Black and white thinking in relationships can lead to conflict and ultimately cause relationship breakup. Black and white thinking psychology offers an explanation for what this type of thinking is, as well as how it can cause problems.
Here, learn what thinking black and white means, as well as why it is damaging and how to stop thinking in this way. With a little effort, you can overcome this rigid form of thinking and enjoy more satisfying relationships.
What is black and white thinking
Some people may not even realize they are engaging in black and white thinking, because they do not know what it means. Put simply, this type of thinking can be described as dichotomous thinking, or “either-or” thinking. For instance, a person who shows black and white thinking in relationships may believe that the relationship is either going perfectly, or it is going horribly.
Researchers have also labeled black and white thinking as a type of cognitive distortion or thinking error, in which people rigidly process information and label it as belonging to one category or an opposite category, such as “good” or “bad.”
A person who thinks in black and white will not see the gray area in between.
Some black and white thinking examples are below:
“If I do not do a task perfectly, the entire thing is a failure.”
If I miss one problem on my math exam, I am bad at math.”
“If my partner hurts my feelings one time, they must not love me.”
I made a mistake at work. I am not competent at my job.”
My way of doing things is the only correct way.
Sarah was angry at our meeting yesterday. She must be a bad person.”
My boyfriend forgot to take out the trash. He’s a horrible partner.
While occasionally engaging in dichotomous thinking may be part of human nature, seeing the world in black and white at all times is problematic and can have a variety of causes.
As experts explain, seeing the gray area between black and white can be more mentally demanding and require more time, so people may quickly categorize something as belonging to one category or its binary opposite, simply because it is easy or automatic.
Some specific causes of black and white thinking in relationships are as follows:
According to research, narcissism, psychopathology, and a manipulative personality type can contribute to black and white thinking.
Conditions like depression can result in extreme thinking, including thinking black and white.
Mental health conditions and personality disorders, in general, may lead to black and white thought processes.
The experience of trauma can cause a person to use all or nothing thinking in relationships as a way to cope.
Eating disorders may result in dichotomous thinking, as people may view their bodies as either perfect or terribly flawed.
How black and white thinking can negatively affect you
While black and white thinking maybe a coping mechanism or provide a faster way to process information, it ultimately ends up being harmful.
When you see the world in black and white, it actually distorts your thinking, as you may view a situation as being catastrophic or entirely negative, when in reality, there is good and bad in most situations.
Seeing things as being entirely negative not only clouds your judgment but can also lead to mental distress and depression. For instance, if you think that one bad day at work means you are incompetent at your job, you may begin to feel bad about yourself.
Black and white thinking in relationships can also lead you to be rather judgmental. For instance, if someone makes one mistake or has one undesirable quality, you may view this person as being entirely bad. This can understandably lead to problems within relationships.
Other problems arising from black and white thinking in relationships are difficulty learning new information, the development of mental health problems, and difficulty functioning at work.
How black and white thinking ruins relationships: 10 ways
When you’re in a committed relationship, black and white thinking can cause significant problems and even ruin relationships. Consider the following ten ways that black and what thinking is detrimental for a relationship:
1. It can cause hurt feelings
If you are a black and white thinker, you may view your partner in an entirely negative light if they make one mistake or disagree with you in one area. This can lead to hurt feelings, which ultimately damages the relationship.
When you think in black and white terms, you may begin to view yourself negatively because you will not forgive yourself for mistakes. You may either see yourself as all good or all bad. When you lose your own confidence, this can be a turnoff to your partner.
3. You will develop unrealistic expectations
Black and white thinkers tend to have unrealistic expectations of their partners, as they can be quite perfectionistic and require their partners to meet all of their needs and comply with all of their demands. No partner can live up to these expectations, which ultimately leads to the failure of the relationship.
4. Compromise will be off the table
Since black and white thinkers see the world in an “all or nothing” way, they tend to have difficulty compromising. This means that when you and your partner have a disagreement, their needs or preferences may go unmet because you are so set on having things your way.
5. Your partner may feel misunderstood
Another consequence of black and white thinking in relationships is that it can prevent you from seeing your partner’s point of view. They may feel as if you never understand where they are coming from or that you disregard their feelings, which leads to ongoing conflict and tension within a relationship.
6. You may make impulsive decisions about the relationship
Black and white thinking can lead you to label the relationship as being a failure after one disagreement or one bad day. This could lead you to impulsively end the relationship when it otherwise would have gone well if you had learned to work through conflict.
