Cognitive distortions can interfere with several areas of life, and they can also have a negative influence on relationships. These distortions lead to unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving, which can ruin a relationship if they continue.
Here, learn about cognitive distortions in relationships to identify specific thinking patterns that may be harming your marriage or partnership.
What are cognitive distortions?
Cognitive distortions are irrational thinking patterns that can lead to depression and other mental health problems. These cognitive distortions occur because of people’s automatic thoughts in response to an event.
Automatic thoughts are related to people’s core beliefs about the world and themselves. When a person’s core beliefs are negatively biased, they develop cognitive distortions that change their entire way of viewing situations.
Over time, cognitive distortions negatively cause a person to view neutral or even positive events, leading to negative emotions like depression, irritability, and anxiety.
In relationships, these thought distortions can cause a person to view their partner and their relationship negatively most of the time, leading to a relationship breakdown.
Causes of cognitive distortions in relationships
So, what causes cognitive distortions? There isn’t one single cause of these critical thinking errors, but several factors can lead to distorted thoughts.
For instance, cognitive distortions in relationships may result from mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Irrational thinking patterns linked to mental health conditions can make their way into relationships and begin to create distress, but this is not the only cause of cognitive distortions. Experts have argued that thought distortions occur during times of stress and lead to dysfunctional thinking patterns.
People exposed to chronic stress during childhood due to abuse, poverty, or trauma may develop cognitive distortions in relationships because irrational thinking patterns follow them into adulthood.
Finally, critical thinking errors may be learned during childhood. We develop an understanding of the world based upon interactions with the adults in our lives. If our parents display irrational thinking patterns, we may develop similar thought processes.
15 cognitive distortion types that ruin relationships
Cognitive distortions can lead to problems within relationships, but different cognitive distortion types exist. Below, learn about different types of cognitive distortions and how negative thinking affects relationships.
It may sound fancy, but selective abstraction is pretty simple. This cognitive distortion occurs when people selectively focus on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positives.
This type of cognitive distortion in relationships can create damage because a person may begin to fixate on their partner’s negative qualities while ignoring the positives.
2. Overgeneralization cognitive distortion
People who overgeneralize assume that because they had one bad experience during a specific situation, they will always have bad experiences with that situation in the future.
For instance, if a trip with a significant other goes poorly, they assume that all vacations are doomed to be a miserable experience.
One of the worst cognitive distortions in relationships is catastrophizing, which is the tendency to assume the worst. Someone who catastrophizes may view a minor disagreement as the “end of the world” and then convince themselves that the relationship is over.
Sometimes people with thought distortions use dichotomous thinking, which means viewing a situation as either entirely negative or entirely positive.
The tendency to think in extremes makes it difficult for a person to see the “gray area” and can lead them to view the relationship as either perfect or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, horrible.
The problem with this thought distortion is that a person who thinks this way will quickly begin to view the relationship as bad whenever it is less than perfect.
They may also panic during times of disagreement or conflict because they think the relationship is suddenly horrible because of one argument.
5. The self-reference distortion
Another thought distortion that can damage a relationship is self-reference distortion, which occurs when people feel that every mistake they make is the center of everyone’s attention.
These cognitive distortions in relationships can make a person feel as if their relationship is on display for the whole world, and everyone is judging them.
This type of cognitive distortions in relationships can lead a person to get caught up in outside opinions. They may try to make their relationship look perfect for portraying a particular image to the rest of the world. Ultimately, this puts pressure on the relationship and leads to its downfall.
People who fall victim to the personalization cognitive distortion in relationships feel that they have somehow caused external events, even when this is not the case. If something terrible happens to their partner, they may somehow convince themselves that they are to blame.
7. Making your partner responsible for your emotions
Perhaps the most damaging cognitive distortion in relationships is the belief that your partner is responsible for all of your emotions.
While people in committed relationships can be expected to care for each other and provide emotional support, your partner is not to blame for every bad mood you have, nor are they responsible for making you happy at all times.
When you believe your partner is responsible for your emotions, they will never be able to live up to your expectations. No one is perfect, and they will not be able to make you happy at all times.
Making your partner responsible for regulating your feelings is unrealistic and will eventually destroy the relationship.
8. The always being right cognitive distortion
People living with this cognitive distortion in relationships cannot accept that their partner’s view may differ from their own. This can lead them to disregard their partner’s feelings or opinions because they feel that their own point of view is the only one that is valid.
9. Expectations of perfection
Individuals who show thinking errors may expect that their partner should be perfect at all times.
Cognitive distortions examples that fall under this category include expecting your partner to always know what you want or never make a mistake. This isn’t realistic and sets the relationship up for failure.
Check out this video to learn more about why we should expect less of love:
People who use the magnifying cognitive distortion in relationships exaggerate events and blow them out of proportion.
For example, if their significant other is five minutes late for dinner, they may complain, “You made me wait all night!” Even the smallest of problems can seem like a tragedy for those who engage in magnifying.
11. Fortune telling
Fortune telling is another one of the cognitive distortions examples. People who use fortune-telling tend to predict the result of events before they have even occurred, and their predictions are usually negatively biased.
For instance, they may complain that they know an upcoming trip isn’t going to be very fun. This type of negative thinking doesn’t make for a successful relationship.
12. Emotional reasoning
People who reason with their emotions are prone to unhappiness and anxiety in relationships because they believe that if they feel something, it must be true. If they fear their partner will cheat on them, they convince themselves there is a real danger.
13. Self-serving bias
A person with a self-serving bias will feel responsible for all positive events in their life, but they are not responsible for anything wrong.
In a relationship, they attribute all successful moments to themselves but do not take the blame for anything that goes wrong within the relationship.
This type of thinking makes it difficult to compromise or resolve conflicts because the self-serving bias leads a person to believe that they could not possibly be to blame for any conflict.
14. Fallacy of change
This cognitive distortion occurs when people believe they would be happy if only others would change their behavior.
The fallacy of change creates difficulty in relationships because one partner expects the other to change themselves to suit their preferences. This could involve giving up a hobby that the other person doesn’t enjoy or requesting the person to change the way they dress.
People who are overly giving in their relationships can fall into the trap of heaven’s reward fallacy. This cognitive distortion involves the belief that sacrifices will eventually pay off through some sort of reward.
In a relationship, someone may believe that if they make sacrifices for their partner and go out of the way to make them happy, the relationship will somehow be perfect, or that their partner will at some point return the love and devotion.
When sacrifice-based belief doesn’t come true, the person who falls victim to heaven’s reward fallacy is likely to feel resentful toward their significant other.
What really matters is
Cognitive distortions in relationships are often bad news. They can cause you to view your partner negatively and expect the worst possible outcome in all scenarios.
If you struggle with distorted thinking patterns in your relationship, you may have an underlying mental health condition like anxiety or depression. Or, you might have unaddressed trauma causing problems with your thinking.
If you cannot correct cognitive distortions on your own, you could benefit from working with a therapist to learn healthier ways of thinking. In therapy sessions, you can address irrational thinking patterns and learn to replace them with logical, balanced thought patterns.
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.