Change Your Filter

Relationship Therapy Bethesda, MD

This week’s post is the third in my series on cognitive distortions and how they can impact relationships. Cognitive distortions are problematic patterns of thinking that skew our perceptions and impact feelings; the effects can be positive or negative, but I’ll focus more on the negative impacts because, obviously, that is where we tend to see problems playing out in relationships among our clients.

The cognitive distortion I’d like to discuss this week is called “filtering.” Problematic filtering occurs when we focus on the negative elements of a situation or relationship, while filtering out the positive ones. Our narratives about that relationship then become saturated with negative beliefs, often crowding out positive phenomena even though it is present. Over time, our tendency to overlook — and therefore not acknowledge or appreciate — positive contributions from our partners actually decrease their frequency. It’s easy to see why, when this happens over time, it can lead to a negatively skewed perception about one’s partner or about the relationship.

Here are a few examples of how filtering can occur in relationships:

  • When Rob brings Gina flowers, Gina thinks, “that’s not that big a deal. That’s what a husband should do.” Rather than thanking him and letting him know that this act makes her feel cared for, she seems unimpressed by his effort or points out how long it’s been since the last time he brought her flowers.
  • Thinking about their sex life, Rob says to himself, “we don’t have intercourse as frequently as I’d like.” Meanwhile, Gina makes frequent intimate physical contact in the form of hugs, kisses, and other loving touch that Rob overlooks because he is focused on intercourse.
  • Though Rob generally participates actively in household maintenance, Gina is very bothered by the fact that he frequently forgets to empty the upstairs trash cans when he takes the trash out, and complains each time she ends up doing it herself.

If this sounds familiar to you, the good news is that the way to address negative filtering is relatively straightforward. Take some time to discuss with your partner if you believe one or both of you has a tendency to use this cognitive distortion. Then, try the following:

  • Enlist your partner’s support. Once you’ve figured out who is guilty of filtering, agree to work together to improve it. When either of you thinks the other might be employing a negative filter, say something like, “I could be off here, but I wonder if you might be doing some negative filtering right now. Can we talk about that?” Then be open to a conversation.
  • Check the evidence. If you’re aware that you sometimes use a negative filter, spend some time giving yourself a little reality check. If your filter sometimes leads you to believe that your partner is uninterested, lazy, etc., look at evidence on both sides to decide if that assessment really has merit.
  • Focus on the positive. When you catch yourself using negative filtering, take a few moments to pause and think about a positive way to describe the situation. For example, in the example regarding sex above, Rob could say to himself, “Gina really makes an effort to connect with me physically, and it feels great when she kisses, hugs, and touches me. I know that if I am honest with her and put forth some effort, we can move toward the more frequent intercourse that I desire.”

If you’ve mastered all of the above, you can move on to advanced filter management — positive filtering! Partners who use a positive filter are able to truly let the little negative things go in their day-to-day life, and appreciate the heck out of all of the positive things that happen in their relationships. Focusing on and showing appreciation for the positive things encourages our partners to do even more positive things, creating a healthy cycle and increased closeness.

Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda and Sterling offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.

Phone: MD: 240-752-7650
4905 Del Ray Avenue, Suite 301
Bethesda, MD 20814