a little kindergartenish. But what it's really about, says Hendrix, is brain training. The stickers help you see what happened during the day in an intellectual way, so that you're not simply reacting with emotions like sadness and rage. In addition, both partners have to earn that sticker together, which means that the two of you must work as a team. You're both responsible for the day. Think about it this way: If you fail and your partner doesn't, your partner can't point this out (that would be negative), but you will know all the same, won't you? Not letting the people you love down (even if you can't stand them right now!) is a powerful motivator.
4. Don't turn off the light...just yet.
The best counterbalance to negativity is encouragement. So Hendrix and Hunt instituted a rule. They each had to list three things that they had seen the other do that day that made their lives better. They called these the "three appreciations." And they had to do them each night before falling asleep.
"The first night we did this," says Hunt, "it was snap." The second night, it was hard to come up with three whole things. The third night, "we lay there in silence for a long, long time." Over the months, though, the ritual began to work. The two were forced to pay attention to each other during the day in order to have something kind, true and supportive to say at night.
These days, they use what they call "the zero-negativity pledge" in all their marriage workshops, where it's changed the lives of thousands of couples. "We tend to think of marriage as about two things—you and him," says Hunt. "But there's really three things at play: you, him and the space between the two of you."
"Negativity," says Hendrix, "is a pollutant. When you clean up the space between you, it's just like cleaning a river or stream. Everything comes back to life."
Harville Hendrix is the author of Getting the Love You Want. Helen LaKelly Hunt was elected to the Women's Hall of Fame for her work in philanthropy. The two created Imago Relationship Therapy and are the authors of Making Marriage Simple: 10 Truths for Changing the Relationship You Have into the One You Want.
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