Optimist in love with a pessimist. Any tips?
April 30, 2012 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Optimist in love with a pessimist. Any tips?

So, three months into the cohabit with boyfriend of one year, an issue that seems to keep cropping up is the clash between my eternal optimism and his eternal pessimism. I think that over time, this will start to balance out a little with me becoming maybe a bot more grounded and realistic and him becoming a bit more cheerful. But in the meanwhile, I am finding it hard sometimes to work through issues with him given the roadblock I perceive that his pessimism sometimes puts up.

For instance, we were dealing with a situation where I had a big family commitment whose date interfered with a commitment he had already which was in another city. He understood my desire to go to my commitment and wanted me to do it, but he also felt he could not go out of town by himself because the drive exhausts him, he will have no support etc. So his initial response was 'well, I will just have to cancel my commitment, I won't go, and whatever issues this creates will just be mine to deal with because this is the story of my life and it always has to be hard' etc. And my response was 'we don't know that any of this will happen because maybe there is a compromise solution.' And it turns out I was right and when he mentioned the situation to a family member, they immediately offered to go with him and share the drive and give him the support he needed so I would not have to miss my family event. But before that happened, I had to calm him down and spend all this time convincing him that nothing bad had happened, and that nothing bad probably *would* happen...

He is a very analytical guy so his attitude seems to be 'you can't prove to me 100% that X won't happen so why should I assume it won't?' And my dominant attitude seems to be 'x could happen, but Y is just as likely to happen, so I am going to assume it will be Y instead of X since that is a pleasanter goal to work toward and worrying about the X that hasn't happened yet (and might not happen) is needlessly upsetting.'

So, any tips for dealing with stressy issues is a way that is more of a meeting of the minds given our different personality types?
posted by JoannaC to Human Relations (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Let go of the idea that over time you will somehow magically "balance each other out" and both become more tempered individuals. It may happen, but it may not. What is more in your control is deciding whether what you each get from the relationship is worth developing strategies to cope with this pessimistic habit.

It sounds like you are already achieving meeting of the minds, but that it can be quite a bit of work to get there. To that I suggest that this is why folks note that relationships can be hard work.

None of this is to say that if you both want to change you can't. But, it won't happen by magic and any change needs to be primarily the goal of the individual doing the changing.
posted by meinvt at 4:44 PM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think it sounds like you worked it out together rather well. Over time if you can continue to talk about these situations as they come up without growing resentful of each other, then they will probably be easier, fewer, and farther between.

The important thing in this case was that he was reachable, that you two talked about it, and that ultimately he mentioned it to others and took care of it on his own. Everyone got what they needed, in the short term at least.
posted by hermitosis at 4:45 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Convert him to fatalism? Kinda not kidding, really.

Like he doesn't have to assume bad stuff won't happen. Go ahead and assume bad stuff will happen. But instead of going, "bad stuff will probably happen, woe is me, everything is terrible," start with "okay, so if bad stuff happens how will I deal with that. 'Cause bad stuff's probably going to happen"?

In a way, your anecdote was an example of that process --- your not being able to go with him was bad stuff, and it happened. But you worked around it, by being like, "well, that sucks, how do we deal with it," and coming up with an alternative plan. Pessimism is fine if you combine with stoicism. It's pessimism and meloncholy that are deadly.
posted by Diablevert at 4:48 PM on April 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

He understood my desire to go to my commitment and wanted me to do it, but he also felt he could not go out of town by himself because the drive exhausts him, he will have no support etc.

His problem isn't that he's a pessimist. His problem is that he doesn't have a lot of coping skills.
posted by deanc at 4:50 PM on April 30, 2012 [33 favorites]

I am an optimist married to a pessimist. It can be hard work at times, for sure. Sounds like you've got some strategies launched, though.

Also, I love these people who think they're all Mr. Spock when they are just madly catastrophizing like whoa. Highly illogical.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:51 PM on April 30, 2012 [22 favorites]

It really does sound like you worked it out. I can't help thinking, though, that you are not a hardcore optimist if you experience distress in the face of a pessimist. So, it seems your optimism is contingent on him somehow also being more optimistic.

I'm teasing a little bit.

Seriously, This may not be an optimist/pessimist issue. It may be an issue of problem-solving. He may not look for solutions long enough or with enough tenacity.

In my relationship, I am the optimist and Mr. Vitabellosi is the pessimist. It actually makes him work harder as a problem solver. Me? I have faith in people and am constantly disappointed and left hanging. Mr. Vitabellosi, on the otherhand, doesn't expect people to come through, so he's always working out solutions and putting them into place on his own. He's very capable. Very pessimistic.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:55 PM on April 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

Try not to reward his pessimism by giving it lots of attention and trying to convince him of the superiority of your cheerful outlook. Don't train him to throw up his hands so you can come in and give him hugs and rescue him. Do reward when he expresses a positive outlook about something. Smile, say that you appreciate it when his attitude is flexible, kiss him, etc.

Sometimes pessimists just use their attitude as a passive aggressive way of getting soothed without being open and honest about what they want. Don't feed that behavior.

