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All or Nothing vs. Shades of Gray

Couple Therapy Sterling, VA

This week’s blog post takes us back to our tour of cognitive distortions, or problematic ways of thinking that can get in the way of healthy relationship functioning. As I’ve shared in some of my previous posts (Don’t Take it Personally, Change Your Filter), these irrational thought patterns disrupt healthy self-talk and complicate communication in relationships, and are extremely common in the couples we see in therapy. In fact, these cognitive distortions are often a big piece of what brings couples to therapy to begin with. The longer they persist, the more pervasive their effects can become, changing the shape and direction of nearly every interaction that occurs between partners.

The cognitive distortion I’d like to focus on today is all or nothing thinking, also called black or white thinking. This phenomenon occurs when we view our partner or a relationship dynamic in stark, unyielding terms, believing that they “always” or “never” do a specific thing. For example, if my husband notices that he’s been unloading the dishwasher more often than usual, he uses all-or-nothing thinking if he says to himself, “What is wrong with Lindsey? She never unloads the dishwasher anymore! I seem to be doing this every day!” Here are some other ways this dynamic can play out:

  • We sometimes put enormous amounts of pressure on each other by stating (usually in conflict) that a particular problem has started to define the relationship (e.g., “all we ever do anymore is argue! There’s nothing good left about this relationship.”).
  • We operate only on extremes — things in a relationship are either perfect or terrible, with nothing in between.
  • We rush to make a decision by trying to force a dichotomy where one doesn’t necessarily exist — things are either good or bad, right or wrong, “you do or you don’t,” etc.
  • We cling unreasonably to expectations, making bad days or tough phases harder to handle. For example, if we have a need for a certain amount of physical affection or quality time, and our partner sometimes doesn’t meet that need, we can either use that as evidence that our partner isn’t right for us (all-or-nothing), or adopt some flexibility and see this as an opportunity to initiate a conversation.

I’m guessing that at least some of this is starting to sound familiar. As humans, we have a natural tendency to consider things in black and white terms. In some contexts, it’s adaptive; it helps us make decisions more efficiently, and organize information in a way that makes sense. But in relationships, these benefits are usually not worth the cost. Working on seeing the “shades of gray” in your partner and in your relationship can do wonders for your ability to stay connected and make each other feel seen, known, and valued.

Sounds great, right? But how?

  • Push yourself to look for lessons in interactions, rather than evidence of positive or negative value. For example, when you have a conflict with your partner and are tempted to say, “maybe we should just call it quits!” look instead for the ways that the interaction led you to that place, and discuss how to do it differently next time.
  • In decision-making, eliminate both the black and the white options and force yourself to identify and choose something in the gray area. Sometimes we just need a little evidence (via experience) that this is possible in order to create a pattern for it to occur consistently.
  • Do some spring cleaning on your expectations, especially if you find yourself consistently disappointed. Rather than expecting that your partner will be home by 6:30 every evening, expect that he or she will make an effort to be home as early as they can, and communicate with you about what’s making it difficult to get home on time so that you can brainstorm solutions together.
  • Work on empathy. If you’ve been in therapy with me, you know that this is couple connection 101 in my book — and it’s also a powerful way to address all-or-nothing thinking. If you’re stuck in dichotomous thinking, getting some perspective on how your partner views a problem or issue can open up your lens in a really helpful way.
  • Pull back on judgment. All-or-nothing thinking inherently includes a “good” and a “bad” side to whatever dichotomy is being defined. For your partner, this means that when you decide their behavior falls on the bad side, there can be a powerful sense of judgment. Over time, the experience of being judged by the person who is supposed to love us best is demoralizing and undermines closeness. Show your partner some kindness by letting to of that damaging pattern.

All-or-nothing thinking is one of the harder cognitive distortions to get a handle on, because it’s so common and often quite automatic. But paying attention to and changing this pattern can make a huge positive impact on your relationship, and is worth the work!

Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LCMFT, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.