As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I see couples in my office for a multitude of reasons. Whether it is infidelity, disagreements in parenting styles, sexual issues or communication, there is typically one common factor that affects the majority of the couples that I meet. That factor is the power of their individual thinking patterns and perceptions on their dynamic.
Our thoughts are usually automatic. They pop in and out of our heads oftentimes without us ever consciously attending to them. However, we also tend to unconsciously react to thoughts that may or may not be based in reality.
A simple instance of a spouse forgetting to take out the trash may lead to their partner experiencing a sequence of thoughts including “He ALWAYS forgets to take out the trash” which leads to “He doesn’t care about the upkeep of our home” which can then lead to “He is inconsiderate and selfish.”
How damaging it can be when simple mistakes can lead us to thinking patterns that include negative blanket statements regarding our partner’s character! If we actually believed the thought that our spouse is an inconsiderate person just because it ran through our minds in a time of anger, imagine how we might react: In name calling, contempt and judgment. This common cycle can turn any relationship into a war zone. In this interaction, however, we may be forgetting about all of the evidence contrary to the automatic thought such as the considerate things that our spouse does in our relationship. He may work hard to provide for the family; he might cook the majority of the meals; he may even take care of other home related chores such as the lawn. Unless we stop and actually think about these exceptions, though, we will likely operate based on the first thought about his personality.
One way to check ourselves and determine if our thinking is irrational is to look for several thinking “red flags.” Are we using the words ALWAYS or NEVER such as “he always forgets our plans?”Are we assuming that we can read our partner’s mind such as “I just know he is doing this on purpose?” Are we using large, sweeping statements about our partner’s character? If any of these three common thinking patterns are present, it is likely that the thought is fueled more by emotions than by reality.
Luckily, we do not have to be slaves to our thinking. While our thoughts may come and go automatically, we are able to make choices regarding our reactions to those thoughts and with that comes great power.