Imagine if your spouse came home tonight and began to tell you about how they just lost their largest account, or how they just found out a key employee was embezzling money or that they are having irreconcilable challenges with their business partner. I’m sure you would be more than willing to put down your phone or stop what you are doing to lend a listening ear and offer support to your spouse at the moment. As a spouse of an entrepreneur, most of us are well-versed in being there for our spouse when hardships hit or when things are not going well. I am sure you do it all the time! But, what if your spouse came home tonight and began to share some good news with you or began to tell you about something that is going well for them. Would you be equally willing to stop what you are in the middle of and provide the same level of undivided attention and interest? If you are anything like me (and the majority of people), unfortunately, the answer is most likely no.
When we get married we make a vow to our spouse to be there for them for better or for worse. Although most of us are pretty good at being there for our spouse in the “for worse” moments, it turns out that we might not be upholding our vow for truly being there during the “for better” moments. And even though being there for your spouse during those difficult times is important, research shows us that being there for your spouse in those “for better” moments, when things are going right, may be even more important and a better predictor of the health of your relationship.
Dr. Shelly Gable, a leading relationship researcher, examined how couples respond to each other when they share a positive experience and the impact that response has on the relationship. She identified that there are four ways that a person can respond when someone close to them shares good news and only one of those four ways of responding serves to strengthen the relationship and the other ways of responding drive a wedge between them. If that one style of positive responding is dominate in the relationship, she has found those individuals report:
Greater satisfaction with their relationship
A higher level of trust
A greater sense of understanding
That’s a lot of benefits! What I found even more eye-opening than all of the benefits you can reap from effectively responding to your spouse’s good news is what happens if that style of responding is lacking in the relationship overall. Gable and colleagues found that if any of the other three ways of responding are dominant, over time it will erode the relationship and it significantly increases the chances of the relationship ending. Therefore, they found that even if we are there for our spouse every time something goes wrong, but we are not fully there for them when things are going right, then our relationship is going to suffer.
The 4 Ways of Responding to Good News
Good news can be any positive thing (big or small) that your spouse shares with you, but to help better illustrate what each type of responding looks like, I will use the example: Your spouse comes home and tells you “hey hon, I just found out that we won that big account we’ve been working on!”
1) Passive Constructive- If we were to respond to our spouse’s good news in a passive constructive manner it would look something like this: “Oh wow, that’s great,” as you continue to finish draining the spaghetti or scrolling through your phone. At first glance, this might seem like a positive and supportive way to respond, but it doesn’t make the cut. It is understated support with minimal engagement or generic responses and it usually ends up killing the conversation. We tend to respond this way when we are distracted or not very interested in the good news that our spouse is sharing with us. When we respond this way it leaves our spouse feeling unimportant, disappointed, misunderstood, or even embarrassed that they were excited and shared their good news with us.
2) Passive Destructive- If we were to respond to that same good news in a passive destructive way, it would sound something like this: “Oh, that’s great and that reminds me, I’ve been wanting to tell you that I finally spoke with my boss and it looks like I am going to get that promotion at the end of the quarter!” This type of responding ignores our spouse’s good news and changes the topic altogether or hijacks the conversation. It tends to happen when our spouse’s good news reminds us of something we wanted to share with them or if we have a lot on our mind that prevents us from focusing on the news our spouse is sharing. When we respond this way it tends to leave our spouse feeling confused or angry.
3) Active Destructive- If we were to respond to that same good news in an active destructive manner it would sound something like this: “Oh, wow that’s great, but isn’t that client located across the country? It’s not a great time to travel and be away from the kids with everything we have going on. Also, is your team going to be able to handle all of that extra volume, because you were just telling me the other day how everyone is already stressed out and working to their max? Didn’t you say you wanted to have all the kinks in the platform worked out before you brought on any new partnerships?” (you can see I have this style down!) This type of response is negatively focused instead of focusing on the positives of your spouse's news. It is raining on their parade and stealing their joy. We typically don’t respond this way to be mean, but instead out of genuine concern about how the good news will impact our spouse, us, or the potential downsides that could come from it. Although our intent is to be helpful, it leaves our spouse feeling disappointed, angry, or worried that maybe their good news is not so good after all and it damages the relationship.
4) Active Constructive Responding (ACR)- If we respond in an active constructive way it would sound something like this: “Wow, that’s so great to hear! I’m really proud of you because I know you have been working tirelessly on this deal for months! Tell me more about the details of the deal and how it happened...” As you probably guessed, this is the only style of responding to the good news that strengthens the relationship. When we respond in an active constructive manner we are showing genuine interest, curiosity, and enthusiasm for what our spouse is sharing with us. It is elaborating on and expounding on our spouse's joy. This helps our spouse almost re-live the positive experience, which increases their positive emotions and well-being. In addition, when we respond active constructively it not only benefits our spouse but it also has positive effects on our well-being and our relationship with them.
So What Prevents Us From Truly Being There?