Kind of a bad idea to assume you will eventually balance each other out. Optimistic of you. :-) Make sure you are aware of how your partner's mood impacts yours, as it might be a great energy drain. You may simply be incompatible, and better served by someone with a naturally brighter temperament.
posted by griselda at 5:21 PM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I can now say to my husband "Sweetie, you're catastrophizing" but it took us a while to get to this stage where we can go right to the source code to fix the bugs.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:22 PM on April 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

Does he *want* to be like that?

Because I could be labelled a "pessimist," but it's not something I'm proud of or like about myself. It's a product of anxiety, and I have gone to therapy to try to change it.

Not saying he needs to, but there's a big difference between someone who wants to change and someone who says, "That's just how I am!"

One simple exercise I learned was to assign percentage values: I had the tendency to say "this bad thing will FOR SURE happen." But I was taught to think "How likely is it REALLY?" and usually I come up with a 10-20% chance at most. This works for me because it's not denying reality: bad things can and do happen. But they don't always.

So if he would like to change, it can be done.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:23 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

he also felt he could not go out of town by himself because the drive exhausts him, he will have no support etc. ... So his initial response was 'well, I will just have to cancel my commitment, I won't go, and whatever issues this creates will just be mine to deal with because this is the story of my life and it always has to be hard' etc.

Hmm. What comes to mind here is that this isn't exactly "pessimism." Pessimism would be,
we probably won't be able to find a solution that I'm happy with and this will probably suck, but oh well."

This seems like a little more than that, like there are a bunch of issues at play here. The part about not being able to do it without support sounds like it could be any combination of anxiety, learned helplessness, and as several people said upthread, low or inadequate coping skills.

And you know better than we do, but the part about "I'll just cancel my commitment, I won't go, and whatever issues this creates will just be mine to deal with" sounds a lot like subtle passive aggressiveness and guilt tripping.

Is it possible that the way he has learned to cope with difficult or challenging situations in the past, is to kind of just express strong negative feelings and emotions to someone, until that person spends a lot of time comforting him and comes to his rescue?

Again, you know better than we do, but if that seems like it might be the case, I think this isn't just run of the mill pessimism. It sounds like something that could be really helped by (can you guess what my next word will be?) therapy.
posted by cairdeas at 5:41 PM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree that it sounds like he doesn't have the coping skills, and when he knows that he can't handle such-and-such alone, of course he's going to catastrophize. Why would he think everything is going to turn up shiny rosy without any evidence of such?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:57 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that over time, this will start to balance out a little with me becoming maybe a bot more grounded and realistic and him becoming a bit more cheerful.

Also just wanted to say that at least in the example you gave, your position sounds unquestionably grounded, realistic, and logical.

Sometimes people see themselves as being eminently logical people, describe themselves that way, and in their speech use keywords associated with dispassionate, analytical, and logical thinking ("proof," "likelihood," "percentage," etc.)

But often those people are the least logical of all, and are in fact just the most blind and defensive to it when they are being illogical, because so much of their identity is wrapped up in being an "analytical" person. And sometimes we don't realize this about them just because it's natural to think of people the way they think of themselves and have presented themselves to us.

So I just want to say, one of my tips is don't fall into the trap of both of you automatically considering him to be the grounded and realistic one, while you are the pollyanna. Be aware of it when you are being the grounded and realistic one because my bets are that it's actually more frequent.
posted by cairdeas at 6:10 PM on April 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

So his initial response was 'well, I will just have to cancel my commitment, I won't go, and whatever issues this creates will just be mine to deal with because this is the story of my life and it always has to be hard' etc.

That's not pessimism. That seems like immaturity.
posted by jayder at 6:21 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am also an optimist married to a pessimist. It can be very exhausting sometimes. I do agree with previous responses that noted you two seemed to work things out pretty well in this case though.

A few notes from my experience:

- Try not to take it personally when he acts all mopey. It can be really frustrating at times, but it's just the way he is. You're not going to be able to change his knee-jerk pessimism anyvmore than he will be able to change your optimism.

- It sometimes helps to just go along with what he's saying at first, even though you know it's probably wrong. So, sometimes my husband will say something is terrible and won't work out, and I just say, "Ok - maybe you're right". That will calm him down so that he doesn't think I'm dismissing his concerns. (And I'll also listen to all the reasons he has for being pessimistic - because usually there are legitimate issues behind his opinions.) But then I'll come up with another option, and casually bring it up... and I'll say that since everything is terrible and won't work out anyway, then it can't hurt to just try this one thing to see if there's a small chance it will work. And then sometimes I'm right and things are actually okay.

- Sometimes, he's right and things won't work out. This probably happens almost 50% of the time too. So it's not necessarily true that pessimists are wrong! But like you, I agree that life is better when you assume that things will work out.
posted by barnoley at 6:24 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing that helps me is noticing subtle differences in each of our levels of optimism and pessimism. I'm most pessimistic when I'm tired, so i've ruled out bedtime as a time for evaluating our overall likelihood of success, because if he starts in on a "we will never succeed" discussion then, I will believe it, and I'm not temperamentally suited to live with that, so I get upset and want to go find solutions THEN and can't sleep.

