Using Your Brain in Matters of the Heart

The human brain evolved with what has been called a negativity bias. This means that we are far more inclined to notice what is wrong than to appreciate what is right. When it comes to relationships, this can be disastrous. Because of this, resentments small and large can easily build up, while we fail to notice what is good in the other person and in the relationship.

But there is good news. The good news is that this tendency of the brain can be modified. We can train our negatively inclined brain to notice what is good. This aspect is called neuroplasticity, and while it is an effortful process, it is one we can do.

With this difficulty in mind, I think that what matters most in relationships are the qualities of acceptance and appreciation. Let’s take these in order.

Acceptance is important, first of all, because there will inevitably be things about our partners that we find difficult or even annoying. One man I knew said it this way: that while there were things about his wife that were difficult, he always acknowledged there were things about him that were difficult as well. Another friend said about his wife Judy’s annoying habits, “that’s my Judy.” In that statement I saw an understanding of her humanity, including her limitations. I don’t how successfully either of these individuals carried this out, but I find in both an important sort of wisdom. Without acceptance, there will be criticism and resentment—two factors that can poison a relationship.

Secondly, but not less importantly, we come to acceptance. It is vitally important to remind ourselves of the good qualities of our partners, and not take them for granted. Given the brain’s bias, forgetting this is an easy trap to fall into.

I can easily imagine some concrete practices to rewire our negative brains. For example, at least once a week or so, write down some of the good things your partner has done that week. But don’t leave it there. Look for an opportunity to tell them as well. Likewise, when we find ourselves feeling resentful, remind ourselves on paper what is difficult for our partner about us. These do not have to be bad qualities about us, per se, but just qualities that are difficult for him or her.

Writing it down is important. Thoughts in the brain tend to be fluid (picture the brain as something like a bowl of jello in consistency), but if we write it down, it becomes more concrete and graspable.

All this assumes, of course, that the relationship is essentially healthy to begin with. A relationship that is physically or emotionally abusive, for example, will not be healed by these methods. But if no other major obstacles are present, these deceptively simple practices can help a lot.

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