I’m sure all of us mean well and want to be there for our spouse, but you might have recognized that you have a habit of falling into one or more of these other styles of responding when they bring you positive news. When I learned about this research I realized that I was guilty of falling into all of these negative ways of responding to my spouse, but I was especially prone to active deconstructive responding or hijacking the conversation. I realized this is because I spend a lot of time in my own head, which often prevents me from genuinely being there and focusing on what my husband is sharing with me. Between his busy work schedule and the craziness with the kids, sometimes we can go a few days before truly connecting and I often have a lot on my mind that I want to share with him or discuss.
Additionally, I think it can be easy to fall into responding in an active destructive manner (pointing out the negatives and stealing joy) to my husband’s good news because like all entrepreneurs he is very optimistic by nature. I have often felt like I need to be the one to bring him back down to reality and make sure he is considering all of the potential downsides of his next big thing or exciting news; so, I can be guilty of pointing out potential problems. Also, to be honest, sometimes my husband’s good news is really not that interesting to me. Believe it or not, but it is hard for me to get excited about home automation, sailboats, and spreadsheets! When I am not that interested in the good news, it can be easy to find myself responding in a passive constructive manner or only offering minimal interest and support in what he is sharing.
As you can see, I’ve had to work really hard and make a conscious effort to make sure that ACR is my default style of responding!
Just to Be Clear
I know after reading that last paragraph you probably have a lot of questions. I know I did when I first learned about this skill, so I want to clear a few things up. First, I am not saying that you need to be a cheerleader every time your spouse brings you good news. In fact, unless that is your natural response and personality please don’t do that because it will probably scare your spouse and make them wonder what happened to you! The goal here is to show undivided attention and support to our spouse when they are sharing their good news, so you can do that by being authentic to your personality and showing that support in your own way.
Also, I know many of you reading are thinking, “Come on! I need to be able to share my concerns and help my spouse see all of the potential problems when they bring me their crazy optimistic ideas.” Believe me, I felt the same way! I am not saying that you can’t share your concerns with your spouse, but I do believe there is a time and place to do so, and the research backs this up. I have learned that if I spew out all of my concerns to my spouse the minute he shares something with me, it only serves to shut him down and he is less receptive to my feedback. Also, he is less likely to come to me next time he has a new idea or something exciting happens, which I don’t want. If I can take a step back and first respond in a way that helps him elaborate and expand his joy it builds intimacy, trust, and positive emotions for both of us. This helps me find out more information about what he is sharing and also makes him more receptive to my feedback when I bring up my concerns at a later time.
This skill was very eye-opening for me and has had a big impact on my relationships, not only with my spouse but with other family members and friends as well. Once you make it a habit, you will begin to notice when you are falling into one of the other negative ways of responding and how that impacts the person you are talking to. You also will begin to notice when other people are not responding in an active constructive manner toward you and how it makes you feel. That said, we don’t have to be perfect. There are going to be times when we are tired or busy or concerned about something our partner is sharing and we might not be the joy multiplier at the moment. We just want to make sure that ACR becomes the dominant style of responding in our relationship. It is just another way to add change to our relationship bank to increase the well-being of our relationship.
How Can We Make ACR Our Dominant Style of Responding?
Here are a few tips that can help ensure that ACR becomes your dominant style of responding when your spouse brings you good news or shares a positive experience with you.
Think about the good news as a gift your spouse is sharing with you. The fact that they choose you out of all of the people in the world to share their good news with means a lot and is truly a gift. We want to be the receiver of that gift!
Take a hard look at what tends to get in your way. Are you easily distracted by technology or other things? Are you quick to bring up your concerns? Do you get so excited to share your good news or what’s on your mind that you jump the gun?
Ask questions. An easy way to expand your spouse’s joy is to ask questions that will allow them to share more details and relive the experience. “Tell me more about..” “How did that happen?” “What did you learn?’ “What did they say next?” “How did you feel when that happened?” “How did you make that happen?” “What are you most excited about or looking forward to?”
Think of ways that you can be a joy multiplier by using ACR more often with your spouse. Maybe you could draw on your signature strengths. I have the strength of curiosity so I pull on that strength to help me ask more questions. Maybe you could work on your nonverbals (mirror body language, orient your body closer to them, put down distractions, etc.).
Talk about these styles of responding with your partner and share what you learned and your plan for getting more joy out of your relationship by using this skill. This may also help them become a better joy multiplier for you when you share your good news! Disclaimer:I learned the hard way that it doesn’t go well if you introduce the topic by saying something to the effect of “hey honey, I just found out you are a joy thief!”
As always, thanks so much for reading and I would love to hear your questions or thoughts in the comments below!
Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G. C., Strachman, A. (2006) Will You Be There For Me When Things Go Right? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 91(5), Nov 2006, 904-917 2.
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(2), 228.
Gable, S. L., & Reis, H. T. (2010). Good news! Capitalizing on positive events in an interpersonal context. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 42, pp. 195-257). Academic Press.
Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press (see chapter 10 on Positive Interpersonal Relationships).