Common Cognitive Distortions in Relationships

March 20, 2018

Cognitive distortions are inflexible or irrational thought patterns. The mind uses them while processing information. They select the information and the way that it is processed. Then, they produce the results of the process in the form of thoughts and emotions.

There are different types of cognitive distortions. All of us experience them at some point in our lives. If you experience them every once in a while, it’s not a problem. If they come up frequently they can cause psychological harm and interpersonal relationship problems. Cognitive distortions are also a barrier to personal development.

Cognitive distortions frequently have an impact on couples. If these distortions come to dominate our thoughts about living together, love, or arguments, the relationship might experience a crisis. That’s why it is important to identify the cognitive distortions in your relationships. Detecting those that are directing your thought patterns about your relationship is the key to being happier. 

Overgeneralization – once is enough

Overgeneralization is when one or two isolated incidents are enough to make a statement or general rule about something. Here’s an example of overgeneralization – if my partner forgets to buy something that I asked for, next time I won’t ask her because “she always forgets everything I ask.”

woman holding man's head

The problem with overgeneralization is that you become a judge who is constantly issuing ultimatums. It also pigeonholes the other person. If one mistake means that we will always mess up, why try to act differently?

There is a useful strategy to beat overgeneralization. Try to look for facts that contradict the general rule. If you believe, for example, that your partner forgets everything you ask. Try to look for examples of situations when she remembered everything you asked for. It’s about training your capacity to question yourself. That allows you to process information in a more objective way. Then, you will be able to reach a realistic and fair conclusion.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”

-William James-

Extremism – prescription lenses magnify everything

This distortion has to do with viewing experiences through a filter that exaggerates certain characteristics. When you first fall in love with someone, you often become an extremist. You exaggerate the results of your first encounters. Sometimes you turn a small detail into something fantastic or make a catastrophe out of a little mistake.

We see extremism a lot in couples who aren’t used to arguing. It also comes up when a couple fights for the first time. The couple can’t see eye-to-eye on something and the disagreement becomes a big deal. They feel like they will never overcome it. A minor thing can seem like a barrier to growth for the relationship.

 Some examples of this kind of distortion would be, “I can’t stand to disagree with him” or “It’s really a silly lie, but it’s still awful that she lied to me.” One way to deal with extremism is to enrich our emotional vocabulary. We should find a balanced way to express ourselves.

Personalization – when we feel like the world revolves around us

This is when someone feels responsible for the mood or behavior of another person. Some examples are, “He’s in a bad mood at work because I didn’t text him earlier” or “I’ve been out with my friends all day and now that I’m home she’s ignoring me.”

image representing cognitive distortions

Personalization makes you feel excessively responsible for other’s well-being.  You feel capable of controlling your partner’s emotions.

Here is one practical exercise to overcome personalization. Draw a circle, and divide up the responsibility for what happened between all the possible causes. It’s important to stop considering yourself solely responsible for everything.

Negative labeling – giving everything a grade

Negative labeling is defining your partner in a generally negative way. It means identifying negative traits in every aspect of your partner’s life. Some examples are, “he’s selfish to watch soccer while I’m talking to him,” “she’s inconsiderate because she always talks about herself,” or “he’s dumb because he can’t understand what I’m telling him.” 

This cognitive distortion can cause a major problem in romantic relationships. According to psychologist John Gottman, it can turn into one of the issues that causes a breakup – contempt. If we negatively grade our partner, we develop a negative image of him or her. That increases emotional distress and anger.

Emotional reasoning – if I feel this way it’s because something is wrong

Emotional reasoning is looking for external causes for our feelings. If we don’t feel right, the situation is wrong and something or someone is responsible.

In romantic relationships, a partner might become overwhelmed by their emotions. Then they make decisions based exclusively on their feelings. One example of emotional reasoning could be, “I’m sad, I feel abandoned because she hasn’t sent me a message all day.”

woman holding baby

Making decisions based only on feelings isn’t a good idea. Emotions are ever-changing and ephemeral. This is not a good basis for a decision. Romantic relationships need long-term continuity and commitment. You can’t base those on momentary emotional impulses.

We have to be able to tell the difference between our feelings and the external situation. We need to analyze the situation objectively. Make an effort to be an impartial observer. Think about what advice you would give a friend in the same situation. This psychological distancing exercise is good for dealing with emotional reasoning.

““love is blind and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit”

-William Shakespeare-

Mind reading – a dangerous supernatural power

Mind reading makes you respond defensively to what you believe your partner is thinking. This particular cognitive distortion makes you act on speculation. You aren’t responding to information that you actually have.

Here’s one example of mind reading, “she told me that she doesn’t mind staying home, but I know she’s mad.” Another is “my partner congratulated me on my promotion, but I know he thinks I don’t deserve it.”

Keep in mind that you often aren’t sure of what you are thinking and feeling. So, it is impossible to know  what the other person is thinking. Even though you know someone well, knowing exactly what they are thinking is extremely difficult.

A phrase that can help deal with mind reading is “ask before you guess.” Question yourself. Think about what you know about your partner and what you are guessing.

Understanding how your mind works is the first step to overcoming its limits. Work every day on fighting these cognitive distortions that come up in your relationship. If you do that, you will be the owner of your own thoughts. You will be free of prejudice and prepared to enjoy your relationships to the fullest.