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Relationships: The Grass is Greener Where You Water It

March 29, 2018

So often, people recognize that betrayal leads to mistrust. Rarely, however, do they consider how mistrust can also set the stage for betrayal. The two issues can (but don’t have to) create a vicious downward spiral leading to the end of a relationship. When we tell ourselves that we can’t rely on our partners, that they don’t understand our wants and needs, and maybe that they don’t even care to, we are primed to start noticing how green and lush the grass looks on the other side of the fence.

Through his decades-long research of thousands of couples, Dr. John Gottman has determined that real trust is built in the smallest of moments, on a daily basis. In other words, it develops through experience, over time. But what exactly is trust? And what does it mean to betray our partners?

According to Gottman, trust in the context of a romantic partnership refers to the confidence we hold in our partners to consider and act in our best interests. Trust can ebb and flow, typically in relation to the levels of emotional communication occurring between partners. Gottman captures the necessary components of trust-building and healthy communication (i.e. attunement) using the following acronym:

A wareness of partner’s emotions (i.e. picking up on verbal and non-verbal cues)
T urning towards the emotion (i.e. responding to partner’s emotion with interest)
T olerance of different viewpoints
U nderstanding (i.e. prioritizing understanding partner over being understood; achieved through the use of open-ended questions)
N on-defensive responding
E mpathy

Just as there are degrees of trust, there are also degrees of betrayal. When many people hear the word betrayal, they commonly think of infidelity. Infidelity in all of its forms (another topic for another day) certainly falls under the umbrella of betrayal. There also exists other subtler and often unintentional ways in which we betray our partners, meaning we turn away from their emotions. Prioritizing our own wants, taking our partners for granted, not standing up for them (even if they’re not around), pressuring our partners to change, and avoidance of conflict are just some examples of everyday betrayals we may commit. Although infidelity does not exist in every relationship, betrayal does. So, let’s explore a couple of ways in which we can start working towards minimizing its occurrence.

Try this little experiment. Look around the space in which you’re currently reading this article. Take 30 seconds to try to memorize where all of the black objects are located. Now, close your eyes, and try to recall (not just guess!) which items are blue. Yellow? What about green? It’s a pretty tough task because admittedly, I set you up for failure. The sad truth is that so many people set themselves up for this kind of failure in their relationships on a daily basis. Simply put, we often find what we’re looking for. So, if we start paying attention to all of the ways in which our partners are disappointing us, we will most certainly become acutely aware of those disappointments. If we don’t take the time to intentionally focus on our partner’s strengths and contributions to the relationship (i.e. water our own grass, so to speak), those qualities will fall off of our radar—even if the qualities themselves still exist!

Let’s say that I knew my partner was shy when we first start dating, and I was comfortable with that—maybe I even found it endearing. If over time, I neglect to notice his positive attributes in favour of paying more attention to the things we need to improve, it’s unlikely that I’ll continue viewing him as simply “shy.” Instead, I might start characterizing him as “rude” or “embarrassingly awkward with my friends at gatherings.” His social behaviour might objectively remain the same as it was when we started dating, but I’ve re-written the story I tell myself about him. Gottman refers to this phenomenon as Negative Sentiment Override, which can develop into negative comparisons of one’s partner or relationship to outside people and their relationships, setting the stage for infidelity. According to Gottman, the moment we think to ourselves: “I can do better” (i.e. make a negative comparison), we’re committing a deep betrayal against our partners.

One strategy to combat this phenomenon is to start noticing moments where our partners are demonstrating qualities that we appreciate, even if that quality isn’t the aptest descriptor of their general nature. For example, I wouldn’t be characterized as a very adventurous person, but there are moments where my sense of adventure does pop up. For my partner to recognize my willingness to simply try a new restaurant with him, and notice that moment as an example of the adventurous spirit of which he’d otherwise think I was void, he will improve his perspective of me and thus benefit our relationship.

Similarly, I might not characterize my partner as the most responsible person, but I can certainly notice moments in which he acts responsibly (e.g. refilling our dog’s food and water dishes, or eating leftovers instead of spending money on lunch). We can keep these observations to ourselves and still reap great benefit, but to express appreciation of any positive moments we notice directly to our partners is an even bigger investment into the foundation of our relationships. Remember, when completing such an exercise in appreciation is most difficult, it is likely most needed. Changing the way we look at our partners changes the way we interact with them.

This lesson is an empowering one because it pushes us to take a bit more ownership over our own experiences of our relationships than does waiting for our partners to change. Our partners’ behaviours, just like our own, do carry influence in the relationship, but those behaviours will forever rest outside of our control.

One of just a few things in this world over which we do have a great deal of control is our own mindsets. To wait for somebody else to act differently before we allow ourselves to feel happy in our relationship with them is to essentially say that our happiness is determined by someone other than ourselves. By adopting this mindset, we’re giving away a lot of personal power.

Furthermore, to wait for our partners to change unwanted behaviours before we act more lovingly towards them is to demonstrate conditional love, which is yet another betrayal.

Love is more than a feeling; it is a verb. This expression suggests that we can still act in loving ways, even when that loving feeling isn’t there. In fact, when partners commit to loving each other in this more mature way, the feeling of love can often be restored. A shaky foundation is established for a relationship when partners communicate, either directly or indirectly, that they are only invested as long the feeling (something that naturally ebbs and flows over time) of love is present.

Maintaining a positive perspective of our partners is further helped by deepening our understanding of what Gottman refers to as their inner worlds. When we come to intimately know our partners’ beliefs, values, fears, wants, needs, and dreams, in addition to the experiences that played a role in the formation of those things, it’s a lot easier to trust that our partners have good intentions (even when they’re showing some maddening behaviours).

For example, I might know that my husband deeply values independence. I might also know that this value was shaped by his experience of developing Type I diabetes at age three, leading to constant monitoring and safety (i.e. restrictive) measures being put in place by the adults in his life. Without this awareness of his inner world, developed through a number of intimate conversations over time, I could easily make negative assumptions about my partner’s demonstrated need for space at times (e.g. “He doesn’t care about me” or “He’s so selfish, always doing his own thing”). With such insight into his earlier experiences, I can respect my partner as a unique individual who simply has needs separate from my own. I can trust that he is still ultimately there for me.

All too commonly, we judge others based on their actions but ourselves by our intentions, which is a recipe for disappointment. Let us work towards challenging this double standard by assuming that our partners have reasonable intentions behind whatever they’ve said or done, even if we don’t agree with the outcome. If those positive assumptions are proving difficult to make, it is our responsibility to seek a deeper understanding of our partners’ inner worlds.

So, I invite you to join me in continuing to enhance our daily attunement with loved ones, maintain focus on what is within our control, make conscious efforts to notice small moments worthy of appreciation, and strive towards progress (not perfection!) in our relationships.

Recommended Readings:

What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal by John Gottman

Shayla Drewicki, MC

Community-Based Mental Health Therapist