I was inspired to write this blog after a deep discussion with my client about her relationship with her husband and the constant tension and anger that exists. It occurred to me that one simple idea -- that positive intent could be the impetus behind behaviors that we perceive negatively -- could be applied to so many of our relationships if we took the time to analyze. So before I delve more into how you can apply it to your life, let me share her example. Romy, who has been with her husband for 12 years, is a successful owner of a real estate company and proud mom of three kids, ages 9, 6 and 4. The main reason she sought therapy was initially related to her body image and disordered eating, but as of late, her anxious feelings of sadness primarily relate to her relationship with her husband.
From what Romy shared with me, it sounds like her husband Marc loves and cares about her deeply, but is also not responsive to her when she feels sad. Romy has been angry and upset with Marc because she said that when she speaks with him about important issues that involve any emotions, he either shakes his head and adds one word or doesn’t say anything. Using cognitive behavior therapy, Romy was able to clearly explain her thought process and how her thoughts lead her to feeling sad or anxious, which in turn lead to her isolating herself and at times binge eating or restricting food depending on her mood. Since Romy expressed this as the main issue at the time, we decided to focus our full attention on it in order to better understand why she feels this way, as well as seek to find an explanation for why her husband chooses to respond (or in her opinion, really not respond) this way.
You might wonder how it could be possible that there is a positive intention behind Marc seemingly ignoring her thoughts and feelings, but that’s exactly why I’m writing this blog -- in the hopes that it might help you interpret situations in your own relationships that you perceive as negative in a more positive light. So let me get back to Romy and why she strongly believed that Marc doesn’t care about her. According to Romy, Marc acted like a “wall” and wasn’t responsive, specifically when she was sad, anxious or upset (any negative feelings). Romy translated his behavior as boring, careless, not emotional and cold, and she also was starting to question his love and care for her. She continued talking about how he is kind and loving towards their children and other people, but when it came to her, she felt like they were growing apart. Since I had never met Marc, I couldn’t tell for sure if he didn’t love or care for her, but what I knew for sure was that Romy’s perception was that he didn’t. And, while I believed that this was her perception and it might be true, I was also aware that it is possible that Marc’s behavior could be stemming from something else -- yes, even a place of love. So a quick Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 101: Our thoughts affect our emotions, and behavior is directly correlated to our emotions. If we can redirect our thoughts to a more positive place, our emotions will in turn be affected, which will result in a more positive behavior. Back to Romy’s story, I challenged her to think of another reason why Marc does not respond to her. I asked her what she thought Marc would say if he was in the room. She smiled and was a bit embarrassed when I asked. She responded, “When he used to say something I was usually unhappy with what he had to say because he was negative or I didn’t like his response for whatever reason.”
This was a good start for us, as Romy was able to understand that perhaps her somewhat aggressive response back caused Marc to be less willing to engage over the years. When I kept asking why she thought he wasn’t as responsive as she would like him to be, she thought harder and realized that maybe Marc didn’t want to upset or disappoint her by telling her what he thought or felt about the specific situation, since he anticipated her “lash back” or aggressive response.
Romy was still unhappy with Marc’s behavior, but I could tell that she was also aware of another possibility, which was different and less narrowly defined. In order to help and further push Romy to consider the possibility that behind what she considered to be a negative reaction, there might have been a positive intention, I asked Romy the following: “Is it possible that Marc is not responding because it is difficult for him to see you sad, angry or upset, and he ‘shuts down’ as a response? Meaning that he loves and cares for you so much but his reaction comes across as careless?” Romy was quiet for few minutes and I could tell that she was trying very hard to process what we just talked about. So she asked, “Are you saying that there is a chance that Marc is not responding, which drives me insane and takes me to super dark places, because he has positive intentions?”
I could tell that while Romy understood what I was saying she was also a bit confused. I returned the question to her and asked if she thought it was a possibility. Again, there was a silence for a few seconds, but then Romy responded with a soft, kind voice, saying that based on the fact that Marc is a kind man, it makes sense that he has positive intentions and that she interprets his behaviors in a negative way, which helps perpetuate the problem further. This clearly wasn’t the only issue that Romy and Marc had, but I thought that it was a good way to illustrate the point that, sometimes, and maybe more times than we think or are aware, behind every behavior even when negative, there is a positive intention.
What do you think? Can you think of an incident that happened in your life that you interpreted in a negative way, but after reading this, you can challenge yourself to think about whether there was a positive intention behind the behavior? It’s essentially like putting yourself into another person’s shoes and really allowing yourself to be open about what caused their words or actions. Instead of assuming the worst, what if we started assuming the best about what causes people we love to act a certain way? Assuming positive intent can open doors to communicating in more productive and effective ways.