I think you may be right that over time, you can get used to one another's approach and say "oh this is an optimism pessimism thing again." But the transition might go better if instead of labeling yourself, him, and the situation, you start from "I know this wasn't your intention, but now I feel guilty and hopeless" statements about yourself.
posted by salvia at 7:07 PM on April 30, 2012

I don't see that anyone has mentioned possible depression here. Is that something that might be going on? You might want to look into it. It might help explain the limited coping skills as well.

I know that personally the most pessimistic I have been is when I was depressed.
posted by marble at 7:26 PM on April 30, 2012

This isn't pessimism. It's learned helplessness and immaturity (as I see others have mentioned). My boyfriend was like this when we first started dating. Initially I tried to fix things in good faith, as you're trying now. It was a hard realization when I figured out he doesn't really want a solution, he wants to be coddled and pout. He reacted this way to all changes in plans, not just the ones I initiate, and would essentially melt down if things weren't turning out exactly to his specifications.

It drove me fucking nuts, and I learned the only way to combat it is to be sympathetic but firm. My rubric generally follows this pattern:
- This sucks and I'm sorry about this change to your plans
- However this is the way things are now
- Here are your other options, and this situation does not have to be all ashes and dust
- What you do next is your choice

And then I leave it at that, and stopped entertaining any over-the-top whining or moaning (harsh but true). The important thing I emphasized was if he cuts off his nose to spite his face, that's his choice, and he is choosing to be miserable by acting as if his misery is a foregone conclusion.

He's a good guy at heart, he's just never had anyone not coddle him (baby of the family, grew up with much older sister and mom) so he didn't know an alternative way to act. When he no longer had someone feeding his bullshit, he learned sitting alone in his misery wasn't quite so appealing. Since we've been dating and I started implementing the above scheme he's matured a lot and this self-pity behavior has nearly faded out. He can still be stubborn and immature about some things and he's nowhere near Miss Mary Sunshine, and that's fine, that's just his personality. The important thing is he now takes ownership of his choices and mood and doesn't expect me (or anyone else) to lavish attention on him trying to wheedle him into happiness.

I probably sound like a big jerk but it sounds more awful and severe than it is in practice. The tough love route was the only reason our relationship's survived, honestly. I guarantee you at the six month mark of dealing with this his emotional manipulation is going to start getting real old.

(one worth considering is whether the rest of the relationship is worth the trouble of essentially being the tough love parent of this guy while he figures out how to be an adult)
posted by schroedinger at 7:54 PM on April 30, 2012 [17 favorites]

Ooooh, sounds like you're married to my wife. She's convinced that the end result to nearly every scenario will be us living in a cardboard box beneath the freeway overpass. She can't help it, it's just how she is. She's a worrier, and her glass tends towards half empty. I've actually found that I've become more optimistic over time, almost as a counterbalance. I figure she's doing enough worrying and doom-projecting for the both of us, so my glass might as well be half (or maybe even three-quarters!) full. When she pulls out the cardboard box consequences, I gently point out that we'd be saving a ton of money in mortgage payments, and won't have to do yardwork.

As far as mellowing each other out over time, don't pin your hopes on it. We're 17 years into this. The only thing that's really changed is that I stopped getting angry at her pessimism, and stopped trying to 'logic' her out of it. I just accept that it's part of who she is. Now she can still imagine worst case scenarios, and I don't get stressed out about it. Win-win!
posted by spinturtle at 8:21 PM on April 30, 2012

I agree with schrodinger entirely, and say this as the immature/learned helplessness person in my marriage. My wife won't take my shit, and it's forced me to get a much better (though not flawless) handle on it. Make him take ownership of his choices, and don't feed the self-pity choices with coddling.

Most of all, this means convincing him that he's making a choice; he's using "pessimism" and the state of the world beyond his control as a shield from seeing his own agency.
posted by ead at 7:17 AM on May 1, 2012

I think a big part of dealing with people like this (We call my step-dad Worse Case Scenario Man when he does this) is to make sure that someone else's attitude doesn't affect your outlook. I really like schrodinger's technique for coping with it--interject a solution and let him stew in his own stink while you go merrily on your way. Of course for major issues or occasional breakdowns some coddling and sympathy are ok, but when that kind of things becomes habitual, it's important not to feed into it.

For example, in the situation you described above, even if he didn't have a relative who would drive him, you should still have gone to your event (unless you honestly would have preferred to go to his instead). He is an adult who can decide whether or not he wants to do things given the current circumstances and so are you. If he chose not to participate because it wasn't going exactly as he planned, then he's the one making the shit sandwich--you don't have to eat it too.

I would get used to this though and decide if it's something you can live with happily. I haven't met many pessimistic/negative people who decided to become optimists--especially if they don't recognize it as a problem in their lives (which is fine, unless you don't want to be around that kind of attitude on a regular basis).
posted by Kimberly at 8:06 AM on May 1, 2012

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