These thinking errors intensify relationship unhappiness.
When people first fall in love, their partner’s negative qualities typically don’t seem that big or important. For many couples, that idealized love bubble eventually bursts, and one or both partners’ general sentiment about the relationship changes. Once a negative sentiment takes over, the partners make specific thinking mistakes that further entrench that view. Here are some common thinking errors that people who are in troubled relationships make.
1. You think your partner has changed.
People who have become unhappy in their relationship often think their partner has changed. However, perhaps the person hasn’t changed so much as you’re now bothered by aspects of their nature that didn’t irk you as much previously.
Sometimes new life circumstances trigger a change in people’s perceptions of their partner. For instance:
- You’re more annoyed by a lazy partner when you have kids and need a reliable co-parent.
- A partner who is irresponsible with their credit stresses you out more when your financial lives are more closely linked.
- A partner who drives too fast scares you more when you have kids in the car.
Sometimes it’s none of these things though. For example, your partner has always been resistant to change and new ideas, or has always been hopeless with technology, but now it drives you crazy.
Thinking Shift: Identify things that bother you about your partner that used to bother you less. In which cases do you think your initial impression of your partner lacked foresight? In which cases do you think your general sentiment about the relationship is coloring your view of your partner’s specific qualities (that is, you’re now generally sour on them so everything about them is irritating you)? Doing this analysis will help you develop a fairer, more nuanced perception of your partner. Perhaps some of the things that are currently irritating you about them aren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things? On the other hand, perhaps some of them are. Don’t lump these together.
2. You think your partner is being intentionally hurtful, mean or cruel.
Let’s say a friend’s birthday party is coming up. You know your spouse doesn’t like that friend. You and your spouse have been talking about some approximate dates for a family trip away. Your spouse books the trip for roughly the dates you’d discussed, but it overlaps with the party. You assume they did this on purpose so you’d both miss the birthday, since they must’ve known going was important to you. They argue that they just booked the dates the flights were cheapest and didn’t think missing the party was a huge deal.
In the scenario described, the individual might’ve been justifiably mad that their spouse didn’t think the party was important enough to schedule around, but it’s another level to believe they were intentionally trying to miss it. Thoughtless is different from being intentionally callous.
Thinking Shift: If you believe your partner has done something intentionally hurtful, consider the alternative explanation that they’re thoughtless or have a different perception.
3. You hold onto stupid hurtful things your partner has said.
In an ideal world, partners wouldn’t ever say deeply hurtful things to each other. In the real world that sometimes happens. For instance:
- Your partner says “Should you be eating that?”
- You make a special effort to book concert tickets and a restaurant as a surprise for your partner’s birthday, and afterwards they say “It was pretty good but I would’ve been just as happy with a movie and pizza.” Or, they grump about some aspect of the experience, like the band didn’t play enough of their old hits.
- You’ve been going to the gym and you say you’re feeling stronger and energetic, but they say “I haven’t noticed any change.”
- Your partner says “You shouldn’t wear that. It’s not the best color on you.”
- You’ve expended a lot of effort making a vegetable garden and your partner says “They’re expensive carrots with all the costs of buying fertilizer etc. It would’ve been cheaper just to buy them.”
Thinking Shift: If you think your partner is generally a good person, stand up for yourself when you feel hurt (repeatedly if necessary!) but be prepared to forgiveyour partner for dumb things they say. Consider whether your partner has a tendency to be direct and tactless and unnecessary behavior is sometimes an unfortunate side effect.
4. You think you’re powerless.
People sometimes feel stuck and powerless in relationships that they feel they’ve outgrown but are inclined to stay in for practical reasons or stability. Relationships are a fluid organism. Whenever you make a change in your own behavior, it will change the nature of your relationship. Even simple changes will tend to impact the relationship e.g., if one partner starts going to the gym and it subtly inspires the other person to be healthier.
Thinking Shift: Try assuming your partner won’t suddenly develop intrinsic motivation to change aspects of themselves. Instead, do more of what you want (within reason!) and observe how it influences your partner and relationship.
The decision to stay in a relationship is often influenced by many factors, including practical ones like co-parenting and financial ties, and personal values. You can have a good overall level of emotional trust in a relationship and still be let down by your partner periodically. If that’s starting to drag you down but you’re inclined to want to stay in a relationship, try making some of the thinking shifts I’ve mentioned here.
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