Improve Relationships by Identifying Cognitive Distortions

Human relationships are complex, difficult-to-navigate, and seemingly perilous challenges. Fraught with potential problems, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings, sustaining a relationship over the long haul can require a lot of effort. One of the most valuable assets we can bring to a romantic relationship is psychological flexibility, the ability to think about things from a number of different perspectives. We can develop psychological flexibility by being more mindful of the ways we make sense of situations, considering more adaptive perspectives. 

One way of developing ways of thinking more conducive to a healthy relationship is being aware of cognitive distortions (Beck, 1979). Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that we fall into despite not being accurate representations of what is going on. Click here for a detailed description of different cognitive distortions. The first step in addressing a distortion is to look at our thinking rather than looking through our thinking. Then consider if there’s a better way of looking at the situation. 

Mind Reading: Assuming you know what your partner thinks. Often when this distortion is present, we ascribe all kinds of nefarious motives to our partner’s behavior. Assuming the only reason for your partner’s behavior is “because he doesn’t care” or “is trying to make me angry” doesn’t exactly lend itself to compassionate problem solving. Instead, recognize that even if one of these motivations is partly to blame, there are probably other factors at play that are easier to discuss and work on. (e.g., “Maybe he’s just tired.”) If you find yourself mind reading, and you’re not psychic, consider a number of alternative explanations for your spouse's behavior and treat them as mere guesses. Finally, what's usually most effective… is to simply ask your partner. 

Personalizing: Thinking you deserve the majority of the blame for something while discounting others’ responsibility. Taking on 100% of the responsibility of maintaining a healthy relationship doesn’t take into account the other person, so this calculus often leads to faulty problem solving. If your spouse is having a difficult time or you often find yourself getting into arguments, consider that it takes two to tango, and that you are rarely entirely at fault. When you assume that you are responsible for all of your partner’s problems, it is difficult to find solutions that include your partner, and consequently they don’t work so well. The reverse applies if you tend to err on the side of blaming your partner for everything: Identify your role in the problem, and take steps to work with each other to solve it. 

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking of people or situations in black and white terms. This usually happens in relationship when you think your partner “never…” or “always…” does certain things. The more you believe this kind of logic, the more resentful you’ll begin to be toward your partner. When you recognize this thought appearing in your mind, immediately take note of times when your partner does exhibit the positive behavior your mind is telling you she never does. Like with most thought distortions, objectively considering the evidence can help you loosen up around unhelpful ways of thinking about things. 

Labeling: Assigning a one-word descriptor to the entirety of a person. The solution for this kind of cognitive distortion is the same as with all-or-nothing thinking. Look for instances when your partner is exhibiting characteristics inconsistent with the label. For instance, labeling your spouse as “insensitive,” can inadvertently cause you to be on the lookout for any behavior that could be construed as even remotely insensitive. Rather than believing this thought whole-heartedly, remember times she did or said things that were sensitive and caring. And you don’t have to stop there. You can continue to be on the lookout for sensitive behavior. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you’ll feel closer to your partner. 

Negative Filtering/Discounting Positives: Focusing on negatives while framing positives as unimportant. “That's not special - that’s what a husband should do.” Do this for too long and you’ll be very unhappy with your partner, no matter what he does. Instead, change your perspective by putting more emphasis on the positive behavior your partner is engaging in. Even better, let them know how much you enjoy and appreciate what they do when they do it. It may just reinforce the behavior, resulting in a lot more of what you like. 

Click here for more information about cognitive behavioral therapy.


Beck AT, Rush AJ, Shaw BF, Emery G (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York: Guilford Press.

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