We are all embedded in a continuous stream of experience—an endless current that is too expansive to for us to take in all the information at once. One function of the mind is to help you deal with this vastness: To select, order and ultimately, create meaning out of all the life that surrounds you. This filtering of experience has great significance for your marriage/relationship.

Whenever you attend to something, you have selected that particular piece of the experience "pie" and excludedselection-exclusion process occurs in every aspect of your life, including your marriage/relationship.

The selection-exclusion process and your marriage

What you select and focus on is a reflection of who you are—both your conscious and unconscious expectations, interests/preferences, and biases all steer your attention toward certain information and experiences. In this regard, the realities we grab hold of often confirm what we already know:

The husband who expects his wife to "nag" him has mental-antennae tuned in specifically to the nagging frequency—other frequencies (her underlying fear that he no longer cares, her attempts to be supportive) are not received;

The wife who "knows" her husband is disinterested and doesn't listen to her is likely to overlook his efforts to be more attentive (her mental-antennae hones in on his apparent lack of interest);

The partner who feels the relationship is doomed will steel him/herself in anticipation that failure is inevitable and failures that confirm these expectations will be seen above all else;

The spouse who feels secure and anticipates loving support will seek out and mentally highlight supportive interactions even after his/her partner temporarily misses the supportive mark.

You shape and are shaped by your experience

Your mental-antennae that help you select (and exclude) information are tuned by the expectations you've learned throughout life (expectations about trust, intimacy, getting your needs met, etc). The selection-exclusion process impacts and shapes your behavior in ways that, at times, can confirm your relationship expectations—both positive and negative expectations.

Example of negative relationship expectations and how they shape behavior:

Due to difficult childhood experiences, Hector is certain that his emotional needs will never be met and often denies the very existence of these needs. This causes him to be guarded and keep others at an emotional distance. His aloof indifference sends a powerful message to the people in his life: "Don't get too close, I don't need you." As a result, the people in Hector's life at some point stop offering themselves emotionally to him. This emotional distance ultimately confirms Hector's expectations that his needs will go unmet—that others cannot be counted on.

When Hector selects to focus on how others fail to meet his needs, he excludes the attempts the people in his life have made to connect with him—and this shapes how people respond to him.

Example of positive relationship expectations and how they shape behavior:

"I don't look for perfection, but most of the time I expect Wes to be responsive to my needs, and he usually is..." Stephanie learned throughout her childhood that couples can be emotionally available to one another in a way that's flexible and realistic. These are the expectations that her parents as role models instilled in her and that she brought into her marriage with Wes. As a result, Stephanie takes emotional risks and shares her needs in a direct and effective manner with her husband. This has positively influenced Wes, as he is more able to attune to his wife's needs and offer support when needed.

When Stephanie selects to focus on how supportive others can be, she excludes the few times Wes fails to give her the support she hoped for—and this shapes how she behaves and how people respond to her.

What does this mean for your marriage?

Our actions-reactions don't happen in a vacuum. At times we're clearly reacting to something our partner did, something that we either appreciated or disliked. But our expectations (as well as our fears, desires and longings) filter our experiences of our mate, causing us to highlight (select) and minimize or ignore (exclude) certain things s/he's done. Couples get into binds when distressing interactions are all they see, at the exclusion of any attempts (even brief ones) to make things right.

What you select will grow and take on great significance, what you exclude will wither and die.

Much of the selection-exclusion process happens automatically—at times beyond your awareness. The goal of a mindful marriage is to become aware of the choices you make regarding this process. The first step is to increase awareness of your expectations and the power these expectations have on shaping your attention and behavior as well as the impact this has on your spouse/partner.

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Author's Bio: 

Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and relationship coach with over fifteen years experience helping individuals and couples live more fulfilling lives. His relationship advice has appeared on television, radio and in national magazines.