We are marriage counselors who have been married for 30 years. But 15 years ago, we were on the verge of filing for divorce. A fellow marriage counselor we spoke with told us we were the worst couple he had ever encountered. He called us the “couple from hell” because we were so oppositional and critical with each other, and because we knew how therapy works, we would not cooperate with his interventions. We resolved to try removing negativity from our marriage—and to then divorce if that didn’t fix things. It took us nine months, but we created the relationship that we had always wanted. It was a stunning transition, and a decade and a half later, our relationship remains extremely strong.

Negativity between spouses is the toxin that triggers most marriage problems. We might argue with our spouse about money or sex or something else, but the underlying reason for the argument usually is that our spouse has said or done something that we considered negative—something that made us feel devalued, a put-down of some sort. Feeling “one down” stirs the fear center in the brain and is so painful that we instinctively try to reverse positions and become “one up,” so we put our partner down. In the end, neither partner feels completely safe with the other and trust and intimacy erode.

Here’s how to overcome negativity and reinvent your marriage…


Negativity is our brain’s default state. When early humans heard a twig snap behind them, they didn’t assume that it was someone they loved coming to hug them. They assumed that it was something scary coming to eat them, and they reacted accordingly.

Our brains still are predisposed to sense attack when none really exists—particularly when we’re under stress—which makes negativity difficult to expunge from a marriage. But it is possible.

Couples can change their patterns and turn their relationships into safe places where negativity is replaced by pleasure and lighthearted enjoyment of life—and they can do this surprisingly quickly. A four-step plan to make it happen…

1. Resolve with your partner to go 30 days without negativity in the relationship. If your spouse is unwilling to attempt this with you, you might be able to do it on your own. When one spouse removes all negativity from his/her side of a relationship that previously was very negative, it throws that relationship into crisis. When the couple’s normal patterns are broken, the second spouse becomes uncertain how to respond. This second spouse might try to maintain the old, negative patterns, but if you can manage to remain negativity free, our research suggests that 98% of the time the previous pattern will break down within 30 days and a new negativity-free pattern will take its place.

2. Replace negativity with affirmation. Each night, share at least three things you like about each other or express an appreciation for three things you did for each other that day. Don’t repeat what you said the night before—come up with three different things each night. Not only does this help both spouses feel appreciated, it also retrains our brains to notice things we appreciate about each other on a daily basis so that we have something to mention that night. This trains you to catch your partner doing something right. We don’t need any training in how to catch him/her doing something wrong. What we attend to is what gets our attention.

Example: You might notice that your partner makes you a cup of tea every morning without asking, something he has been doing for so long that you were taking it for granted.

3. Replace judgment with curiosity. Rather than become negative when your partner says or does something that you disagree with, become curious—why did he say or do this thing? Why does he feel this way? Usually your partner is not intending to frustrate you. He is just being himself. Being curious rather than judgmental about his behavior offers you the opportunity to know your partner better. And you may discover something new about yourself and your own vulnerabilities. But it has to be a sincere and loving inquiry, not an interrogation. If it’s the latter, it’s just negativity in disguise.

Ultimately, we learn to see our partners for themselves, with their own private world of personal meaning, their own ideas and dreams, and not merely as extensions of ourselves or as we wish they were. We no longer say, “You liked that awful movie?” but rather, “Tell me why you liked that movie. I want to know how you think.” Genuine curiosity is sexy—it leads to vulnerable sharing and deepens connection.

4. Strive to create a zone of safety for your partner. Your partner wants to be a wonderful partner to you—but first he must feel completely safe around you. When you’re not sure what to do or say, ask your partner, “How can I be a safe person for you?” Also, try to have fun together. Short moments of pleasure, on a daily basis, lay down new pathways in the brain and regulate the fear center of the brain. You become predictable as a source of pleasure rather than pain.

Watch Out for the Three Cs

Negativity is not only insults and criticisms that are meant to cause pain. It’s anything that makes our partners feel unsafe or devalued, even things we never intended to be negative.

Example: You might consider a jibe that you make to be playful and witty, but if your partner considers it hurtful, then you have brought negativity into the marriage regardless of what you intended.

Sometimes even things that are useful and productive in other phases of life can create negativity when applied to a spouse, including…

Critical thinking. The ability to examine evidence ­rationally is a very useful skill. But when we aim our critical thinking at our partner’s words or deeds, it can make our partner feel that we’re devaluing his/her way of seeing things.

Example: Your spouse is trying and failing to explain why something made him upset. Your critical-thinking skills tell you that to solve this problem, you need your spouse to calm down and explain the situation more clearly. But if you tell your spouse that he needs to calm down and be rational, it could make him feel even smaller at a moment when he already is hurt.

Competition. Competition is a normal part of life and sometimes necessary to get ahead. But in a marriage, we must take care that our desire to establish that we were right doesn’t diminish our spouse by calling attention to the fact that he was wrong.

Example: You disagree with your spouse on the best route to take when driving. If you follow the route you suggest and successfully avoid a major traffic jam, mentioning this to your spouse could be taken as negativity, because it implies that your spouse’s route was wrong.

Constructive Criticism. This is intended to assist, as the word “constructive” implies. But your partner likely already has plenty of people providing criticism. Your role as spouse is to be an advocate, not a critic, so that your partner feels safe with you. Provide constructive criticism only when it’s specifically requested by your partner. And even then, make sure that you state that it is your opinion or best judgment and does not represent divine intervention.

Helpful: When your spouse says that he feels devalued by something you said or did, accept this and apologize, even if no negativity was intended. You should not argue that your partner is misinterpreting the situation—that devalues your partner’s viewpoint, only adding to his sense that you are making him feel diminished. You should ask to backtrack and restart the conversation, then you should restate things in a way that’s less likely to be taken negatively. Both partners should agree to allow these do-overs. Take note of what made your partner feel devalued so that you can avoid this in the future.

Related Articles