In cognitive therapy we focus on the way that you think about things. When we are distressed, we have automatic thoughts -- that is, thoughts that come to us spontaneously, seem true and generally go unexamined. Sometimes your thoughts are accurate; sometimes they are biased. But the first thing to do is to identify what you are thinking. Look at the list of typical thoughts that distressed couples have and ask yourself if any of these are true for you. You can also consider alternative ways to view what is going on -- as I suggest below. Sometimes we get stuck in the way we think and then withdraw, attack or give up. The first question to ask is, "Is there a different way to think about this?"
- Catastrophic Thinking
- Emotional Reasoning
- Negative Filter
- All-or-Nothing Thinking
- Discounting the Positive
You attribute a negative personality trait to your partner, leading you to believe that he or she can never change: "He's passive-aggressive"; "She's neurotic." As an alternative, rather than label your partner, you can look for "variability" in his behavior. "Sometimes he withdraws and sometimes he interacts with me. Let me ask him what might lead him to withdraw."
You forecast the future and predict that things will never get better, leaving you feeling helpless and hopeless: "He'll never change"; "I'll always be unhappy in my marriage." An alternative to this is to focus on specific things that you can say or do now -- such as the exercises described in this piece. Another good option is to look back at positive experiences that you have to challenge your idea that nothing will improve. You can also play a little game called "Catch Your Partner Being Good." Just list every positive every day and then share it with each other. You might be surprised what you are doing that is working already -- if you only noticed.
You interpret your partner's motivations as hostile or selfish on the basis of very little evidence: "You don't care how I feel"; "You're saying that because you're trying to get back at me." Rather than engaging in mind-reading, you can ask your partner what he meant or how she is feeling. Sometimes it's beneficial to give your partner the benefit of the doubt: "She's simply taking a little time to unwind" is a better interpretation than "He doesn't find me interesting."
You treat conflict or problems as if they indicate that the world has ended or that your marriage is a disaster: "I can't stand her nagging"; "It's awful that we haven't had sex recently." A better way of looking at this is that all couples face problems -- some of them quite upsetting. Rather than look at an obstacle or a problem as "terrible," you might validate that it is difficult for both of you but that it is also an opportunity to learn new skills in communicating and interacting. Problems can be learning experiences and can provide some new ways to grow.
You feel depressed and anxious, and you conclude that your emotions indicate that your marriage is a failure. "We must have a terrible marriage because I'm unhappy"; "I don't have the same feelings toward him that I used to; therefore, we're no longer in love." A better way of looking at your emotions is that your feelings may go up and down, depending on what you and your partner are doing. Emotions are changeable and don't always tell you about how good things can be. It's also important to ask yourself, "What are we doing when we feel better together?" Then do more of those positives.
You focus on the few negative experiences in your relationship and fail to recognize or recall the positives. You probably bring up past history in a series of complaints that sounds like you're putting your partner on trial: "You were rude to me last week"; "You talked to that other person and ignored me entirely." This is where "Catch Your Partner Doing Good" is so helpful -- it allows you to look at things without the dark lens on. You can also keep a list of positives about your partner to remind you to put the "negatives" in perspective. We all do dumb things at times, but it's useful to take off the negative filter and remind ourselves of the positives.
You describe your interactions as being all good or all bad without examining the possibility that some experiences with your partner are positive: "You're never kind toward me"; "You never show affection"; "You're always negative." Whenever you use the words "always" and "never," try assuming that you are wrong. For example, when Phyllis began looking for positives from Ralph, she realized that he was affectionate at times and that he was rewarding to her as well. The best way to test out your distorted and biased negative thinking is to look at the facts. Maybe the facts aren't as terrible as they seem to be.
You may recognize the positive things in your relationship but disregard them: "That's what a wife or husband should do"; "Well, so what that he did that? It means nothing?"; "These are trivial things that you're talking about." Every positive should be counted -- it's the only way to build up good will. In fact, if you start counting the positives rather than discounting them, they will no longer seem trivial to both of you. Vinnie was happy to learn that the very little things that he was doing, like complimenting Cynthia, made a big difference to her. This in turn made him less critical. And Vinnie began keeping track of Cynthia's positives, which helped him recognize that an occasional negative -- which was probably due to depression -- was outweighed by the many good things in their relationship.
You have a list of "commandments" about your relationship and condemn yourself (when you're depressed) or your partner (when you're angry) for not living up to your "should." There is no end to these nagging negative thoughts. Here are a few typical examples.
"My partner should always know what I want without my asking."
"If my partner doesn't do what I want her to do, I should punish her."
"I shouldn't ever be unhappy (bored, angry, etc.) with my partner."
"I shouldn't have to work at a relationship; it should come naturally."
"I shouldn't have to wait for change; it should come immediately."
"My partner should change first."
"It's all his fault, so why should I change?"
"If I don't get my way, I should complain (pout, withdraw, give up, etc.)."
"Our sex life should always be fantastic."
"If I'm attracted to other people, it means that I shouldn't stay in this marriage."
"I should try to win in all our conflicts."
"My partner should accept me just the way I am."
"If we're having problems it means we have an awful relationship."
Now, be honest with yourself. Are these "shoulds" helping or hurting you and your relationship? I guarantee that if you have a lot of them, you are pretty unhappy. Rather than talk about the way things "should" be, you might consider how you can make things better. Replace your shoulds with "how to" and "let's try." Rather than "We should have a better sex life," you might try action statements such as "We can give each other a massage" or "We can set up a time to be affectionate." You won't make progress by "shoulding" on each other. But you can make progress by acting differently and communicating in a caring way.
You attribute your partner's moods and behavior to something about yourself, or you take all the blame for the problems: "He's in a bad mood because of me"; "If it weren't for me, we wouldn't have any of these problems." It's almost never all about one person; it takes two to tango and two to be miserable. Phyllis was doing a lot of personalizing, thinking that Ralph wanted to be alone because he found her boring. But really Ralph was so burned out at the end of the day that he needed a little while to cool down. It wasn't about Phyllis; it was about Ralph's day.
You hold up a standard for a relationship that is unrealistically high and then measure your relationship by this standard. "It's not like it was in the first year, so it's not worth it"; "We have problems, so our relationship can't work out." The problem with perfectionism is that it is bound to make you miserable. You may think that you are holding up your ideals, but you are really putting you and your partner down. No relationship is perfect -- and no relationship needs to be perfect. Once Vinnie and Cynthia recognized how futile and depressing perfectionism was, they were able to work constructively on their relationship. "I realized that we would never have exactly what we wanted from each other, but we could still get a lot our needs met," Vinnie finally said. It was a breakthrough to give up on having to be perfect and demanding the same from Cynthia.
You believe that all the problems in the relationship are caused by your partner: "If it weren't for her, we wouldn't have these problems"; "He argues with me; that's why we can't get along." Again, there is a grain of truth in almost any negative thought, but blaming your partner will make you feel helpless and trapped. A better way of approaching this is to take a "Let's fix it together" approach. You can validate each other, share responsibility for the problems, plan to catch each other being good, reward each other, plan positives together, and accept some differences. It sure beats blaming each other and becoming victims.
For more ideas, see "Beat the Blues Before They Beat You: How to Overcome Depression" by Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D.
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