The language you use (with yourself and others) may not always be an accurate reflection of what’s happening in your life and relationship. The words and phrases you choose can actually alter and skew your perception in a negative direction rather than offer the most realistic picture of a situation.
Let’s turn our attention to one particular phrase couples often use with each other that can lead to marriage/relationship problems.
The Pitfalls of All-or-None Thinking
We all have bouts of “all-or-none” thinking from time to time. “I always looks fat in these jeans.” “My boss never recognizes my hard work.”
But when you regularly resort to all-or-none thinking in your marriage/relationship, you place your union (and your partner) on an extreme end of the spectrum–usually the negative end. When you fall into the all-or-none trap, you convince yourself that your spouse/partner is a one-note person—always behaving in problematic ways and falling short of expectations.
Here are a few examples of “all-or-none” thinking:
“You never pick up after yourself…”
“I always mess up in your eyes.”
“Every time you say that…!”
“I do everything with the children. You never help out.”
Couples are particularly vulnerable to all-or-none thinking. Why is this the case?
Attentional Biases Lead to All-or-None Thinking
Marriage and intimate relationships stir up intense feelings–both negative and positive. And strong, negative feelings feed all-or-none thinking.
For example, your husband makes you a cup of tea because you’re not feeling well. This is a positive experience that might make you feel cared for and loved. Now imagine a different scenario. Your husband leaves a mess in the kitchen and when you talk to him about being neater, he snaps, “Don’t treat me like a child!”
Which interaction are you more likely to remember a week or month later? If you said the negative event, you’re in the majority. Not because you’re a downer and dwell on the bad. It’s simply because negative experiences leave an emotional residue that’s more pronounced and therefore easier to remember.
Here’s the problem: These negative residues accumulate and they can easily overshadow the positive that exists in your relationship or marriage. When this occurs, your attention is being pulled toward the negative–it’s like mental binoculars focused on the negative aspects of your relationship.
This causes the positives to get filtered out and before you know it, your thinking becomes biased and it begins to feel like your partner is “always messing up” or “never” doing what s/he is supposed to.
Relationship Help: The antidote to all-or-none thinking
There are two ways to conquer all-or-none thinking.
The first is to retrain your attention by intentionally seeking out the positive events of your marriage or relationship. This will offset the tendency of your attention to focus more on negative events. Each day, take note of all the small, thoughtful things your partner does–don’t take anything for granted. If you practice this focused gratitude regularly, your all-or-none thinking will begin to evaporate.
The second way to change all-or-none thinking is to directly observe and challenge these types of thoughts in action. Become aware of thoughts such as: “He always…,” “She never…,” “You constantly…” Note the extreme nature of these thoughts. Once you catch these thoughts, begin to replace them with more balanced thoughts:
“I realize it feels like she never helps out, but that’s not true. After all, she does pick up the kids from school every day.” or “Although it feels like he always chooses the TV over me, he does prefer it when we rent a DVD to watch together.”
To begin taking charge of your marriage/relationship, take charge of your own thinking. Reject thinking in extremes and you’ll begin to see your spouse/partner with a more balanced, realistic perspective.
Over time, this can benefit your relationship in profound, surprising ways.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro