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Clear Up the Relationship Climate

Positive Biases are a Key to Happy Relationships


By Dr. Carrie Hutchinson


In assessing a relationship’s health, whether friends, family members, or lovers, it is not only necessary to check the temperature daily but also to examine the overall climate.


Long ago in one of your first science classes, you may have learned the difference between weather and climate. While the weather may vary, the climate of a particular region remains relatively stable over time; it is predictable. In the same way, relationship conditions vary each day. However, once certain weather patterns in your relationship follow a regular pattern, over time, they become the climate.


You have probably spent time with two people in a relationship that were really hard to be around. Something about the way they related to each other just put everyone else on edge. It is likely that this indefinable discomfort had to do with their relational climate. In contrast, you’ve probably witnessed a conflict between two people that have an otherwise stable relationship, and thought to yourself, “They’ll work it out.” Truth be told, we know a good or bad climate when we see one. So what are the contributing factors to a good or bad relationship climate?


A consistent theme in the relationship literature is the idea that perception plays a major role in relational climate. Romantic relationship research indicates that satisfying dating and even marital relationships are characterized by “positive illusions,” or idealized constructions of the partner that allow individuals to maintain confidence and satisfaction by overlooking the often harsh “objective” realities of the relationship. For example, people in the honeymoon stage of love often find certain traits of their partner endearing, while objective onlookers may find those same traits repulsive. In fact, in happy dyads, partners often rate their significant other more highly than they deserve (as assessed by a stranger) on dimensions of attractiveness, intelligence, and charisma. Idealization of one’s partner not only makes both people satisfied in the moment, but it has been linked to long-term relational satisfaction. If people interpret their partners’ behaviors through rose-colored glasses, they are more likely to employ the “halo effect,” whereby even their negative behaviors receive the most positive interpretation. Researchers suggest that this tendency can perpetuate a positive communication climate, and actually minimize the likelihood of destructive conflict.


The tendency to see one’s partner in the most positive light creates what relationship researcher John Gottman calls Positive Sentiment Override, which puts a positive filter on even the bad times, causing the couple to feel satisfied with the relationship, have greater confidence in its future, and consequently communicate constructively for the greatest possible outcome. Climates in which there is Positive Sentiment Override usually have the following characteristics:

  • Soft start-ups: This means that when a conflict issue emerges, the offended person brings the issue to light in a gentle way, instead of using criticism, blame, or aggressive language.
  • Soothing behavior: This behavior is most important during conflict, and includes using humor and verbal or physical affection to keep overwhelming negative emotions in check.
  • Compromise: People who are open to and suggestive of compromise avoid “issue gridlock” by trying to explore the underlying reason for the conflict and focusing on a way to meet both partners’ needs.


You may have heard of the studies that show how forcing a smile actually makes people feel happier. In the same way, if you feel like your relationship climate is gloomy, why not try to engage in the behaviors that characterize a relationship benefitting from Positive Sentiment Override? You may find that soft start-ups, soothing behavior, and compromise significantly reduce destructive conflict, causing the climate to slowly improve over time. Once the climate improves, two people are more likely to experience the positive biases that perpetuate the warm climate they’ve worked so hard to create.


Dr. Carrie Hutchinson earned her PhD from the University of California Santa Barbara in Communication and Psychology. She is a professor at Santa Barbara City College and the author of Interpersonal Communication: Navigating Relationships in a Changing World. 



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