Finding the Positive in a Difficult Marriage

Derek Hagey mormon

Derek Willis Hagey, Is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the Salt Lake City area. He is currently finishing his Ph.D. and teaches graduate courses in Marriage and Family Therapy. Derek is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) and is married with four young sons.

By Derek Hagey

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), I know that marriage is the foundation of an eternal family. When a marriage struggles, the family struggles. As a Marriage and Family Therapist I meet with many couples who have become entrenched in their opposing views and obstinate positions. These relationships often begin with hope and positive feelings but begin to find the weight of the world falling on top of them. In the April 1972 General Conference Mormon Prophet Spencer W. Kimball stated, “In my experience I find that in a large number of marriage problems, the problem is lack of communication…There is growing disgust and hate where there should be love and harmony.” It is a trying situation, when we have developed this disgust and hate. To counteract this very difficult reality, it is important for couples to begin to look past the negatives and costs of relationships and increase the opportunity to notice the positives and communicate those positives to each other, we must reopen those lines of communication.

“Purposefully Implement Positive Interaction” (or PI Squared) is one technique I have developed to help couples stabilize their marriage relationships through communication.

What is PI Squared?

PI Squared is all about changing our perspective. The world demands so much of us as individuals, and by the time we as a couple are able to be at home together, we are often so exhausted that the littlest things will set us off.

We may have practiced stifling the anger, but when we stifle feelings we learn to resent our partner. Once our relationship becomes one of resentment, we find our relationship has lost the friendship we once enjoyed, and we are in what is called “negative sentiment override” (Gottman & Silver, 1999, p. 21).

We must counteract this focus on the negatives in our marriage, and to overcome the negatives we must inject opportunities for positives. John Gottman, Ph.D., notable marriage researcher, after watching many couples in both successful and failing relationships, found an interesting statistic; those marriages that are successful tend to have a 5-to-1 ratio. For every 1 negative interaction there are 5 positive interactions.

If we are in negative sentiment override, there must be a change, and it must happen quickly.

Enter PI Squared.

How Do We Practice PI Squared?

Communication in Mormon MarriageIn PI Squared the couple is to set up a meeting at the end of each day, when the children are in bed, when the worries of the world have parted for a moment, when the couple is able to sit down together without distractions and spend 15 minutes of focused time.

During this 15 minute conversation the couple does not discuss the children or work. Those are often discussed enough. Instead, each person is to state at least 1 thing they appreciated about their partner that day and why. The partner then responds with what the appreciation statement means to them to hear. For this exercise to be effective both partners must be committed to it and not avoid the topic or come at it from a sarcastic perspective.

A simple and brief example of what this interchange might look like:

Mike and Susan sit down in the evening for their discussion. Mike begins with, “I am so grateful you took the time to pack my lunch and the note you wrote on my napkin had me thinking about you all day. Your packing my lunch and writing that not made it so I was able to handle a lot of stressors at work today.” Susan responds, “I am so glad you appreciated the note, it is nice for me to hear that the things I do all the time are meaningful to you.”

Susan takes her opportunity to focus on positives and states, “I really appreciated that you took the time to prepare dinner tonight. I really did not know what to make and was thinking about dinner today and when it was already prepared when I got home I was just so relieved. It was so nice to come home from a stressful day at work and have one less worry.” Mike’s response, “Knowing that by making dinner for you was so meaningful is encouraging. I wasn’t sure if you would like it, but now that I know you appreciate it I will try to do more of it in the future.”

As long as both partners are committed and open during the dialogue this exercise creates: 1) a focus on looking at positives throughout the day, 2) an opportunity to actually sit down as a couple without distractions, and 3) a positives-focused discussion.

You may find that on the first day you may only have one positive interaction to discuss. Rejoice in the one. Then the next day perhaps it will be still be one. Strive to add more over time. In time, it will be easy to see more positive interactions in your marriage. You’ll be working toward implementing them throughout your relationship. If you are finding these discussions are becoming a part of the day-to-day interactions; first of all congratulations you are doing great at recognizing positives in your relationship, second if you are finding it difficult to have things to say at the end of the day it is okay, just reiterate those positives you noticed and even mentioned throughout the day because sometimes we do not hear the positive words of our partner when said in the midst of our hectic day. Reiterating those again at the end of the day will strengthen the positive feelings within your relationship.

A final note:  While PI Squared is not the answer to all the struggles couples have, the resulting effect is often lessened negative sentiment override and increased hope for the relationship. If you attempt this exercise and find it difficult to complete even once, seek out an experienced Marriage and Family Therapist in your area to aid you in decreasing the negativity and increasing your ability to see the positives in your relationship.

Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Three Rivers Press: New York.

Kimball, S. W. (1972, May). Keep the lines of communication strong. Ensign. Retrieved August 20, 2011, from

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