Advice Column: Negativity

Answers to difficult questions on negativity and keeping the children in mind after a separation.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 29, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A Black Hole of Negativity

I have been married for five years and my husband is a good person but his view of life is so negative. I am a happy-go-lucky person, will deal with something when I come to it. But my husband always thinks the worst of anything (even the small things) and worries endlessly about it. You talk to him seriously for 10 minutes and you would think that everything in life is so cruel. I always tell him not to view life so negatively. Well, I accepted the fact that is how he is and how he will be for the rest of his life. The problem is after being with him for the past five years, I am beginning to feel the negativity too. Friends and family say that I have lost a lot of my laughter and gaiety. Is there something I can do either to change myself so that I will be unaffected by his attitude or change him so that I can be happy knowing he is being happy too.

People normally differ by temperament, but they also differ in cognitive style, the degree to which they chew things over, worry about them, and draw negative conclusions. It sounds as if your husband has acquired a negative thinking style that will, if it hasn't already, land him hip deep in depression.

Often, it is a pattern of pessimism passed from one generation to the next as children are growing up; it becomes the lens through which they view the world. Because it was part of the air they breathed, they think that's the way the world really is. But in fact it reflects several specific distortions in thinking.

There's catastrophizing, or exaggerating the harmful effects of a disappointing event; all-or-nothing thinking; overgeneralizing, or interpreting one disappointment as part of an inescapable pattern; filtering, or focusing on negative aspects of an experience while ignoring the positive ones; and personalizing, or seeing oneself as the cause of disappointing outcomes.

You are right. Negative thinking patterns erode the mental health of all exposed to them. They suck up all the energy in a household, turning what was once a home into a black hole of depressive emotions.

The good news is that just as negative thinking styles are learned, so can they be unlearned. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a highly focused way of becoming aware of negative thinking patterns and it offers proven techniques for learning healthier thinking styles. Think of it as mental hygiene. The best thing you can do for your husband is to help him find a cognitive therapist. You will not only help him return to healthier ways of thinking but safeguard your own mental health and that of any children you may choose to raise.


Breaking My Kids' Hearts

I have been in an agonizing and unhealthy relationship for eight years during which there have been countless separations and many broken hearts. Unfortunately for our three children he refuses to grow up. A couple of years ago I finally had the courage to leave and start a new life without the drinking and fighting--until he found me and swore on every saint that he was a changed man. I was overcome by guilt, watching my children cry night after night for their dad, asking when he would be back. The thought that I had caused my children's heart to break was just too much to handle. Things don't seem to be getting any better. Just the other day I picked up my children from their dad's, to find him drinking and a couple of strangers getting ready to smoke something. That he would go to such extremes in front of my children is more than enough reason to not let this man into our lives ever again, but where does that leave my children? Would I be doing the right thing by cutting all ties once and for all? And if so will my children hate me for trying to protect them from their own father's irresponsibility? Torn between Right and Guilt

The short answers: Without the father they need; no; yes.

Choose to end your partnership (marriage?) may well be a healthy step, but parenthood is forever and you have no right to deny your children their ties to a father and their father his ties to his children, however imperfect you judge those ties to be. Ultimately, no matter how good a mother you are, you will earn only your children's enmity for depriving them of access to a father, even an irresponsible one.

Children yearn for and need two parents. The challenge is ensure that the exposure they get to their father does not jeopardize their safety or well-being. As a loving parent, it's your job (you may have to work overtime on this, and don't expect thanks, at least not now; someone's got to be the grown-up here) to make sure that your children see their father in as positive a light as possible. You can also answer their questions and concerns about him in as generally accurate and age-appropriate way as possible. As they grow up, they will come to understand their father's imperfections without you having to drum them into their heads.

You have legitimate concerns for your children's safety. You can and should consult a lawyer to work out terms of a separation that meets your children's need for continuing support and care, visitation, and the type of supervision of those visitations that may be prudent.