“This time of isolation could be a period of great growth or great struggle in your relationship.”
Humans have evolved with a drive to share life with a partner—just not all day long. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savanna formed pair-bonds, but they parted in the morning to go about their separate tasks. So did our ancestors on the farm. For hundreds of thousands of years, even the most devoted couples have been uttering some version of that basic romantic principle: “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
So what happens now that spouses are staying home all day, and many unmarried couples suddenly find themselves quarantined together? The peril facing relationships quickly became obvious to the pioneers of this new intimacy on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where couples were cooped up for two weeks in their cabin during the ship’s quarantine. Ellis Vincent, a retired airline executive from Australia, told a reporter that he and his wife, Kimberly, were passing the time by having long conversations during which she displayed a remarkable memory.
“She is able to bring up every transgression I’ve ever had,” he said. “I believe she is not finished.”
That is not the way for a relationship to survive the COVID-19 quarantine. The Vincents were succumbing to the negativity effect, which even in ordinary circumstances is the chief threat to couples—and can be an absolute relationship killer in these troubled times. The negativity effect is the brain’s tendency to respond more strongly to negative events and emotions than to positive ones. In short: Bad is stronger than good.
Research has shown that a negative event (such as your partner rehashing an old fight) typically has at least three times the impact of a comparable positive event (such as your partner recalling one of your past kindnesses). To keep love alive, bear a rough guideline in mind that we call the Rule of Four: Four good things are necessary to overcome one bad thing. Given the nonstop negativity in the news, people will need lots of positivity in their personal lives to compensate.
Finding good things to focus on takes some creativity in quarantine, but there’s an obvious opportunity at home: that trove of photos and videos of vacations, outings, and celebrations that you’d never had time to go through. Now you do. These can be a source of positivity at any time, and couples stuck at home together can use them to happily “nostalgize”—a verb coined by social psychologists who have discovered remarkable benefits in reliving the past.
Nostalgia was long considered a sign of unhappiness with the present (and was once even seen as a disorder). But in recent years, Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues at the University of Southampton in England have shown that nostalgia isn’t just an exercise in relishing the past. If indulged in the right way, it makes us more satisfied with the present and more optimistic about the future.
Nostalgia has the potential to lift people’s spirits, make them feel more connected to others, and heighten the sense that life has continuity and meaning. It can counteract boredom and anxiety, can motivate people to work toward goals, and is linked to increased generosity and tolerance. Experimentshave shown that people who nostalgize in a cool room actually feel physically warmer.
Other studies have shown that couples look happier and feel closer when they share memories—at least when they’re not recalling each other’s transgressions or lamenting what has been lost. The healthiest way to nostalgize is not to pine for the past—“Those were better days”—but rather to savor those memories as a treasure that can’t be taken away. So when you look at a photo of yourself with friends at a favorite restaurant, focus on your enduring friendship instead of the fact that the restaurant has shut down during the pandemic.
In most relationships, fortunately, the multitude of small good moments make up for the more powerful bad ones. And you can always create more good moments. You can try to regularly make a list of your partner’s traits for which you’re grateful, and also make a point of telling your partner what you admire about them.
John Tierney is a contributing editor to City Journal, and Dr. Roy F. Baumeister is a research psychologist at the University of Queensland. They are authors of the new book, “The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It,” published by Penguin Press.
Photo by Daniele Mazierli/iStock