One of the first therapy models I was exposed to in college was Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which is based on the idea that our thoughts or cognitions about the world shape a lot of how we feel about reality. When someone cuts me off in traffic, for example, I can leap to the thought that the person cut me off on purpose (Cognitive Distortion Type: “Arbitrary Inference”) which then creates a feeling of anger in me. In reality, though, I had no idea what was occurring in that driver’s mind. Perhaps they were distracted after hearing about a parent’s ailing health or dealing with some other challenge in their life that I’m not able to comprehend. Unfortunately, I’m not proud to admit, my brain often defaults to the negative interpretation first.We have to make countless judgments about the world around us everyday and don’t have the bandwidth to identify and modify all of our distorted thoughts, especially if they aren’t causing significant problems.
Many of these cognitive distortions can wreak havoc on our intimate relationships, though, and cause a significant amount of unnecessary conflict. Here are a few examples:
- When I’m in an argument with my partner I can get obsessed with proving my point and dismiss any information that would force me to modify my perspective (Cognitive Distortion Type: “Confirmation Bias”). This can shut down true communication and get us stuck in a defensive cycle with each other.
- When my partner is short over the phone, I might assume they are upset with me and become defensive or hostile when, in faqct, they might be hungry or upset by something unrelated to me (Cognitive Distortion Type: “Personalisation”).
- I might assume that something must be really wrong with my relationship during an argument, as opposed to viewing conflict as a normal part of a relationship (Cognitive Distortion Type: “Overgeneralization”).
Minimizing the Positive = Maximizing the Conflict
The fact is, our brains are wired more for survival than for clearly seeing reality for what it is. It’s useful, from a survival perspective, for me to assume that the loud noise in the house in the middle of the night is an intruder and to act accordingly. If I’m wrong, no harm done, except for an elevated heart rate and 20 frustrating minutes of getting back to sleep. If I’m right, and someone has broken into the home, I’ll be more prepared. There is a 99.9% chance that the noise is our super noisy ice maker, but my brain doesn’t start with that thought, for good reason.
While scanning the environment for what’s wrong in the middle of the night after a loud noise might be useful, scanning the environment for what’s wrong in my relationship too often can be devastating. In fact, one study showed that unhappy couples underestimate all the good things occurring in their relationship by about 50%. These couples look at their partners and focus on what’s wrong, instead of giving at least equal weight to what’s right in the relationship (Cognitive Distortion Type: Minimizing the Positive).
Two Ways to Outsmart Our Biases
Common cognitive biases can make it incredibly difficult to manage conflict effectively and can block authentic connection. While there are many ways to counteract our cognitive distortions, here are two that are proven to be effective:
Accepting influence is not about agreeing with people, rather, it’s about taking in other perspectives and allowing additional perspectives to shape our view of reality. We’re meant to navigate our complex lives and realities in relationship. One of the benefits of intimate relationships, therefore, includes having a partner who understands us and who can help minimize our biases and maximize our satisfaction as we move through life. So, for example, instead of jumping to conclusions related to our partner’s intent and escalating conflict, we might stay in a genuinely curious stance and ask our partner an open ended question (e.g., “Can you tell me more about that?” “What are your feelings here?” “Tell me more about where you’re coming from.”). These types of questions can help us stay grounded in reality and out of unnecessary conflict.
Several of the cognitive biases that can escalate conflict relate to viewing our relationship and partners from a more negative vantage point. A powerful antidote to negativity is the practice of cultivating gratitude, both individually and in our relationship. Instead of scanning the environment for what’s wrong in our partner and relationship, keeping a journal (whether on paper or just mentally) of everything that’s right in the relationship can foster a more complete picture reality and decrease negative emotion and conflict.
Interested in learning more about how to accept influence, nurture gratitude, and outsmart those pesky blocks to deeper emotional connection and effective conflict management? Our Art & Science of Love Workshop is based on 40 years of research and will help your relationship across all of these areas.