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Limits of Good Cheer and a Positive Outlook

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Sad Young Woman

As you know, this is the season of smiles and giving and being cheerful. But there are situations when all of this positivity can actually work against you and your relationship – during any time of year. This is especially true when your circumstance is particularly difficult or your relationship is facing serious problems. So, give yourself a gift by learning the limitations of maintaining these “positive” perspectives:

Forgiveness: By forgiving others, you can lighten the load of anger or resentment that you carry, as well as it being a generous gift. Not surprisingly, it is usually associated with marital satisfaction. However, it does not work so well for spouses whose partners aren’t generally very agreeable people. These forgiving spouses tend to struggle more with self-respect. Even worse, if their partner is physically aggressive, their forgiveness is associated with increases in aggression.

Optimism: Optimism can help you to feel happy, persist during difficult times, and maintain a stronger immune system in the face of acutely stressful situations. However, it also has a down side. Unrealistic optimism can prevent you from stopping unproductive or harmful behaviors – such as gambling or staying in a bad relationship. And, when faced with chronic stressors, your immune system is likely to suffer. This probably has to do with the Sisyphean task of remaining positive in efforts that are destined to be futile.

Kindness: You can increase your satisfaction with life by performing acts of kindness every day. However, for partners whose relationship has severe problems, research has shown that unkind behaviors are associated with improvements in their relationship – it seems that this forces them to deal with their problems. That said, the relationship is still an unhappy and unhealthy connection that needs some seriously positive attention.

Benevolence: When it comes to minor problems, couples are happier when the partners don’t hold each other responsible for undesirable behaviors (e.g. They blame a stressful job for their partner snapping.) But when relationship problems are bigger, benevolent attributions don’t work well and the problems just perpetuate. Instead, these relationships do better when the partners hold each other accountable.

The bottom line here is that although maintaining a positive perspective can help you along in life, this is not always true. Just as with everything else, there are exceptions and limitations. So, be happy. Be positive. But, when the situation calls for it, do the hard work of more directly facing serious problems and adversity.

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.

Photo: iStockphoto

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