From time to time, you’ve probably seen some posts from me on the topic of marriage counseling in Rockville MD regarding Cognitive Distortions: irrational thought patterns that get in the way of healthy self-talk and communication in relationships. I see a TON of this in marriage counseling and family counseling, and it can hugely damaging. Cognitive distortions have negative effects for individuals, too, and I talk about them frequently in individual therapy. But for now, I’ll be focusing on how they play out in relationships, and especially in couples. Cognitive distortions often play important roles in the problematic patterns that bring couples to my office in the first place. When a new client contacts me to initiate therapy, the most common reason I hear for seeking therapy is “communication problems.” And at the root of those are often these unhealthy, irrational thought patterns, which are so powerful and so pervasive that they can change the shape and direction of every interaction between partners.
One of these harmful patterns is personalization, or incorrectly interpreting another’s words or actions as direct, often critical, reactions to the self. I am often guilty of this myself. For example, recently I came home from work and had a conversation with my husband about a home maintenance task that has been hanging over our heads for a few weeks — our 2-year-old drew on a leather ottoman with a ballpoint pen, and we need to call the furniture warranty company to have them come and fix it. A second furniture damage incident popped up this week (I’ll spare you the details as it involves bodily fluid!) and that piece of furniture is covered by the same warranty. So my husband said to me, “what do you want to do about the ottoman?” My immediate reaction was defensive: “Well, I haven’t tried to get the pen out because you said you were going to call the warranty company.” I incorrectly assumed that he was criticizing me for not having taken care of the stain. But he wasn’t; he was just trying to discuss with me whether or not we should ask the warranty company to take care of both things in one call, or whether that might be pushing our luck. Luckily for me, my husband is very good at defusing and quickly let me know that he didn’t feel critical at all about the pen, and reminded me what the goal of the conversation was–to come to a decision together and move forward with whatever we decided to do. It wasn’t at all about me and what I had done or not done; it was about finding a solution that worked for us as a team.
Here’s another example: a couple frequently experiences conflict when the wife occasionally meets a (female) friend for a drink on her way home from work, rather than coming straight home. The husband, upon learning that his wife plans to do this, thinks to himself, “She would rather spend time with her friend than with me. She is avoiding me.” Even though the wife has assured him several times that neither of those statements are true, that she loves spending time with him and is not avoiding him, and that her desire to visit with her friend has nothing to do with her relationship with him, he still takes it personally every time this happens.
So what do we do about this problem? How do we get around personalization and its effects on relationships? Here are some ways to combat this irrational thought pattern to increase connection and decrease conflict:
- Examine the evidence. Taking something personally is usually an automatic, knee-jerk reaction — for example, my reaction to the question about the ottoman happened before I even realized I was doing it. When you catch yourself taking something personally, you can mentally take a step back and think about whether there is any objective evidence to support the belief that the words or action in question are about you.
- Enlist your partner’s support. If you recognize that you often fall victim to a certain cognitive distortion, it can be helpful to ask your partner to help you combat it. Say something like, “I’ve realized that I often take things personally when they’re really not about me. This happens sometimes with things that you do and say. Will you work with me to get out of this pattern?” Then agree together that when either of you realizes that you’re personalizing, you’ll let the other know that you see it so that you can take a moment to reset your thinking.
- Be humble. Remember that other people–even our partners–don’t spend as much time thinking about us and what we’ve done “wrong” as we do about ourselves. We’re our own worst critics.
Are you guilty of personalization in your relationship? Focus on the tips above and see what a positive effect it might have to put that aside in your own relationship. The best marriage counseling, and family counseling Rockville MD has to offer is with Lindsey Hoskins and Associates – We want to help you and talk with you, don’t hesitate to contact our office with questions or to request an appointment!
Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both our Bethesda and Sterling offices. Call 240-752-7650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey or another member of our staff.