How to spot joy-stealing pessimism in your marriage and what to do when you find it

Black and white, no grading on a scale, answer this question:  are you a pessimist?

Optimist or pessimist? Set aside any impulses you give the answer you would rather be or aspire to be.  Also resist for a moment doing what I love to do with questions like this: rating myself on a scale and deciding I’m somewhere in the middle. Simply be honest. If you had to make the call between the two, where would you land?

Now think of the same question about your spouse.  Is your husband or wife an optimist or a pessimist?

I used to be a pessimist…

Over the many, many years of my life so far, I have made a transition.  Overall, I am an optimist but it wasn’t always this way.  As a teen, I was a practiced pessimist. I recall an English exam during my middle semester of my final year of high school.  It was during an exam set that would impact my admissibility to the competitive University program I had my heart set on.

All I remember is that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Halfway through an essay worth most of the marks, I realized I had missed the point. I wasn’t really answering the question.  The only solution was to start over from scratch.  I wrote furiously against the clock, forcing back the voices that were saying “fat chance you’ll pull this off” and “worst exam you’ve ever written.” I slunk out of the exam and despaired for days to come over having blown my admission by messing up that critical essay.

I drank away my sorrows.  A horrible solution for my dogged pessimism.

Now I bet you’re wondering what happened when the exam was handed back.  I remember it flipped over on my desk, concealing the grade as I braced myself to look.  Anxiety held my breath for me. Through the blurry light of barely open eyes, I peaked at a red “100” on the top of the page.  In my stew of emotions was relief but also disbelief.  How could my perspective have been so badly skewed?  What about all that despair? All the gut-wrenching hours and fitful sleeps?

When you’re in a marriage for any length of time, you’ll both know who’s the optimist and who’s the pessimist. Say you’re both optimists – hooray!! You can stop reading and move on.  What if one’s an optimist and the other is a ‘realist’?  Hey, realism is sometimes a more agreeable and socially palatable form of pessimism.  So ask, is there a little pessimism mixed in with that realism?

Pessimism and Marriage

For some of the couples I saw in my divorce law practice, optimism versus pessimism had been a real point of contention.  I remember the husband who anxiously clung to his job that under-represented his abilities.  His pessimistic view of others led to him being overly suspicious of people in general including his wife. No, he didn’t have a mental health condition, but his pessimistic outlook led to certain behaviours. Some were hard to live with, such as hiding a bank account that proved in the end to not even be worthwhile hiding.

His wife on the other hand, who displayed a more optimistic approach to life, was stronger in almost all of the dimensions of well-being. She not only navigated the separation process with more resilience but also had more to give in supporting their children through it.  I’m certain that this husband’s pessimism about himself and others was part of the imploding of their marriage.

Pessimism is a stealer of life.  A thief of time, energy, health and joy in your life and in your marriage.

More specifically,

  1. Pessimism takes a personal toll on your life, emotionally, psychologically and physically.
  2. Pessimism takes a toll on the people around you, especially your partner and kids.
  3. People can learn the skills of optimism and experience all the benefits of better emotional and physical health.
  4. Learning to be more optimistic will help strengthen your marriage and your family bonds.

There’s an expert on this topic whose book recently caught my attention.  Martin Seligman, Ph.D. and author, captures decades of his clinical research on the topic in his book, Learned Optimism:  How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.[1]

Below I want to walk you through the highlights of what he has found to be tried and true about growing to become more optimistic.

  1. Change Your Explanatory Style To Feed Optimism

Seligman teaches that how you explain to yourself why setbacks or other forms of adversity happen makes all the difference in whether you are optimistic versus pessimistic.  He calls this your Explanatory Style.[2] 

Going back to the statements I was feeding myself during my high school exam and the following despair, my explanatory style was setting me up.  Learned helplessness is the tendency to give up, under the belief that whatever you do won’t make a difference anyway.  Seligman explains that your explanatory style is the great modulator of learned helplessness.

His good news is that when you pay attention, you can change your self-talk to promote more constructive and hope-filled responses to all of life’s adversities.  How exactly do you do this?  Read on…

  1. Examine Your Self Talk for Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization 

There are three different aspects of explanatory style to be aware of, according to Seligman.  Each one contributes to the potency of the negative explanatory style.

Permanence is the feature of an attribute being an unchanging feature that will persist no matter what.  On the other hand, a temporary condition related to adversity is easier to manage.  For example, if I say “I’m a loser” in response to a poor performance on a project at work, that is a feature of permanence in my explanatory style. I’m more optimistic if my style focuses on something temporary, such as “I struggled with this particularly challenging project because…”

Pervasiveness is the dimension of explanatory style that relates to an occurrence being specific versus universal. Seligman has this to say about it:

“People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when failure strikes in one area…”.[3]  It’s the difference between saying, “I’m a pain” versus “I’m a pain in Jake’s opinion.”  A specific explanation for a negative encounter or situation is easier to manage psychologically and emotionally than a sweeping, universal one.

Personalization as part of explanatory style brings the focus of the adversity to internal factors instead of a focus that is external. Let me explain with an example.  If my colleagues talk over me a few times at a meeting and I think “my voice really isn’t significant enough to listen to”, I have made the negative event very personal and internal.  On the other hand, if I think “People are competitive talking at our meeting tonight”, I haven’t pointed the finger at me personally.  According to that dimension of my self-talk, the cause is external to me.

If this is really capturing your attention, you might be interested in the assessment that is a part of Seligman’s book[4].  In my opinion, it’s worth the price of admission.

  1. The ABC’s of Learning to Be Optimistic

Although it’s not possible to condense all the wisdom in this book into an article, I’ll lay out part of the acronym Seligman prescribes as an antidote to pessimism:

Adversity:  name the negative event or occurrence (i.e. My husband hasn’t been talking to me over the past week)

Belief:  Write down what you believe about the adverse event.  Then examine it for permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.  (i.e. “He’s losing interest in me because I’m  unloveable” could instead be “He hasn’t been talking to me this week.  I wonder if there’s a problem at work?”)

Consequences: What are the consequences of your belief in terms of your feelings and what you decide to do next?  (i.e. “I cried while I watched a movie and ate a gallon of ice cream.”  Or, “I decided to ask him why he hadn’t been talking to me this week, and whether there was anything I could help with.”)

We’re just dipping our toes in the water here.  Our expert Seligman describes other strategies including arguing with yourself over the negative beliefs that don’t stand up to scrutiny of the evidence (“disputation”); interrupting negative ruminations by distracting yourself (“distraction”), and taking notice of the way your feelings and subsequence actions become more positive when you’ve pulled your explanatory style away from pessimism (“energization”)[5].

I want to look into your eyes, you who admits viewing life with some degree of pessimism, and say, “I’ve lived as both a pessimist and an optimist, and pessimism leads to depression and suffering.  You don’t have to stay there.”

Adversity comes at us like mosquitos in northern Ontario in May, but you could use a repellent.  Start with optimism.

 

[1] Seligman, Martin E. Learned Optimism:  How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. (USA: Vintage books, 2006).

[2] Ibid, 15.

[3] Ibid, 46-47.

[4] Ibid, 33-39.

[5] Ibid, 207-234, Chapter entitled “The Optimistic Life”

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