My client was angry with his wife. He thought she was being a drama queen; she was too emotional; she cried too much. Under his frustration lay a sinking feeling of rejection. His old story of not being good enough was getting activated. He was frustrated.

He was also determined. This man loves his wife and family. He wanted to know: how can I improve my marriage?

The one you experience is the one you are thinking about

I asked him to tell me some of the things he liked about his wife. He was a bit surprised but gamely listed them. Once he started, the descriptions started to flow: she is a great mom, very loving, fun to be with, great sense of humor, smart, pretty, sexy, and on and on.

His whole affect noticeably changed. His eyes softened. He smiled. He wasn’t mad.

And then I shared with him a secret, which I am now sharing with you:

The partner you experience is the one you are thinking about.

This makes sense when we pause to reflect on it. If you practice seeing all of someone’s flaws, you will see a person who has all those flaws. But if you practice seeing their good qualities, that is the person you will see. We are more likely to notice the things we are thinking about.

Once something gets our attention, we notice it more readily.

He was skeptical, but open to hearing me out. I asked him about the last time he bought a car. “Do you remember how you noticed all the cars that were just like the one you bought?”  He laughed his affirmation. Like most of my clients, he could relate.

I explained that marriage is kinda like this. Once something gets our attention, we notice it more readily. We experience more of what we pay attention to.

We create a feedback loop; it can be a vicious or a virtuous cycle. Whether it is vicious or virtuous is really up to us.

So if we want to experience a peaceful, loving relationship, that is the one we need to think about when we are thinking about our relationship.

How we see them determines how we respond

This is partly because when we are focusing on our partners’ great qualities we react differently to our partners. We feel more relaxed and at ease with them, and are less likely to feel hurt or aggravated. We will give them the benefit of the doubt. With our sunny, “glass is half full” perspective, we notice the good stuff and more easily let the other stuff go.

A vicious or a virtuous cycle

Imagine that your partner has decided to surprise you by reorganizing the kitchen pantry “for you.” You are coming home from the gym, tired and hungry. The kitchen is a mess; stuff is everywhere; you can’t even see the counter, let alone reach the sink.

If you have been rehearsing stories of how aggravating and annoying your partner is, you will likely be irritated at the chaos. You might roll your eyes, you may criticize. I hope you won’t yell, but if you are not careful, it might come to that. Instead of getting food, you are getting mad… And your partner was trying to do something nice!

Now, if you have been thinking kind and gentle thoughts about your partner, remembering that he or she is a good person who loves and supports you, you will react differently. As hungry and tired as you are, you will be more likely to see the mess as a work in progress and an act of service. You might smile. You may even offer to help. And you probably will eat sooner than the irritated person, who probably got sidetracked in an argument.

The spouse in your mind

The relationship you experience is the one you think about. The spouse you have in your life is a reflection of the one you have in your mind.

Want a happy relationship? Practice thinking of it, remembering the good times. Want a loving partner? Practice thinking about your partner that way.

After all, we are all flawed humans doing our best to get by. When we can offer love, in spite of all of our partner’s faults and limitations, we have an answer to the question: how can I improve my marriage?

And — I was right!

My talk with my client impacted him. I write this because several weeks after our talk, he told me that I was right. He had had time to observe the way he thought about his wife impacted his marriage. Sure enough, he found that the wife he had was the one he was thinking about.

He practiced thinking about her wonderful qualities. When he slipped back into his old pattern and started mentally complaining, he remembered that he wanted to experience a kind and loving wife, so he shifted his thoughts to focus on the good stuff. Inevitably, she seemed less dramatic, he felt more supported.

Many months later, they are happy and loving, and getting along really well!