Looking for sunshine through all the storm clouds: how to tackle Confirmation Bias in your relationship

Storm Ciara, Storm Dennis, and apparently now Storm Jorge. It feels like it hasn’t stopped raining recently round here. It’s easy to feel like Spring sunshine is never going to arrive, and that our roads will be waterlogged and we’ll be sporting our raincoats forever.

It’s the same in our relationships. When things feel bad, it can sometimes feel like things are never going to improve. As humans, we often suffer from ‘confirmation bias’, which is when we seek out evidence that supports our existing viewpoint. So when things feel difficult, we seek out information and evidence that confirms this view. When we are angry at our partner, we are more likely to get annoyed by their damp towel left on the floor, the dishwasher still full, their late nights at work. We unconsciously look for and recognise things which say “YES! You have every right to be angry because LOOK at all this stuff which they are doing wrong!”. It’s not a conscious process, we don’t do this on purpose, but it’s just our brain’s natural way of seeking out patterns and predicting behaviour.

But what does this mean in a relationship? Well, it means that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees sometimes. We are so busy being annoyed with our partner, that we literally fail to see the good things they are doing. Again, this isn’t a conscious process, we aren’t ignoring the good things on purpose. But our brains are saying “no, that doesn’t fit the pattern, just ignore it”. So we don’t log the good work they do in other areas: taking the bins out, their kindness to your parents, them picking up milk on the way home, them saying thank you for something.

And when we are only focusing on the bad, and ignoring the good, we end up with a very uneven view of our relationship. We are only seeing 50% of reality. So what can we do to stop or change this?

1. Start looking for the good. When your partner does something nice, make a mental note of it. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, the smallest things matter equally. Did they make the bed? Did they get up with the kids so you could lie in? Did they put the laundry away? When you get into the habit of noticing the good things, you begin to balance out the cognitive bias.

2. Reframe their negative behaviour in your mind. It’s very common to interpret behaviour negatively, rather than challenge ourselves to seek a new perspective. For instance, a partner who spends a lot of time at the office might be branded as a “workaholic” or avoiding family time. However if we can take a step back, we can start to think about this differently and reframe it in your mind. So a new interpretation might be that they are working hard because it’s important for them to support their family. They are working hard to challenge themselves mentally and to stay on top of their own self care. They are working hard because they feel under pressure and deserve some extra support from their partner instead. Try and think about alternative explanations and rationale behind behaviour, rather than jumping to an automatic conclusion.

3. Say sorry and thank you first. We can spend a surprising amount of time being angry and resentful with our partner, waiting for them to apologise or be grateful towards us. However if we start to model that positive behaviour, by being the one to apologise first, or to start saying thank you for small things, then we show our Partner the way we wish to be treated. It can be hard to apologise for things we don’t feel responsible for. But we can apologise for being in that scenario at all. We can say “I’m sorry we are arguing about this. I don’t want to argue with you anymore. Let’s try and move on from this”.

4. What does love need? When we are feeling hopeless about our relationship, we can get very wrapped up in our own needs, and focused on what we want, and how we want our partner to be. It can be difficult to step back from this focus, but we can try to think instead “what does our relationship need right now? What does love need to grow here?”. We are experts in our own relationships, and we often hve the solution within us to answer these questions. We tend to know whether love needs us to say sorry, or to give our partner a hug, or to allow them some space. Try to listen to what love needs, and reduce the time spent ruminating on your own anger and resentment.

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