ZERO NEGATIVITY RELATIONSHIP FOR A WEEK? WHAT HAPPENED.
Could You Go a Whole Week Without Being Negative to Your Hubby? I Tried.
I stood at the front door, keys in hand, ready to go to work for the day, but I was stuck.
Even though my husband offered me a smile and a “Have a good day, Love!” mental images of my jaw coming unhinged and clamping down on his skull like a velociraptor flashed before my eyes. I knew what I should say to him, but the words wouldn’t come.
Okay, a bunch of choice words came to mind, but none that served the “Zero Negativity” lifestyle I’d adopted for a week. Unbeknownst to my husband, I was attempting to remove all negative speech and behavior from my interactions with him. The concept is essentially “to commit absolutely to refraining from put downs, negative comments and behaviors” aimed at your partner.
With the help of the Zero Negativity program created by relationship counselors (and spouses) Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, my goal was to eliminate some of the impatience and snark that had crept into my marriage. As two strong, opinionated people, my husband I have always enjoyed a good argument, but lately I’d noticed those arguments tinged with real anger.
Zero Negativity was worth a shot.
Aside from a few hiccups, the week was eye opening. Following Hendrix and Hunt’s advice, I tried not to be judge-y or superior. When something my husband did or said bothered me, instead of thoughtlessly laying into him with sarcasm, I’d take a step back and consider his perspective.
The simple act of pausing to think about how my words might cause a chain reaction of hurt was usually enough to bring me to a more sensitive place. It was a rude awakening to realize how cruel I was capable of being. At its core, Zero Negativity really is an exercise in compassion.
I adopted Hendrix and Hunt’s way to broach a problem almost verbatim: “I’m having a hard time with something, and I want to share it with you. Is now a good time to talk?”
At first I felt a little silly—why so formal? But when my husband responded openly and not in the defensive every single time, the words became easy to make my own.
What amazed me most was that without any instruction from me (this was a secret experiment after all), my husband began echoing my positive behavior.
Instead of launching into a problem with language like, “Louise, you have to stop [doing the thing that he doesn’t like]” or “I don’t know why you do this but…”, I was touched to hear him start conversations with, “Hey Weasel (his nickname for me, long story), can we talk about something? I know you have a lot on your plate, but this is bothering me.”
As sappy as it sounds, I felt such a flutter of affection for my husband when he so earnestly asked me that question.
Of course, it wasn’t always easy. When you’re tired and cranky old habits are easy to fall back on. That’s where I found myself that particular morning at the front door.
Toward the end of my Zero Negativity experiment, the toilet in our new apartment stopped flushing. Well, that’s not exactly true. The toilet could flush but not without a combination of dumping water into the tank, futzing with the knobs on the pipes behind the toilet, and a moderate amount of swearing.
Not exactly Zero Negativity material.
To make things worse, my husband seemed unfazed by our new “indoor outhouse.” While I called the building manager between work and running in and out of the subway, my husband (who works from home) “contributed” by telling me over and over again, “It’ll get fixed, we just gotta keep trying!”
But it didn’t feel like we were trying. You see where this is going.
Amidst all the good things happening in the Zero Negativity challenge, the toilet became a festering sore spot. I simply didn’t have the time to be chasing down our building manager.
While I know that working from home can be just as stressful and time consuming as an outside job, and that having your work day interrupted by plumbers and phone calls can be maddening, our agreement has always been that if the person at home can handle a maintenance issue, they do.
But that wasn’t happening with the toilet.
Perhaps I should have spoken up right away instead of letting my irritation grow to prehistoric predator proportions. But our week had been going so well! We were so happy!
Every time I thought about the toilet, and how I needed my husband to step up and deal, I would feel the old negativity growl inside me. Afraid it would undo all the good work I’d done for the week, I avoided the subject altogether.
Until I just couldn’t anymore. I knew I had to put my Zero Negativity lifestyle to the test.
Putting my bag and keys down, I turned to husband. “You’re not going yet?” he asked. I took a deep breath and remembered my words.
“The toilet is really upsetting me. I know you’re just starting your day, but is this an OK time to talk about it?”
I’m not sure if Hendrix and Hunt would agree with the precise way I framed the question, but my intentions were positive and it seemed to work.
“Of course,” my husband said. “What’s going on?”
I explained that I felt overwhelmed, the toilet was stressing me out, and that I needed his help. I’d be lying if I said my old sarcastic habits didn’t nibble at me as I talked with my husband. After years of treating such exchanges as arguments, I had a sort of “muscle memory” for negativity.
But by focusing on being kind to my husband and avoiding criticism, the problem was resolved in minutes. My husband would take over toilet duty.
I felt euphoric. Never before had a prickly conflict been resolved so gently between us. It wasn’t even a conflict—it was just a discussion. We both got to go on with our days feeling positive, loved, and respected. By caring for my husband, I cared for myself.
Looking back on the week, it was one of the most peaceful stints we’ve had in months. Our relationship was less volatile and we actually appreciated each other. When I told my husband what I’d been doing, his response was, “Wow! Who would have thought? We’ve got to keep doing this.”
Will I make Zero Negativity a permanent lifestyle choice? I’d like to. Do I really think I can adhere to relationship rules devoid of all blame, snark, and hostility? Honestly, no. But I want to. And it’s that struggle to be a little better for your partner, and in turn a little better for your self, that makes the practice of Zero Negativity so worthwhile.