Break the illusion of negative thinking and as a result experience a happier, healthier communication between you both.
Have you noticed how easy it is to fall into communication patterns with your partner that leave you feeling tired and dissatisfied? In my work as a Counsellor I often encounter couples who bicker, nit-pick and argue, trapped in a cycle that’s about lack of respect for each other and a sense of projected disappointment.
When you’re in this situation, it can feel difficult to know how to change. I meet couples who say “It’s just how we are” or “We start doing it and don’t know when to stop”. I’ve noticed this can be particularly acute for those who’ve been together a while – the pattern becomes entrenched as part of the way they communicate.
I’m a great believer in the philosophy that change starts with the self, and this is especially important in relationships so that we interact in safe, healthy ways. So one of the first things I encourage bickering couples to examine is the perspective they have about each other and about the relationship. In many cases, negative thought processes are clouding communication – this sets interactions up to fail because poor expectations generate assumptions of worst case scenario outcomes.
CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) guru David Burns popularised the notion of ‘cognitive distortions’ back in the 1980s, offering a framework to understand how unhelpful negative thinking styles can promote problem behaviours. When argumentative couples apply this to their relationships it’s often apparent that their perspectives are fairly bleak.
One example that can perpetuate nit-picking between couples is the tendency for ‘labelling’. Negative labels become attached to partners (or to the relationship itself) that over time become assimilated as beliefs. When you label yourself or your partner as ‘grumpy’, ‘inflexible’, ‘selfish’ or ‘stupid’, this informs your predominant point of view. The risk here is that problems also become over-generalised. Bickering becomes a cycle as you highlight one another’s labels, reacting to your negative thinking rather than solving any real issues in the here and now.
Another negative pitfall in couple relationships is the tendency to ‘mind read’. Although familiarity between partners promotes security and bonding, it’s easy to start jumping to negative conclusions about each other’s ideas or intentions when couples think they know each other really well, especially if unresolved disagreements or bad past experiences are in the mix.
If one or both of you suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem, negative thinking can make your relationship seem catastrophic and it’s important to recognise that you’re both capable of better.
So what helps instigate change?
The nature of being in a relationship means that we have ways of thinking about ourselves, thoughts we apply to the other person and ideas about the relationship itself – making things particularly complex. Deconstructing and examining specific events can be helpful in identifying whether there are tendencies for negative thinking styles in one or both of you. In some cases there might be particular ways of thinking that you mirror and share. Once identified, negative thoughts must be challenged and replaced with healthier, more objective ideas based on empathy, truth and love.
Many theories exist about how long it takes to change a pattern, but I believe that understanding what’s really happening is more than half the battle. When the illusion of negative thinking can be broken, we start to see our partners for who they really are and our relationships seem brighter and happier with greater possibility for mutual acceptance. It doesn’t mean that either of you are perfect, but you are able to take a more realistic view of each other and start to think the best of one another rather than assume the worst.
Make time to identify all the things about yourself, your partner and your relationship that made it feel good in the first place, and remind yourself how valuable these are if communication starts to become petty or difficult.
So next time you notice your relationship descending into a tennis match of ‘tit for tat’, commit to shifting your thinking styles from grey skies to blue – and I guarantee you’ll start to notice a difference.
If you’d like to further explore the topic of love and relationships have a look at our offline workshops on the Art of Intimacy.
Thanks very much to Rhian Kivits for writing this blog. Rhian is a relationship counsellor from the Learn Shed Live community, currently working for Relate.