Distorted Thinking
Hurts Relationships

You are most likely to have developed distorted thinking patterns in such areas as

  • your assumptions about how things are "supposed to be"
  • the meanings you place on what is said and done
  • what you think you are capable of
  • your predictions of what will happen next
  • your beliefs about what should happen next.

Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with distorted thinking in relationships, there are rather predictable patterns of thinking that get you into trouble, and there are incredibly powerful and usable tools that come in some quite understandable forms that can help you learn to correct the situation.

The study of thinking (cognition) has led to the development of psychotherapies and self-help techniques that have been shown to work very well in a wide variety of settings. Once your know a few terms and concepts from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) you'll be able to start putting in to work for you in your relationships.


How people think is the realm of cognitive psychology

 It consists how people go about describing, understanding, and deciding how they will interact with the world around them.

For an especially clear, complete, and readable description of the cognitive behavioral perspective, I highly recommend the book Feeling Good by David Burns, MD, a student and later colleague of Aaron Beck, MD.

The book is about the cognitive behavioral treatment of depression, but it is very easy to take the explanations, procedures, and worksheets and apply them to anything that involves thinking and feelings . . . in other words, just about everything.

You can find a copy very cheaply in a used bookstore, usually unmarked, (which probably points up how much easier it is to buy a book about feeling better than it is to read a book about feeling better, much less take the necessary action to actually feel and be better.)


A few assumptions in a cognitive approach are worth noting here

First, is that each individual's process is largely learned as a result of their experiences.

Second, a big part of the learning process involves grouping kinds of experiences in terms of meaning and preferred response. George Miller, an pioneer of cognitive psychology at Harvard, named this "chunking".  So, for example,  you get into the driver's seat of a car and your mind-body systems pretty much know what to do without your having to think much about it.

And, chunking works . . . . with a few potential problems especially in nuanced subtle situations that call for some consideration of how conscious you need to be in a particular situation.


  • Were the right lessons learned from the experience when it was programmed in? (Since it has been estimated that half of this kind of thing is in place by the time we are 5 years old, it seems likely that they were not.)

  • Did the right experiences get put into the right groups? (Probably not for use as an adult for the same reason just mentioned.)

  • Is the situation in front of you right now getting placed in the right group? (A lot of problems can be solved very quickly right at this point.)

  • Would you be better served right now to get this process off of automatic? (In the case of relationships, it appears to me that the answer to this one is almost always YES.)


The "programming" that underlies how we make sense of and respond to our experiences is mostly invisible to us, but it is possible to become conscious of it and modify it if necessary.


The art and science of getting at the assumptions, beliefs, values, and automatic responses and managing them in our own best interests is the business of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, CBT.

For a good description of how this works, either on your own or with the help of a professional, see any of the books by David Burns, MD which you can find on his Amazon Author's page by clicking HERE

When it comes to managing distorted thinking, the science is likely to be the simple part. Distorted thoughts rarely appear to be distorted to us while we are having them. After all, who wants to be depressed or working from assumptions that make relationships miserable?

Whether doing it ourselves or with the help of a professional, teasing out how our thoughts are not serving us and making necessary changes certainly feels like an art to me.

Not only has CBT proven to be very effective in doing this to help people experiencing depression, anxiety, and other emotional difficulties, but its tools and techniques have also proven to be very usable in becoming more effective in all parts of our lives.


Research in cognitive psychology has shown that there are predictable types of distorted thinking, (also referred to as thinking mistakes, misinterpretations, cognitive distortions, crooked thinking) that lead us into feeling bad and not functioning as well as we could, especially when under stress.


Put these apparently universal vulnerabilities in how we think together with inaccurate information about a particular part of life, such as getting old or sex or how relationships are "sposed ta" work, and you have a recipe for trouble!

Thankfully, when you get good at becoming aware of facts you may be mistaken about and which patterns of distorted thinking are most likely to be tripping you up, it is well within your power to take corrective action. When you succeed at doing that, (whether on your own or with the help of a professional) you feel better and things work better.


Whether you're operating on distorted thinking or straight thinking, . . . your feelings follow.

OK, so we tend to misinterpret.  So not everything that we think to be true really is?   So what?

Here comes the exciting twist! It has been shown that by identifying the particular forms of distorted thinking that you are using and consciously getting your thinking straight, you can feel better and be more effective.

Psychologists have even identified predictable cognitive biases that are just waiting to trip us up, but can be worked around


Don't think like an old grump and, lo and behold, you start to not feel and act like an old grump.


Sound like pop psychology or maybe an old wive's tale about the value of standing up straight and getting out of the house to feel better?



  • Well, in the first place, in the words of the Peanuts cartoon character Linus van Pelt "Some of those old wives were pretty sharp".

  • And, in the second place, since when does something have to be complicated and nearly impossible to understand to be useful? Cognitive therapies are supported by a very large, and increasing, body of scientific studies. It works!

Like most simple solutions to complex problems, actually doing this isn't necessarily easy, but it definitely can be done. Just be careful not to set an unrealistic time table and don't rule out seeking expert help if you get stuck.


Make cognitive behavioral techniques work for you.

There is a 1988 book written by the man who has been called the father of cognitive therapy for his groundbreaking work applying the principles of cognitive psychology to depression and later to anxiety that is a top-of-the-list read if this approach attracts you.

Drawing on his experience a Director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy and the University of Pennsylvania, Aaron T. Beck, MD, wrote Love Is Never Enough: How couples can overcome misunderstandings, resolve conflicts, and solve relationship problems through cognitive therapy. showing how to apply principles and techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy to identify and alter distorted thinking that is harmful to relationships in a very understandable, usable way.


Albert Ellis, Ph.D. wrote a number of books describing what he call Rational Emotive Therapy and how to apply it to various life problems. His writing is simple, direct, and his prescriptions are powerful. Highly recommended for working on yourself or just trying to make sense of confusing interpersonal situations. Check out his Amazon author's page by clicking HERE.

Also, for more recent books that do an excellent job on explaining this approach and giving workable ways of handling distorted thinking and keeping it from sabotaging us, see the already mentioned "Feeling Good" ( which is about depression, but is very useful for any application of CBT ) or anything else written by David Burns. He was trained by and worked with Beck and is more readable without giving up scientific accuracy.


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