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How Optimism Combats Learned Helplessness in Relationships

Breaking free of learned helplessness by altering your explanatory style.

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Source: Wavebreakmedia/ Shutterstock

"Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time." – Thomas Edison

Imagine facing a series of unfortunate events where no matter what you do, nothing seems to change. This sense of powerlessness can become so ingrained that even when circumstances improve, you remain passive and resigned. This psychological condition, known as learned helplessness, was first identified by researchers who discovered that it’s not just the adverse events themselves, but the perception of inescapable trauma that leads to this state. Individuals caught in the grip of learned helplessness believe their efforts are futile, leading to a lack of action even when they have the power to change their situation.

Understanding Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness arises when people are exposed to uncontrollable events and come to believe that they have no power to change their circumstances. This condition was extensively studied by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier, who conducted experiments with dogs subjected to electric shocks. They found that dogs who could not escape the shocks eventually stopped trying to avoid them, even when escape became possible. This behavior was termed "learned helplessness" (Seligman & Maier, 1967).

Later research revealed that one-third of human subjects did not develop learned helplessness. This observation led to further investigation into what makes some individuals immune to this condition. They found that a key factor was the individuals' explanatory style—how they interpreted and explained the causes of negative events.

Explanatory Styles: Optimism vs. Pessimism

Explanatory style refers to how people explain the causes of events in their lives. Optimists tend to view negative events as temporary, specific, and external, while pessimists see them as permanent, pervasive, and internal (Peterson & Seligman, 1984). For example, an optimist who fails a test might think, "I didn't study enough this time," while a pessimist might think, "I'm stupid and always fail."

Seligman's research indicated that optimists are less likely to develop learned helplessness because they perceive bad events as temporary and changeable. In contrast, pessimists are more prone to learned helplessness because they view bad events as permanent and pervasive, leading to feelings resignation (Seligman, 1991).

The Effects of Learned Helplessness on Relationships

Learned helplessness can profoundly affect personal relationships, creating a cycle of negativity and disengagement. Individuals who feel helpless are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, all of which can strain relationships.

Communication Breakdown: Helpless individuals may struggle to communicate their needs and feelings effectively, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. For example, a person feeling helpless might withdraw and become uncommunicative when facing relationship issues, leaving their partner frustrated and confused.

Lack of Initiative: In relationships, taking initiative is crucial for maintaining intimacy and connection. Learned helplessness can cause individuals to withdraw and become passive, waiting for their partner to take all the action. This can lead to an imbalance where one partner feels overburdened and the other feels increasingly disconnected. For instance, if one partner constantly avoids planning activities or making decisions, the other might feel unsupported and overwhelmed.

Emotional Distance: Feelings of helplessness often come with a sense of isolation and emotional distance. A person who believes they have no control over their life might detach emotionally to protect themselves from further pain. This detachment can make it difficult to maintain close and supportive relationships. For example, someone who feels helpless might stop expressing affection or sharing personal thoughts, leading to a growing emotional gap.

Cycle of Negativity: Learned helplessness can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where the individual's lack of action leads to negative outcomes, reinforcing their belief in their helplessness. This cycle can be damaging in relationships, as partners may feel stuck in a pattern of negativity and hopelessness. For instance, a person who believes they cannot improve their relationship might stop trying, leading to further deterioration and reinforcing their sense of helplessness.

Breaking the Cycle: The Role of Optimism

Optimism can serve as a powerful antidote to learned helplessness. Teaching individuals to adopt a more optimistic explanatory style can prevent and alleviate feelings of helplessness. Optimism is a skill that can be learned and cultivated, providing numerous benefits for mental health and relationships.

Here are five ways to foster optimism and counteract learned helplessness:

  1. Teaching Optimism: Teaching optimism involves helping individuals recognize and challenge their pessimistic thoughts and replace them with more realistic and positive ones. Cognitive-behavioral techniques can be effective in this process, as they focus on identifying negative thought patterns and developing healthier alternatives.
  2. Cognitive Restructuring: This technique involves identifying negative thoughts, challenging their validity, and replacing them with more positive and realistic ones. For example, instead of thinking, "I'll never be able to improve my relationship," one might think, "I can take steps to improve my relationship, and I can seek help if I need it."
  3. Positive Affirmations: Encouraging individuals to use positive affirmations can help reinforce an optimistic mindset. Phrases like "I am capable of change" and "I can handle challenges" can boost self-confidence and resilience.
  4. Gratitude Practice: Focusing on gratitude can shift attention away from negative events and highlight positive aspects of life. Practicing gratitude regularly can enhance overall well-being and improve relationship satisfaction.
  5. Goal Setting: Setting and achieving small, manageable goals can help build a sense of control and accomplishment. This approach can gradually shift an individual's mindset from helplessness to empowerment.

Here are five benefits of optimism, once cultivated, for mental health and relationships.

  1. Resilience: Optimistic individuals are more resilient in the face of adversity. They are more likely to view challenges as opportunities for growth and are better equipped to cope with setbacks. This resilience can improve relationship dynamics by fostering a positive and proactive approach to problem-solving. For instance, an optimistic couple might view a disagreement as a chance to understand each other better rather than as a threat to their relationship.
  2. Enhanced Communication: An optimistic outlook encourages open and positive communication. Optimists are more likely to express their needs and feelings constructively, leading to better understanding and cooperation in relationships. For example, instead of shutting down during a conflict, an optimistic person might say, "I feel hurt by what happened, but I believe we can work through this together."
  3. Initiative: Optimists are more likely to take initiative and engage actively in their relationships. This proactive behavior can enhance intimacy and connection, as both partners contribute to the relationship's growth and success. For instance, an optimistic person might plan regular date nights or surprise their partner with thoughtful gestures.
  4. Positive Cycles: By adopting an optimistic explanatory style, individuals can break the cycle of negativity associated with learned helplessness. Positive thinking leads to positive actions, which in turn lead to positive outcomes, reinforcing the belief in one's ability to influence their life. For example, a person who starts viewing their relationship challenges as solvable is more likely to take constructive steps, leading to improvements that further boost their confidence.
  5. Social Support: Optimists often build strong social networks that provide support and encouragement. Engaging with supportive friends and family can help individuals maintain a positive outlook and provide a buffer against stress and adversity. For example, discussing challenges with a trusted friend can provide new perspectives and solutions, reinforcing optimism and resilience.

Transforming Your Relationship

Learned helplessness can have detrimental effects on relationships, leading to communication breakdowns, emotional distance, and cycles of negativity. However, by fostering optimism and teaching individuals to adopt a more positive explanatory style, it is possible to mitigate these effects and create healthier, more resilient relationships. Optimism is a skill that can be learned and developed, offering a pathway to greater happiness, improved mental health, and stronger, more fulfilling connections with others.


Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1984). Causal explanations as a risk factor for depression: Theory and evidence. Psychological Review, 91(3), 347-374.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Knopf.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1-9.

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