7. Black and white thinking can lead you to see your partner negatively
When your partner doesn’t live up to your all-or-nothing expectations, you may begin to see them in a negative light when they fail to achieve perfection. This can cause the two of you to grow apart and even lead you to resent your partner so much that the relationship fails.
Having a successful relationship requires you to see your partner as a human who will make mistakes from time to time.
When you are a dichotomous thinker, it can be difficult to forgive mistakes because you will begin to view your partner as inherently flawed for making a mistake in the first place. This lack of forgiveness does not make for a healthy relationship.
9. Conflict resolution will be difficult
Seeing the world in black and white makes it challenging to resolve conflict. You may be so convinced that your viewpoint is the only correct option that you are unwilling to consider your partner’s point of view in order to move past the conflict and arrive at a mutual understanding.
Check out this video by Tom Ferriss to understand ways of resolving conflicts in the relationship:
10. You might miss out on opportunities to grow the relationship
Having a dichotomous thinking style can lead you to live your life according to a list of “shoulds.”
For example, you may believe that you should wait until you’ve been together for a year before taking a vacation with your partner or that you shouldn’t get engaged until you’ve been together for three years.
This can lead your partner to feel rejected or as if you don’t take the relationship seriously if you pass up a trip together or turn down a proposal because it doesn’t fit within your exact timeline.
8 ways to change black and white thinking
If you’re noticing the negative effects of dichotomous thinking in your relationships, you’re probably wondering how to stop black and white thinking. Consider the tips below:
Get other people’s opinions
If you’re stuck in a pattern of black and white thinking and it has harmed your relationships, consider getting an opinion from a trusted friend or loved one.
Instead of jumping to the conclusion that your partner is a horrible person because they made a mistake, run the situation by your friend. Chances are, your friend will be able to place the situation in context and offer a more rational point of view.
Make a list of alternatives
When you’re tempted to engage in dichotomous thinking, try to make a list of multiple alternatives. For instance, if you’ve convinced yourself that your partner is a bad person because of one bad day in the relationship, write out some alternative ways to view the situation.
This might include, “We both had a stressful day at work, and we took our frustrations out on each other, but we can do better next time.”
Try to remove words like “Always” and “Never” from your vocabulary
Making extreme statements, such as, “You’re never on time!” is a pretty good indication that you’re a black and white thinker.
Try to remove these words from your vocabulary and replace them with words like “Sometimes,” “Often,” or “Rarely” to remind yourself that when world isn’t always so black and white.
Challenge yourself to prove that your thought is true
When you see the world in black and white, you’re probably prone to some extreme thinking, such as, “My partner hates me!” after an argument. Instead of jumping to such a conclusion, make a list of facts that support your extreme thinking, as well as facts that show it isn’t true.
You’ll probably find there isn’t much evidence that your black and white thinking represents reality.
Reframe your thinking
If you’re stuck in a cycle of black and white thinking, it can be helpful to reframe your thoughts.
Instead of telling yourself that it’s never okay to make a mistake or that an organized partner never loses things, retrain yourself to think, “It is possible to lose something and still be organized,” or, “Even the best of people make mistakes.”
Learn to separate people from their behaviors
All-or-nothing thinkers tend to label people as bad based upon one bad behavior, but remember that a person is separate from their behavior. Someone who makes a mistake is not a bad person; they are simply a person who made a mistake.
Accept that other people have different viewpoints than you do
Differences of opinion are a part of life. Once you accept this, you are less likely to let black and white thinking get in the way of healthy relationships.
If you’ve tried some strategies for overcoming dichotomous thinking but haven’t had success, it might be time to reach out for professional intervention. In counseling, you can learn how to deal with black and white thinking and replace it with different thought patterns.
The bottom line on black and white thinking in relationships
Black and white thinking may come naturally for some people, but it is harmful to relationships. It can result in hurt feelings, missed opportunities, and difficulty with compromising.
If you’re seeing the world in black and white, your relationships will benefit if you challenge yourself to think differently and be open to different points of view.
In some cases, managing black and white thinking can be as simple as pausing and considering alternative viewpoints. Other times, you may need professional intervention from a counselor or therapist to help you learn different ways of thinking.
This may be especially true for people who have mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or trauma, that have led them toward seeing the world in black and white.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.