11 Jun Be Careful What You Look For If You Want Relationship Success


A very strange phenomenon happens when my husband’s favourite team are playing footy. It doesn’t happen all the time – only when his team are losing. What happens is the refereeing becomes blatantly shoddy. Missed penalties, poor interpretations, blatant disregard for justice. It’s an outrage!

I know that one of the things my hubby hates most in this world is seeing his beloved bunnies going down. It’s not pretty, and neither is his incredulous mood. Why is it that the referee starts getting it so wrong, and only at the exact time when his team are doing it tough?

The conclusion I’ve come to after years of scientific analysis is that it’s not so much about the referee. It’s more like my hubby puts on a pair of glasses – with lenses that show him only what he expects to see.

Once he has decided that the refereeing is unfair, he then looks for evidence of it being unfair. And once he starts looking for bad refereeing, he is more likely to see bad refereeing.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that guarantees he will see more and more evidence of his particular point of view.

Which brings us to this important truth:

What we look for is what we find.

This truth turns my hubby, who is a sensible and rational guy, into an indignant mess, absolutely certain that the referee is out to ruin his life. And the same thing has probably happened to plenty of other sports fans across plenty of other sports codes across plenty of other countries, across time.

But it’s not just sport. In our relational lives this truth is absolutely alive and well too, and it has so much power in determining whether our relationships will be happy and successful, or not:

What we look for in our partner and in our relationship is what we find.

Remember when you first fell in love? Remember that intoxicating feeling of expecting only the best from each other? When even if one of you said or did something that was potentially unkind or unloving, the other would interpret it with a spirit of goodwill? Assumed goodwill comes easily when we’re in the bubble of romantic love.

Fast-forward a few months, years, or decades and how’s this assumed goodwill now? Too often, assumed goodwill morphs into assumed bad-will. Which means it’s bad-will you will look for in each other… and subsequently, it’s bad-will that you will find.

If this is your relationship, you might still be doing just fine during the good times. But repairing after disagreements and conflicts won’t be easy. Maybe you never really repair. How could you, when you’re looking for evidence that your partner isn’t nice/doesn’t care/isn’t the partner that you want them to be.

Assumed bad-will sounds something like this:

“It was his fault, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to say something nice first…”

“She doesn’t care about me, so why should I go out of my way for her?”

“I’m not going to be vulnerable, because he’ll just use it against me…”

“She did that on purpose, just to get back at me…”

If this is you, you’re creating a relationship culture together that can’t thrive. If it’s relationship happiness you’re after, it’s time to change what you’re looking for*.

Here’s how:

Step 1: 

Reset your assumption of bad-will to one of goodwill. Assume that your partner loves you, is a nice person, and really wants the same thing as you: a happy relationship and a harmonious life. And – here’s the hard bit: you’ll need to do this in good times and in bad, and regardless of past events.

Step 2.

Expect to find this really challenging at times. It’s a habit, and like all habits, it will resist change, even when that change is good for you.

Step 3.

Catch yourself when you fall back into assuming bad-will. This is normal (see Step 2). Simply reset your assumption, and continue.

You’ll know you’re on the right track if you start thinking like this:

“It was his fault, but what can I do to help us heal and move on?”

“I know she cares about me, so how can I show her I love her right now?”

“I can be vulnerable, because I know he loves me and I want to feel closer and connected.”

“She didn’t do that on purpose, she just did it because she’s tired/wasn’t thinking/didn’t understand…”

Relationships can’t thrive without assumed goodwill.

Partners who look for the good in each other find the good in each other. Partners in successful relationships operate from a position of assumed goodwill, in good times and in bad.

I’m not sure whether my husband is capable of assuming goodwill towards the referee next time his team are going down. But I absolutely know that together, we always (yes, always) assume goodwill in our relationship, even when we’re crazy mad at each other and doing it tough. And I know that we couldn’t enjoy relationship success without it.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For the past 25 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.

*However if your relationship involves active abuse, addiction or serious dysfunction, your assumption of bad will may be justified. If this is you, the best next step is to seek relationship help.



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