Adapted from the book by
Aaron T. Beck, M.D.
Nancy was planting the last row in her vegetable garden when Chuck, her fiancé, dropped by. Observing her work, he commented, “But, Nancy you’ve planted the radishes in the shade of the taller plants.”
She looked at him intently. He never has any confidence in me, she thought. “I really don’t think I need your advice,” she said. “Just leave my garden to me, will you?”
“All right,” Chuck said, perplexed by her sour response. “I was only trying to help.” Unwittingly, Chuck had made the kind of comment that Nancy had so resented when her father would order her around as a child.
Nancy misinterpreted Chuck’s motive. Her father had been a military man, and she had come to regard all men as domineering. She reacted to Chuck’s suggestion as if it was a direct order.
Debbie brought home a handful of brochures for her husband, Ron, to look over as they planned their vacation. “You decide,” he said finally. “You know best about these things.”
Debbie took him at his word. She didn’t realize that Ron feared he would be ridiculed for expressing an opinion, as he often had been by his older sisters while he was growing up.
When they got to their Caribbean destination, Ron complained constantly. “The beaches are too crowded,” he said. “There’s no golf. There are too many singles, and the music is too loud.” Debbie felt frustrated. She had done what he asked. Why was he so critical?
Because of his past, Ron felt that Debbie was trying to control him by disregarding his wishes—wishes he assumed she knew. When Debbie booked the trip, he thought: There she goes again, ignoring what I want. It’s always the same.
These cases illustrate “automatic thoughts,” often-distorted ways of thinking that become habitual and undermine our relationships. We may not even be aware that these thoughts are influencing our feelings. Most people believe that their emotions stem directly from what’s going on around them. They pay no attention to the fleeting thoughts that connect situations to emotions.
One of the most common types of automatic thoughts is overgeneralization. If your spouse is irritable, for example, you may conclude that he or she no longer loves you. You respond to an interruption angrily, thinking that your mate “always” interrupts. If your spouse ignores you, you “never” get respect.
Do any of these automatic thoughts ring a bell with you? “She’s hopeless.” “He’s completely self-centered.” “She never leaves me alone.” “He never does what he promises.” “She’s lazy.” “He’s irresponsible.” Such absolutist statements in marriages can weaken otherwise solid relationships.
Of course, simply recognizing automatic thoughts does not clear the road to marital utopia. But recognition does give you a tool for managing your emotions, and it is a skill that can be mastered.
My approach, called cognitive therapy, takes the view that how we think determines to a large extent whether we will succeed in and enjoy life. Many of the couples I counsel have been helped by understanding a basic cognitive principle: We’re usually not especially accurate in judging another person’s motives, thoughts and feelings.
We all depend on gesture, tone of voice, facial expressions—signals that are frequently ambiguous—to draw conclusions about the attitudes of other people. But this is risky, since many things, including our state of mind, may cause us to misinterpret another person’s behavior. Once couples understand this, they can explore the unrealistic expectations, self-defeating attitudes and unjustified, negative explanations they bring to the relationship.
When distressed couples fall prey to these mental traps, the following steps can be helpful.
Step 1: Find the missing link. How we interpret a situation is often the unstated trigger for a blowup, the hidden link that provokes our automatic thoughts. For example, Hal called to say that he would be late coming home from work. His wife, Wendy, became annoyed and refused to prepare dinner.
Wendy’s emotional reaction was to get angry. The missing link—her interpretation of the situation—was her automatic thought: He doesn’t want to come home. It was this thought, rather than the situation itself, which made her angry. Later, when Hal saw that Wendy hadn’t prepared dinner, his automatic thought was: She doesn’t care about me. So he was upset.
Both Wendy’s and Hal’s automatic thoughts were only guesses about the other’s thinking, unsupported by other evidence in the marriage.
To determine whether your emotional reaction is based on this kind of distortion, put your feelings to a test. Ask yourself: What interpretation of the situation upset me? What is the evidence in favor of my interpretation? Is there any evidence against?
Step 2: Practice identifying automatic thoughts. If you closely observe your thinking, you will be able to identify automatic thoughts as they flash across your mind. These internal messages trigger emotional reactions such as anger, joy, sadness, resentment. While thoughts quickly fade, emotions persist. Learning to read the thoughts that sweep across your mind and gives you power over the emotions they evoke.
Step 3: Use rational responses. When I counseled Hal and Wendy, we worked to find some rational responses to restructure their automatic thoughts. If Hal was late, for example, Wendy’s automatic thought was: It’s not fair. I work, too, but I’m always home on time. But, when she reconsidered, her rational response was: His job is different. Many of his customers come in late.
Her other automatic thought was: He doesn’t really care about me. But a rational alternative was: He was considerate enough to call to say he’d be late. Besides, most of the time he does show concern and affection.
Step 4: Test your predictions. Wendy was also upset by Hal’s mother’s habit of phoning her frequently. She felt her mother-in-law was checking up on her to see if she was caring properly for Hal. But Wendy was reluctant to discuss this problem with Hal for fear of getting into a fight with him. I suggested that we find out if her automatic thought about a fight was correct.
As she anticipated, Hal was upset when she brought up the subject. “I feel as though I’m caught in the middle,” he said. But he agreed that Wendy’s feeling had to be respected, and he offered to talk to his mother about her excessive calling. Wendy appreciated this important action in her behalf and, as a result, felt closer to Hal. This breakthrough helped her to feel freer to discuss touchy subjects with him.
Step 5: Reframe your perceptions. Sometimes the very qualities that attract two people to each other come to be seen as negative later. “He’s so self-confident” becomes “He’s mean and manipulative.” “She’s so care-free” becomes “She’s irresponsible.” These unfavorable labels then color how you see your partner.
Reframing consists of considering these negative attribution is in a different light. The qualities that you once enjoyed or admired in your spouse are probably still there. The problem is that your negative frame of mind allows you to see only the dark side of these qualities.
For example, Sharon was attracted to Paul because he was easygoing, accepting and full of fun. Paul, a free-lance writer always on the verge of “making it,” was attracted to Sharon because she was sure of herself, an assertive, competent lawyer who didn’t allow colleagues or clients to boss her around. After a few years of marriage, their images of each other changed. Sharon thought Paul was “lazy, irresponsible and passive.” He saw her as “pushy, critical and controlling.”
When Paul failed to live up to some of Sharon’s expectations regarding his job success, she began to press him to try harder. Paul perceived Sharon’s exhortations as nagging, and he retreated into greater passivity.
Working with them, I discovered that their present negative frames were the flip side of their original perceptions of each other. By re-examining the positive side, Sharon and Paul were able to recapture some of the good feeling they had once had for each other.
It is not necessary for you or your mate to change your personalities to promote a more harmonious relationship. Usually, a relatively small change in behavior is enough to reverse a downward cycle.
What is essential is recognizing and changing negative thoughts. As Paul became more active in taking on responsibility, Sharon relaxed her pressure on him. As Sharon’s view of Paul become less negative, his view of her started to change as well. He began to feel grateful that she was able to compensate for his own weaknesses. When she stopped nagging him, he tended to chores more spontaneously.
Such changes do not occur everynight. And remember, they can take place most easily in a climate of friendliness and acceptance. By reframing your negative thoughts about your spouse, you can regain many of the positive feelings that originally drew you together.
“LOVE IS NEVER ENOUGH,” COPYRIGHT © 1988 BY AARON T. BECK, M.D., IS PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN BOOKS, LTD., LONDON
Aaron T. Beck, M.D., is director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy and University Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.