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Emotional Contagion: Spreading More Good

“People have a way of becoming what you encourage them to be – not what you nag them to be.” –Max Lucado

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it’s important to remember the ultimate aphrodisiac…clear, positive communication. You may have had your money on chocolate or a wildcard like oysters, but bear with me a minute on this. I have an idea for how you can harness the power of emotional contagion and direct communication to give your love life a boost. I’m fairly confident the results will exceed any oyster effects.

Avoid Mind Reading

We talked in a previous blog about the danger of expecting others to read our minds. “You should just know what I want to do! You should just know how I feel about this!” Oftentimes, our partners don’t. They may be under the illusion things are good. They may take “I’m fine” as “I’m fine.” And they wouldn’t be crazy for taking us at our word, right?

Gottman’s 7 Principles For Making Marriage Work cites research that as few as 35% of males are considered “emotionally intelligent.” So, some guys may legitimately miss the subtext or indirect clues you’re sending, without malice at all, ladies. Other times, our partners may pick up what we’re putting down but choose not to engage, for fear of the conversation blowing up and escalating, or going stone cold.

We are happy to the extent that our expectations align with reality. When we don’t communicate clearly, we are often disappointed when the things we imagine or hope for don’t pan out. Not clearly asking for a raise might mean you don’t get one. Same with a back rub. Or the last piece of chocolate cake (Dibs!). Frustration, disappointment, and resentment take root due to our inability to articulate what we need or want so badly. And we typically blame our partners for that.

Offer a Positive Frame

I laid out Dr. Gottman’s easy 3-step formula for communicating needs here, and it bears repeating that a positive frame is especially important when dealing with anyone of the human variety…partners especially, since we often treat them with less civility than co-workers or strangers when we’re frustrated or hurt.

Complaining you haven’t had sex in weeks or your partner never buys you nice gifts is not likely to win you friends (or influence them). Ask for what you want, clearly, and frame it as a positive. Focus on how it will make you feel when the thing you want happens, so they really understand why it matters to you.

Example: “It would mean so much to me if you planned Valentine’s Day this year. I love the element of surprise and you always come up with the coolest ideas!” That goes over way better than complaining about how your partner did nothing last year and how your best friend’s husband took her to Hawaii, or Kona Grill, or whatever.

Same for the guys. Say you want to have more sex with your partner. Letting her know you find her attractive and desirable, explaining why that kind of intimacy is so special to you, and what makes you want it with her in particular will go a long way. Saying some lucky guy at work has a sex life on steroids and yours is on life support – not so much.

Give genuine compliments, be specific, and build on past successes.

Use Emotional Contagion for Good

I love the concept of emotional contagion. Essentially, our emotions can be contagious, a lot like colds and all the other crud we keep passing back and forth in our house lately. The trick is, with emotions, you can control what spreads. You know what it’s like to be around the Eeyores of the world – the glass is always half empty and the world is all doom and gloom.

When negativity is pervasive, it gets hard to stay upbeat. Being around that energy can kill your positive vibes quickly. Same goes for our close relationships. The more positive energy we put in, the more we affirm our partners and compliment and treasure them, that’s what spreads and multiplies. That’s the karma that eventually comes back.

It’s easy to get stuck in cycles of criticism and defensiveness and replay those tapes each day. Making a deliberate effort to see the good in your partner, to believe they are doing their best, and to otherwise give them the benefit of the doubt will transform your relationship in a hurry. Gottman calls this a positive sentiment override. The more positives we have swirling around our relationship, the fuller our love banks are, the more apt we are to let the little things slide and focus on all that’s good. We feel grateful for our partners, eager to please them, help them, and spend time with them. Positivity breeds positivity.


If you’ve got big aspirations for Valentine’s Day, or your birthday, or an anniversary (anything really), share those plans/ideas/hopes with excitement. Invite your partner into it. Let them know how they can help, or be the hero, and they are likely to rise to that level (or at least move more in that direction) with your encouragement.

Go home and spread the positive like it’s a cold. When we trade nagging for encouraging, blaming for appreciation, and focus on the good that’s right in front of us, the positives in the relationship go viral.

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